Rakel Liehu (born 1939) was for many years known as a distinctively spiritual poet. In her debut collection Ihmisen murhe on yhteinen (1974) (‘Man’s Sorrow is Shared’) and in the following two collections Savikielellä minä ylistän (1975) (‘In the language of clay I give praise’) and Valo, läheisyys (1977) (‘Light, Nearness’) Liehu brought a new, more philosophical substance to spiritual poetry.
In her collections from the 1980’s Liehu underlines the similarities between love on earth and heavenly love. The spiritual and the bodily merge with each other; even the most mundane object may contain a hidden revelation from on high. At the beginning of the 1990’s, Liehu’s impassioned poetry began to incorporate ideas from a burgeoning cubist avant-garde movement and a sense of geometry and intellectualism. Thus, her poems appear to be disrobed of their clear message.
The work Kubisseja (1992) (‘Cubisms’) revolutionised her work as a poet. Cubisms, along with the volumes murehtimatta ! smaragdinen (1993) (‘grieve not ! emerald’), Readymade (1995) and Skorpionin sydän (1997) (‘The Scorpion’s Heart’) are all clearly linked to modernism in the visual arts. The poems in these collections make virtuosic use of language, employ unrestrained word association and are fragmented like a cubist painting. These fragments, which form a kind of collage, are not meant to form one unified image.
Liehu herself has assessed the quality of her work as a poet: “One day I encountered a cubist painting, at once dispersed and together. […] a single radically bereft secondary clause suddenly began to explain all of this: these are words which do not always have any logical connection, what binds them is something more, something far tougher.” Precisely how tough these connections are depends on how much the reader is willing to take part in creating the work of art.
Markku Paasonen has equated the poems in Cubisms with the work of a poet contemporary with Picasso, Pierre Reverdy, in their focus and, in a sense, their pointillism: “every phrase is accented, emphatic, but conversely it is difficult to find a point in these poems which stands out, the core of the poem’s thought or experience, a thread by which one can open up the poem.”
Liehu manages to hide these threads by taking ellipsis so far that verses often cut off half way through a word and are left hanging like the busts of ancient Greek statues: “pilven pääl-” (“above a clou-“). Liehu’s poems inch forwards, the borders between word and meaning are stretched out and mock the cross over between the syntactic and the paradigmatic. Images piled on top of each other and gradually building up often require the reader to turn off their sense of logic.
It is due to the fact that Liehu draws upon sources of modernism that are largely unknown to her readership that her work has often been considered ‘difficult’ or shockingly new. Thus, anyone wishing to acquaint themselves with her work could benefit from reading up on the history not only of modernism and the avant-garde, but also of romanticism.
More than anything, it is important to throw oneself into these poems, which straddle the divide between oblivion and memory and to be swept away by the visions in them, like the poet herself: “I open out my hands: Bring free prince air!”
translated by David Hackston
Ihmisen murhe on yhteinen (1974), Savikielellä minä ylistän (1975), Sininen Lasarus (1976), Seth Mattsonin tarina (novel, 1976), Valo, läheisyys (1977), Runoja 1974–1977 (1978), Punainen ruukku (novel, 1980), Liian lähellä, liian äkkiä (1982), Gammayökkönen (1985), Joki sepittää minulle (1987), Kubisseja(1992), Murehtimatta: smaragdinen (1993), Readymade (1995), Skorpionin sydän (1997), Sininen kala (essays, 1999), Helene (novel, 2003), Bul Bul (2007)