Monday, December 21, 2009



One and Twenty by Paavo Haavikko, Trans. By Anselm Hollo
(Aspasia Books, Ontario, 2007)

One and Twenty: Within and Beyond the Epic

The Finnish poet, writer, playwright and publisher, Paavo Haavikko (b. 1931)’s One and Twenty (1974) is a véritable chef-d’oeuvre. Rendered faithfully into the English language by Anselm Hollo, this collection of 35 epic cantos recount an odyssey in quest of the Sampo, travelling from Byzantium (Cantos 2-11) to Africa (Cantos 12-18) and Moscow as well as the Russian Continent (Cantos 19-31), before finally depicting a dramatic heroic-tragic homecoming (Cantos 32-35). Although the symbolic value and the metaphoric presence of the Sampo — what/who is him/her/it? — weighs in heavily in terms of shaping a reader’s narrative understanding, this epic poetry’s strong oral appeal, or the eclectic fusion of ethnographic and Finnish folk cultural elements gives the work an overall abstract expressionist flavor, rather than an aesthetics of concrete realism.

Here begins the masculine voice that embarks upon One and Twenty:
                  Twenty-one and a sail, days and nights.
                                    Nights, they sleep. Days they row, days and days up the Nevá
they row, stop at night, pull the vessel with ten pairs of oars
                  across the bare water,
from the Nevá to the Roiling Waves, from the Roiling Waves
                  up to Novgorod, from Novgorod to the headwaters,
                                    and from there across the isthmus,
over round logs, running the last log up to the prow, they pull,
they row, they descend, they pull, they sail toward Pohja,
                  the Southland.
(Canto 1, p. 1)

Already, as seen from this start, the gulf between history and myth appears within sight. Sensuous rhythms and rich assonances of diction governs this voice whose role resembles that of a Greek choir, as it speaks of the odyssey, evoking moral lessons while keeping action in constant flux and suspense. To admit, this voice possesses might. The fact that action never stops in this epic account may risk crowding out music and language for the poetry. Haavikko, seemingly aware of such a danger, continues however, as if challenging himself, with increasing intensity and energies to propel forward the imaginative traits of the narration by ironising the fate of Sampo with various moral measures. Take a look at these different instances, in which an affirmative moral voice recurs side-by-side “images and metaphors relating to darkness, blindness, gold, and the ability to see” (p. xv), or implicit literary forces that uphold the Finnish ideology of national reawakening — a motivation that is prevalent in Finnish literature from the post-war years:
Man, mind and sword, we are on our way ! To the Southland’s feast
                  with drinks fit for gods, food for fluttonous sinners.
only weaklings need invitations, good men don’t need them —
(Canto 1, p. 2)

Victory is not won by weapons, it has to be bought from the best offer.
                  Every officer has his batman,
                                    more faithful than a shadow.
Every five men share a servant, always,
                                 because war is eternal, as is Byzantium.
(Canto 9, p. 26)

No one among us has ever traveled that way, that way
                  goes a tale that knows sheltered harbors,
The way we know the stars in the sky but not
                  what lies between them.

The world is shaped like a large coin, only bigger,
                  moldy silver, green copper, gold.
It bears the Emperor’s image, he looks human,
(Canto 11, p. 36)

In this vein, Canto 26 stands out as the most telling instructive canto, bare of any narrative association, but a plain speaking voice. On one hand, it responds to the precedent canto that ends with the declarative line, “Speak your piece.” On the other hand, it serves as a turning point and diversion for the Russian expedition. More difficulties imbue as the explorers attempt to reverse their fate, even if against the wills of gods. Authoritative, this canto either strikes fear or restores confidence. Is it optimistic? Or is it foretelling an omen? Again, the unknown of what lies ahead once on the road heightens itself:
When you don’t need to hope, you don’t need to be afraid,
                                                      to be afraid, to hate.
When you don’t need to be afraid, you don’t need to hate
                                                      or to hope.
When you don’t need to hate, you don’t need to be afraid
                                                      or to hope.
When you don’t need to hope, you don’t need to hope,
                                                      or to hope.

And so it goes. Before the judgment hour, that is — “but that is why this world is poor, the sea mighty/ because the Sampo fell into the sea.” (Canto 35, p. 100)


Fiona Sze-Lorrain is the author of a collection of poetry, Water the Moon (2009/10). She is one of the editors at Cerise Press and lives in France. (

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