THE POIGNANCY OF HUMAN EXISTENCE
In the present literary climate Lauri Otonkoski could be seen as an exponent of particularly ‘impure’ poetry. His form of expression is conversational: although his poems often begin with a single thought or idea, they nonetheless quickly merge into a swell of images and reflections. The manner in which he plays with language and word association at times brings to mind the long, meandering sentences in the poetry of Jouni Inkala, yet rhythmically it is musically composed through and through and is characterised by a sense of stubbornness which evades any logic in the eyes of the reader. Otonkoski writes many different kinds of poems: resounding verses swim in fluid harmony with short, almost aphoristic stanzas, pounding inventories and poems which verge on a somewhat essayistic style. The way in which he employs various literary and cultural points of reference is particularly notable: these references appear throughout the texts and do not scorn at any holes in the reader’s cultural awareness.
Of his seven volumes of poetry to date, the most important of these could be considered the work which won him Yleisradio’s (equivalent of the BBC) Dancing Bear Prize, a work inspired by a spell in Tuscany, Musta oli valkoinen (1995) (‘Black was white’). The final series of poems in this collection entitled ‘Mun lapsille’ (To my children’) deals with yearning and absence, yet there is a prevailing sense of comfort and warm expectation. The themes in these poems, which take place in a landscape abundant with frescoes, cathedrals and piazzas, are in constant motion and are always ambiguous, they do not fully reveal themselves on the first reading. Otonkoski’s poems leave the reader with a strong sense of having experienced – or even learnt – something profound, something for which one cannot find words. The poignancy of human existence is shown in a bitter yet humorous light. In one particular poem Otonkoski discusses the foundation of his own work, leaving any potential reviewer looking ridiculous. Looking out of a window is one way of marvelling at the world, but the poet examines this more through words and phrases.
In his first two collections Mutta kukaan ei enää tiedä (1990) (‘But no one knows any longer’) and Harmaan koiran rondo (1992) (‘Greyhound Rondo’) Otonkoski is to a great extent still searching for his own voice. His short poems slash little wounds into our perceived reality, then sew them back together leaving things, perhaps deliberately, half way. Indeed, the tone of the series of poems which gives the latter collection its title is very sincere, and the world is put into words in a very concrete way. In these collections, as in all of Otonkoski’s work, the poet appears to be dealing with almost everything under the sun and not restricted to clearly defined themes.
The collection Paossa (1993) (‘Fleeing’) does not differ significantly from its predecessors, although a slight shift to a more aware and introverted way of speaking is discernible; it in a way pre-empts the following collection. What is new in this volume are prose poems and a delicate narrative, something for which Otonkoski seems to have been influenced by his work translating Raymond Carver into Finnish (Rivi riviltä, lyönti lyönniltä 1994: ‘Row for row, blow for blow’).
The gospels in the Bible serve as a key point of reference in the collection Ahava (1998) (‘Worn’). The poet succeeds in reflecting his relationship with historical events and religious tenets by employing amongst other things a theatrical kind of polyphony.
In collection Totuus (1998) (‘Truth’), Otonkoski writes essay-like prose poems which satirise themselves, the author and the work’s title. The reader has a clear sense that the poet feels at home here and in going beyond extremes in this way he brings something fresh to Finnish literature.
translated by David Hackston
Kirja – puhetta musiikista (essays, 1987), Mutta kukaan ei tiedä (1990), Klang – uusin musiikki (non-fiction, 1991), Harmaan koiran rondo (1992), Paossa (1993), Musta oli valkoinen (1995), Aarre Merikanto (non-fiction, 1997), Ahava (1998), Kuultavaa luettavaa – kirjoituksia vuosilta 1980−1999 (essays, 2000), Olo (2002), Cameo, sinfoninen runo (2005)