MEMORY BEARS THE CHILD
Born in 1961, Helena Sinervo graduated from Tampere Conservatoire as a piano teacher and gained her PhD at Helsinki University. At the beginning of the 1990’s she spent a year studying at Paris VII University.
Helena Sinervo has published a total of seven collections of poetry. Her poems are very approachable. On a first reading they offer tableau-like snapshots, concrete imagery and beautiful lyrical descriptions, which the reader can grasp hold of, and each reading helps to open up the content of the poems even more.
A world is opened up, in which concrete and abstract images form equal parts in a picture of life. The language gets caught up between people, takes hold of the ‘you’, which is close to and as if one with the speaker: “you blow life into the fire / under my skin” whilst on the other hand it is clearly separate: “I washed your hands in the den. / You are not responsible / for me. / You washed my hands in the den. / I am not responsible / for you.” (from Lukemattomiin). Images from within the readers’ world also form part of the contact surface in these poems: a house and its rooms, walls, floors, events described from the outside, such as a girl in a red dress sitting on a swing or newly created metaphors and unexpected turns of phrase. “There is heart in you. / It hearts. / A thin-walled bottle fills with escape.”
The form of Sinervo’s poems shifts from a strict verse structure to a more prose-like form, as for example the poem ‘Ajankohtaisohjelmia’ (‘Current Agendas’) from the collection Ihmisen kaltainen. In meter these poems are generally free. Sometimes, as in the poem ‘Metsästäjän laulu’ (‘The Hunter’s Song’) they use rhymes. The precision of the rhythm often glides between very rhythmic poems and free narrative. Variation in content is as great as that in form. Tension in the prose poems is clearly built up from the depiction of events, whereas at her most lyrical Sinervo’s poems are expansively poetic. It is precisely this variation, which is the most clearly defining characteristic of Sinervo’s poetry. Tableau-images convey a strong feeling for a given situation; the poet has a phenomenal ability to narrate and yet the reader can also sense a ‘pure’ lyricist. As a narrator, Sinervo’s subjects vary a great deal: she may depict broad current affairs or something very small and personal, such as a memory from childhood. The past is approached – much like in Proust – through memory: the speakers in the poems unlock their memories as the result of association brought about through the senses.
The landscape in Sinervo’s work is generally that of the city. Nature does play an important role in the poems, but even this is very urban: the sea roaring in the harbour, trees covering a graveyard. Nature is an important part of how the reader experiences the world in these poems, it is not merely a source of symbolism.
One principal feature of the variation in Sinervo’s poetry is the movement from an intense depiction of experience and an emotional world to the depiction of that which is distinctly outward. Although one of the central themes in these poems is the search for and the construction of one’s identity, the poems nonetheless do not remain within the ‘I’, rather the poet, at her most socially aware, has a very clear and assured way of representing her own time.
The predominance of such social themes has grown throughout Sinervo’s work: her first collection, Lukemattomiin, presented the reader for the most part with a skilful depiction of the everyday, whereas in her most recent collection, Ihmisen kaltainen, she focuses on the phenomena of the day. Analogies do not leap out at the reader, rather they quietly recognise the conflicts of the world, as if simply to themselves. This is underlined in the poem ‘Look at things in a positive light’, where a darling child is guided into positive thinking and encouraged to notice beautiful little everyday objects; it states: “think of the journalist, / their daughter just like you, / chewing on an organic carrot”. The tranquillity of this first poem is shattered when the reader discovers the following poem, printed in smaller lettering, entitled: ‘Thousands died, it wasn’t my fault’, a poem which exposes the sense of guilt felt by one watching the news and how people try to block this guilt out. In the poem ‘The Hunter’s Song’ the speaker tells the story of a human-like animal living far off in the mountains who: “flicks through homepages, / does not see does not hear us, / reflects upon its sorrows pressures, / through the sewers full of bits”. The speaker finally makes the comparison of humans as animal-like, reversing her previous expression and thus sketching a fine line at the loss of humanity and claiming that the animal-like creature is attached at the umbilical cord to the ground and that if it is severd, “in the weak convalescent / an inexplicable change occurs: / soon it will dangle like prey in a trap / and bring to mind your friend.”
In addition to writing her own collections of poetry Helena Sinervo has translated many poems by Elisabeth Bishop and Yves Bonnefoy and produced the year-book of the Living Poets’ Club, MotMot. She has also written articles for, amongst others, Helsingin Sanomat, Nuori Voima, Aamulehti and Image magazine.
Helena Sinervo’s collection of poetry Sininen Anglia was nominated for the Runeberg Prize. In 2001 she received the Yleisradio Dancing Bear Prize.
translated by David Hackston
Lukemattomiin (1994), Sininen Anglia (1996), Pimeän parit (1997), Ihmisen kaltainen (2000), Oodeja korvalle (2003), Runoilijan talossa (novel, 2004), Tilikirja (2005), Täyttä ainetta (2007), Akuvatus ja muita härveleitä & otuksia (2007)