REBECCA LOUDON Reviews
The Finnish Orchestra by Kathryn Rantala
(Ravenna Press, Washington, 2013)
The Finish Orchestra is a collection of poems that describes Rantala’s family history in a series of lovely descriptive poems of place, desire, danger, transcendence, transcending. The orchestra itself on the book’s cover, depicts the author’s grandfather, a pale moody looking man holding a double bass, as if ready to let fly a note that will arrow itself into the mouth of the Columbia River near Astoria, Oregon, where the family finally settled. The orchestra itself is described in the poem Andrew as:
Not just players, an orchestra.
Not just orchestra, the players;
Andrew among them
standing at double bass.
There are photos accompanying almost every poem. Faces peering out at we readers look stern, thoughtful, tired, frightened, interested. The photos allow the poems to weave an even richer history.
The second poem of the book, “Paavo and Anna, on Love,” invokes a strange ripple that eddies throughout these poems. There are people, and there is nature, and, in the poems, nature is more often sexual than the people themselves, who are stridently quiet and [seemingly] unemotional. In “Paavo and Anna, on Love,” Paavo stands before Anna / who globed in him a grief / but he cannot tell her all his heart / which broke above the black river, / his hands and thoughts / deep in it. In this poem, / Anna held a plate / and washed in right hand circle, / dried in left hand circle / remembering all their meals but it is only when / the river came in him, / rushed and rough, and he was out, / his silence with him / and she never heard him say it, / not once
“Paavo and Anna, on Love” feels like the true beginning to this collection to me. It introduces a family of tough people, grim fiery people who take what they are given with tight lips, and bound hearts, a family in love with nature; water, wheat, animals, that struggles to show their love for family itself, though the love is there as rich as gold in a river.
Paavo and Anna, on Love
Paavo in the furred wood strode
where canted trees leaned to slipping shore
and hung sadly in the mirror of his current days
His Anna globed in him a grief
and now he stood
and could not tell her all his heart
which broke above the black river,
his hands and thoughts
deep in it.
Anna held a plate
and washed in right hand circle,
dried in left hand circle,
all the times their meals made them stronger.
Once, but once she asked at night
within the murmurs of the tight house:
what curtains sigh to glass, caressed;
what branches feel in leaf;
and, very, very low,
what word he’d make of them
if there would be a word..
and then the river came in him,
rushed and rough, and he was out,
his silence with him
and she never heard him say it,
Rantala handles the next poem in the collection, “Don’t Say If I Love You,” with the same deft abundance of creature life:
Don’t Say If I Love You
Behind brown greatcoats, we
clasp our own hands,
uneasy where we surface in our skin,
by the pardons on the bridge.
on spreading splash tails
with their vertical joys.
Hands behind, oh,
please refuse me
though I carry what I can of lamp
in clean, red palms,
the pieces slipping through
to light the magic forests.
How is love a sequence, then;
the piercing through, bliss?
We cannot, do not, arch, thump, whumpf, bleed,
please refuse me deeper now
Trees, ferns, and greens
dance on spray
and fish darken.
This mossy, antlered life,
the sharp young bolting things in coats
the arrowed hearts within,
the wild wounded wood
that sings us sad without
The power and magic of physical sex, emotional turmoil, caught up once again in the description of place. This mossy, antlered life. Gorgeous, lyrical, and, for now, firmly rooted.
In the poem Sirkka, the narrator says / I ask: / am I what you hear coming off the sea? / This poem is to the left of a photograph of a beautiful woman in high black pumps, a lovely gown made of miles of silk, blonde curls and a Mona Lisa smile.
Rantala is at her finest when describing place:
Some People Say
a lake has no tides like a sea,
that it is placid,
and by this they mean serene.
In Finland there are thousands of lakes
those that are deep
those that are wide
those that rise and fall unmeasured
but go down darker and farther and wider
and this is where the parted heart streams,
absent edge-of-the-world rhythms,
and breaks columned wood
and plumbs hard pasture
and grows, lifts, rises, sinks
and fills contested space
then blues so it can show you
it is not calm at all
tireless, full, estranged
and sometimes deeper
There is no question where we are now and what we are feeling. The land the water as parted heart streams, the rhythms of sex, the pressure, the lifts and rises and sinks. It’s all here in the land.
Water again makes a definitive physical appearance in “Loon Lake” and in the poem “Finland” where / Sky, glass, stream, / the higher you go in the world / the tighter everything is. / which sounds like a fishwife’s tale or a grandmother’s warning. The first stanza ends with / A hard art pebbles under fish. / the poem ends with:
familiar if not your own,
the iced-up sons
lithe within the lakes
and all the time water;
Even with cold water and dangers of early life in Finland, Rantala gives up delicious sounds and song, the mouthfeel of edible poetry. Her language is rich with the cream that is missing from the tables of the poor hardscrabble folk who people the first part of the book.
The section of The Finnish Orchestra is titled Runes and subtitled anything gnawed by winter. These poems seem to me to be a series of love letters. The poem titled “Lingering Poem” is one of my favorite in this section. The narrator is lively and ardent:
She sends her letters frequently
like waves on rocky beach.
She strings her lines in dead drape
just as, one would say,
she pulleyed out to school,
was pointed to,
or loved straight by magic animals.
And she draws them back.
Sunny wet veins,
a kiss of surface tensions,
still too fast for the lizard-eyed boy.
This second section includes poems titled “The Bouquet,” “Liquid,” and “Achene,” poems that ache with tenderness and strong palpable language.
Silk would warm apparent vessel
iridic moon would splay
its sheer elongate thirst.
Still vertical from god
she moves oblivion
to cool thinness
and all at once subtracts.
That directly over
keeps her shadow.
An achene is a one-seeded fruit developed from a single ovary, for instance in the sunflower or strawberry, and iridic relates to the iris of the eye. So this poem contains seeds, vessels, iris, moon, all female strengths, taken with sheer elongate thirst. This is one sexy poem.
In “Finland (2)” we are given / Arch of dark, / the sun, low in love, /as used as smooth as sauna / and, toward the end, the warning that / you are no superior being, / Skin pale, fishing poor, / the tired come loose— / all must eat / and now there is snow / even in the holy places. / / A baby, small as rain, / his spirit wandered too far north / in fog. / Now he strains to look at you, / eye to eye, / (and your mind on things that mean: / choke cherries, flush; / the reindeer, fat.) / His fingers curl, / his hands asking tree and gold-breasted martin, / the shrike in the yardarm, / and you: / will it thrive. / / There is crush in all you make, / in all he will make for you. / Now is the time for the poem that says nothing. // Lift him near a light / so you can see / each other. (pgs.38, 29, 40)
Finally the he and she of this love story are revealed in fleshy bodies, struggle and light. It is the poem in which the poet begins to name herself: / and this strangest place: a shore, / the ranta / and even though the reader knows it is Rantala’s family story here, this is the poem in which the poet appears hard enough to knock the wind out of us. / There is crush in all you make, / in all he will make for you. / Now is the time for the poem that says nothing. / ( and yet says everything.)
We are finally introduced to The Finnish Orchestra with the poem “Andrew,” a poem that contains one of the most searing and pure descriptions of this family’s move to the new world, their braveries, loves, and failures, we find in this poem a family that is strong and pure of heart:
Worst-weather Oregon, Astoria,
the rooming houses,
immigrant art of flickering
most like love
in the new world.
an opera, play, stroll—Hilma and Andrew—
and after the long row from the co-op
poems and flowers
for the daughter named for a pearl.
The Theater Finns of Astoria.
Not must players, an orchestra. Not just orchestra, the players;
Andrew among them
standing at double bass.
Gasps of families,
hunger to hunger,
from wars and Russification,
from religions requiring a house,
requiring the house-bound;
afloat from the time near the end
of the large-furred animals.
A carpenter, laborer, actor
crosses the upright strings
and, as other extinctions
Hilma married you for love,
which we know is diligent tax.
the field-grouse, black-grouse,
hazel- and blue-eyed others,
the look of sounds
the inner sides of expression.
That is a kind of silence.
What you might ask of us:
Your daughter moved north, up the coast.
Her children: artists, musicians, poets.
That is a kind of happiness.
What we might ask of you:
See the restless home each night
and each day
send them out again to fly.
That is a kind of joy.
And do not die
before the chance to meet us.
pgs. 67, 68
I flat out loved this book. A must read for anyone with Finland in their history, for anyone who wants to discover an unknown land, for anyone who loves a fine romance on a cold winter night.
I’ll end with my favorite poem from the book that appears beside a photo of a woman wearing a huge fur skinned coat with a furry collar her right hand on the neck of what might be dog and might be wolf.
my sinking footsteps want you
where the dark armies left you—
o moon weight on pondering blue.
Will you won’t you
if I wear the white suit, the snowing hood—o sea-bank burrower,
Will you peer or want me
shall I not shoot
Will you, where the ice edge sings its leaves
down watering air,
where twigs tell and
small furries roll up—
o bright bouldering brow—
where pooling swims the closer
and the slightest stars emit,
will you sign to me,
your sweet danger?