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SIRKKA TURKKA

MERJA VIROLAINEN

SIRKKA TURKKA (b. 1939) has written 14 books, both poetry and prose. She was awarded Finlandia Prize in 1987, Yleisradio’s (the equivalent of the BBC) Tanssiva Karhu (Dancing Bear) prize in 1994 and Eino Leino Prize in 2000. She has also worked as animal attendant and head stableman.
THE HOLINESS OF HUMILITY
THE HOLINESS OF HUMILITY 

In an attempt to characterise Sirkka Turkka’s poetry, one must underline the importance of her use of language and the dynamic nature of this language. The form of expression in her works varies from short pithy poems about nature to extensive prose poems. Her language also varies dramatically, moving between an elegiac, expressive tone to slang, to the language of sermons, spells or prayers. Many of Turkka’s collections are poems built around an all-encompassing sense of repetition. These particular volumes also stress the importance of rhythm. It is this repetition which gives the poems their intensity, even their sense of suggestion, and brings to mind spells and invocations. In addition to this, the extremely dense repetition of certain words brings out new nuances in meaning in each different context. On a structural level, changes in the length of verses, pauses and variation in the use of phonetic material all have a direct effect on the intensity of the rhythm in these poems.

Although variation in language and style are common to Turkka’s work as a whole, there is also a certain underlying feeling in her poems and a basic vocabulary which bring her works together. Themes concerned with nature, animals, sorrow, loneliness and death are central to her work. These traditionally subjective themes are dealt with in a fresh and strikingly original way. Turkka makes particular use of humour and contrasting imagery as a way of dealing with things she has found distressful. She often brings together seemingly disparate material or presents us with the traditionally virtuous or magnificent in everyday and even banal settings. Turkka’s polemic sarcasm is pointed in particular at central figures of Christian mythology. Indeed, she often makes the trivial seem beautiful and holy, she exalts that which is earthly. The world of Turkka’s poems contains many such paradoxical features. She puts opposites side by side and combines them, equates them with each other and imbues them with one another’s qualities. Examples of this are life, love and death; winter, autumn and summer; strength and lethargy; loneliness and companionship; past and present; presence and absence.

There are also many distinct conflicts in Turkka’s poetry. This division, central to her view of the world, is brought about by the coming together of nature and culture. Nature is seen as the principal, self-evident environment, in which her poems situate themselves and to which the life and everyday of the speaker, their feelings and experiences, are intrinsically bound. In Turkka’s poems the human being is part of nature and has both positive and negative effects on all things around it. Nature functions here on a concrete, a symbolic and a mythical level. Concrete nature is very much the milieu of these poems; it is a milieu in which natural cycles take place, for example birth, death and the changing of the seasons. As a ‘real’ environment, nature is not characterised by idealisation; rather it is portrayed the way it is, as a force with its own set of laws. On a symbolic level, the emotional state of the sensitive and perceptive speaker has a direct influence on how nature appears in the images within a given poem. The collections characterised by the themes of death and separation focus on images of autumnal landscape, rain and greyness. Turkka even uses elements of nature to illustrate suffering, desperation and injustice. Metaphors and analogies depicting the ‘I’ and ‘you’ of the poems are almost without exception linked to elements of nature and to animal imagery. On a mythical level, these elements of nature do not have a great deal in common with their real-life equivalents. They are conceptualised in such a way that, for example, the forest is given different meanings in different volumes. Stones and trees are also endowed with their own special mythological significance.

In Turkka’s work, the idea of culture refers to everything in which the touch of human beings can be discerned. Emptiness, hollowness, cruelty and cold are examples of the kinds of qualities associated with spaces touched by humans, be it a field, a yard or a building. The structures of power developed by humans collapse and human culture takes shape in the form of suffering and death. Ideologies and religions are, as examples of human constructs, destructive and twisted and they are not treated in a very positive light in Turkka’s poetry. At the level of the individual, alienation is paramount. The almost holistic sense of loneliness and estrangement in Turkka’s poems is underlined in the way that the speaker is defined in relation to humans and to groups of humans. Conversely, animals are seen as equals as well as being points of identification. On the scale of human values animals are placed in front of humans. The dog and the horse, which appear frequently in Turkka’s poems, assume almost divine characteristics; they are blessed with saintly qualities and are typically depicted as suffering on behalf of others. The poems accentuate these animals’ role within the human world as emblems of goodness and innocence.

The tone of the world Turkka’s poems open up before us in essentially pessimistic. Their central themes – sorrow, loneliness, death – appear in each of her collections, although the way she relates to them often differs. Often her depiction of subjective sorrow is oppressive in the power of its expression; at other times she uses humour and contrasting imagery as a way of distancing herself and the reader. It has often been said of Turkka’s methodology that if the volume of tragedy and sorrow is too great, the tragical must be ‘broken’ so it can be made visible. Parodying the pathos of poetic language is one way of achieving this.


Tarja Puustinen
translated by David Hackston


Huone avaruudessa (1973), Valaan vatsassa (prose, 1975), Minä se olen (1976), Yö aukeaa kuin vilja (1978), Mies joka rakasti vaimoaan liikaa (1979), Kaunis hallitsija (1981), Vaikka on kesä (1983), Teokset 1973-1983 (1985), Tule takaisin, pikku Sheba (1986), Voiman ääni (1989), Sielun veli (1993), Nousevan auringon talo (1997), Tulin tumman metsän läpi (1999), Niin kovaa se tuuli löi (2004), Runot 1973-2004 (2005)


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