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The rough friction of opposites

There are two very distinct voices in the work of Merja Virolainen: one is a lyrical voice, visually perceptive and quietly observing nature, whilst the other is grotesque and fearless, a female voice, an obscene in the manner of Villon. These two voices are often confronted with and merge with one another in the same poem. This kind of rough-edged confrontation is typical of Virolainen’s work: it is at once an attempt to keep these two voices apart and to bring them together. These paradoxes and contrasts – indeed, a kind of double, polyphonic voice is often discernible – form the corner stones of Virolainen’s lyrical world, but they do not, however, do this as separate entities, they are not ‘empty talk’ nor are they merely a façade. They form the basis of Virolainen’s work in a far wider sense, from the point of view both of her image of humans and of the poems’ structure. Womanhood is seen as wounded and yet simultaneously as powerful and defiant, women as people full of conflicts. On a structural level, the oppositions of language and rhythm in Virolainen’s poems create a lyrical framework for her themes and imagery.

The register in Virolainen’s poems extends from slang to sophisticated poetic language and blends them together – even in the same poem – by means of swift transitions and changes of perspective. To a large extent the language takes its power and sensuality from nature, which in Virolainen’s work is considered sacred, feminine, the meeting place of the spiritual and the earthly. The depiction of nature is very visual, the images are clear, and yet a single concrete image often grows within the space of a few lines into a wide-ranging metaphor:
beneath the wings of a stork is no speckled darkness, but a gleaming light is reflected in the surface of the water, and ultimately the question is of the relationship between bright and dim, between happiness and sorrow, at the furthest reaches of light, where it is darkest, where our eyes cannot see
(Pilvet peittävät sisäänsä pilvet, 2000, ‘Clouds Encompass Clouds’).

Virolainen occasionally makes use of rhymes and meter in her poems: the function of the rhythm is largely to focus on difficult, important subject matter in a way that makes it easier to say, which creates a songful framework around the poem or which illustrates the temporal setting of the poem. Virolainen does not use meter in her most traditionally lyrical poems, but a rhythmic beat and phonetic patterns are characteristic of her work as a whole.

In her poems Virolainen gives a voice to those whom history has silenced: to the women of literature and mythology, who had previously been depicted in terms of men and had been interpreted negatively or idealistically. There are many speakers in her poems: for example, Madama Butterfly’s gentle and sophisticated yet highly ambiguous speech, the debauched bombardment in the manner of Villon of Princess Nausica (Virolainen’s parody is a boundless and heartbreaking version of the story of the woman who enchanted Ulysses and who was believed to be chaste), Penelope’s wise humility. Even Virolainen’s historical female figures can be read in their own right, from a modern perspective. Their timeless substance is accessible, at least partly, without a great knowledge of literary history.

In addition to historical poems, and as their counter balance, many of Virolainen’s poems also take the reader anywhere from the Helsinki suburb Kallio to India and these different scenic and historical elements are often merged together. The volume Clouds Encompass Clouds deals with, amongst other things, children who experience violence, which is equated to violence concerned with otherness, witch burnings and the torture dealt out in secret by the inquisition. However, “the heart floats on the surface” and in Virolainen’s poems there is no place for bitterness, unlike rage and gentleness. Virolainen is a sharp-edged poet, who does not attempt to create a single, unified, soothing voice. A shattered quality, a bodily awareness, the sensual and the grotesque are always present. They embody all full and potent life, in which death is not hidden behind the curtains and life is not suffocated inside a mental or spiritual straight-jacket. Rather, in her poems, blasphemy (in grotesque terms) against that which is holy is also seen as a way of reaching that very holiness – even if it is sometimes ‘only’ in jest.

To say that Virolainen’s poetry concentrates on depicting the relationship and love between man and woman would be to simplify matters. The poems can indeed be read like this, but in a wider sense they are concerned with the relationship between women and the world, women and history. The present day as well as the Middle Ages, Finnish mythology and the whole of Western history of mind and body offer material for Virolainen. In her poems the sacred and the earthly, the poetic and the grotesque, masculine and feminine are in direct competition with each other, and alongside the question of the relationship between woman and man is that of women’s history and a critique of the male poetic canon. All of Virolainen’s poetry and her play have a very wide focus: history in its entirety, a whole perspective, rewriting history, a critique of history. Even those poems which look quite simple encompass an enormous cultural, unaffected vision or raging, sharp insight.

Saila Susiluoto
translated by David Hackston