Sunday, March 04, 2018

history is not true

Pentti Saarikoski

[Image source:]

Pentti Saarikoski's chaotic personal life and alcohol dependency was nothing to emulate, so why is it that when I read his poems -- I mean, especially, the poems in his trilogy of late collections -- I feel at once that I'm listening to someone enormously wise, someone who tells me things?

Anselm Hollo speaks of Saarikoski's "idiosyncratic sanity". That's right, isn't it?


I sit on the liars' bench
the cow in heat smelled of pine
today the sheep came to the meadow
to eat the grass
that is their work, their task
So many flowers summer so soon

appletrees in bloom, and the cherry
the blackthorn too is in bloom
Power over fellow humans
is costly
history is not true
only propaganda is I repeat
this, praise

him whose face already is stone

his eyes are such
one doesn't listen to him
The price is loneliness
payable in cash
Pull your boat up on the rock, turn it over
sit out the afternoon

on the steps of the boathouse, how the islands
move at right angles, how
I praise him

who had himself tied to the mast
plugged up the ears of his oarsmen with wax
a man of many turns
who came home, killed the suitors
buried buried
His face already stone
the sheep are bounding about
on the first day
He saved his country
but from what
and for what
do means sanctify the end?
I must go see him, ask him
he has killed the suitors, he's lonely
I repeat and praise
his face already stone
Birds appear in the air
this fine evening

Pentti Saarikoski, from The Dance Floor on the Mountain  (1977), translation by Anselm Hollo from Pentti Saarikoski: Trilogy (1988).

By the end of the poem we can put it together: the man with power over people isn't, as we might have expected, Lenin, but Odysseus, admired for his lies. One of Saarikoski's constant conversations is with power. Outside the establishment by dint of wild bohemianism, yet somehow a neighbour to power by dint of his herculean grasp of literatures and cultures, he's unremittingly occupied with the big questions. He accepts nearly everything without complaint, but not those.

Pentti, sitting on his liars' bench, falls to musing how history isn't true and propaganda is true. Propaganda and praise are the same thing in this poem. Praise has given us the Odysseus we read about, the one that matters. Useless to ask if Odysseus was really a good guy, or whether he brought healing or harm. History isn't true because (in the decade of John Berger's Ways of Seeing) there can never be a single history. But praise eventually becomes a fact. Odysseus is a presence in our civilisation; a stone one, but a presence all the same.

This dubious but deep meditation is only a part of the poem.  The gleam of water from the steps of the boathouse; looking up at the end of the thought and seeing birds in the sky...  these are just as important to it.

And the face already stone isn't just Lenin and Odysseus. The whole trilogy is haunted -- perhaps we might say, fuelled -- by awareness of the author's own approaching death. It's a fine evening, and the poet isn't lonely, not like those dead men of power and blood.  Not yet.


The translator elsewhere tells us that in the lines

him whose face already is stone

his eyes are such
one doesn't listen to him

a more literal translation would be "his way of looking is such ...  ".


My earlier (and much longer) post on Pentti Saarikoski:

Iron Age graveyard at Pilane on the island of Tjörn

[Image source:,_den_2_sept_2005._Sedd_fr%C3%A5n_berget,_mot_havsviken_till_h%C3%B6ger..JPG. Photo by "Västgöten", 2nd September 2005.]

For the last eight years of his life Pentti and his wife Mia Berner lived in a cottage on the large island of Tjörn, off the coast of Bohuslän in western Sweden (it's joined to the mainland by bridges). I couldn't find any images of the actual cottage.

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