ghost lemons (and homely herrings) of Helsinki

(This is an account of a weekend trip to Helsinki to launch the Scottish Poetry Library anthology Intimate Expanses (twenty five poems from twenty five years of  writing by twenty five Scottish poets), published here by Carcanet, and there by Like.

I’m working on a slightly more detailed account [Yeah, right, says Blll from 2011] but here’s the version I sent as a report to the organisers. They didn’t need this much, but I’m trying to edge towards a position on such matters as the appeal of the so-called exotic, and need to keep digging into what it is that engages me about travel.

I have a feeling that old dichotomous assumptions like our (supposedly shallow) response to the exotic versus our (supposedly edgier) engagement with estrangement are like the Romantics distinguishing between fancy and the imagination — such automatic privileging of one debatable term over another, like the very neatness of the opposition, no longer cuts it. We, or rather I, since no-one else is bothered, need to think again.)

Whenever I am asked to go on a trip somewhere just because I am a writer, I always feel immensely privileged. This is partly because I get so excited about the small details, at least as much as about the bigger picture. I’m interested in our struggle to achieve or regain that larger perspective, and our motives in wanting to do so. As the bag I brought home from Like (our Finnish publisher) advises, ‘Tervemenoa, Sankarimatkailija!’ (‘Go forth, brave traveller!’ though there may be a sardonic undertone ‘and get lost…’)

Getting lost in Finnishness is a distinct temptation, especially when you are confronted by so much culture, conveniently initiated by the encyclopedia and poetry anthology placed in your hotel room, but rapidly augmented by visits to Sibelius’ snug but silent lakeside home, two galleries of light-obsessed Finnish art, and the wonderful spectacle of the central railway station, its thickset statuary holding globes of yet more light against the winter gloom.

Helsinki has a distinctive stratigraphy of those resonances which nourish the traveller whether brave or lost: historical, architectural, linguistic and culinary — reindeer carpaccio, anyone? How about some reassuring herring? Then there’s the surrounding landscape of orange and dark green forest, barely seeming to emerge from the Baltic, but bursting with outcrops of glaciated rock, and punctuated by lakes. That interplay of cold water, cooling light and the occasional freezing wind – I felt strangely at home.

The Book Fair was an occasion to meet publishers, translators, arts administrators, journalists, and of course fellow writers both from the UK and Finland; to read and chat, to catch up and be introduced to how things are done in this country which seems both like and strikingly unlike Scotland. Sweden and Swedish impinge on its life and its literature in a not entirely unfamiliar manner, while its relative remoteness gives it a usefully independent perspective on matters European.

I was intrigued to find out from my publishers that books are twice as expensive in Finland as in Britain, and to hear from fellow poet Joni Pyysal how divorced his contemporaries feel from issues of form. And I enjoyed hearing a real medley of Baltic writers in the Kivi House (though translations weren’t always available).

One of the simple pleasures of the trip was wandering the city with Meg Bateman and Robyn Marsack, catching up with each other while taking in a haul of new sights – the contrast between the pale-wood and white-walled austerity of the Lutheran Cathedral and the intoxicating closeness of oklad and ikon and Church Slavonic in its Orthodox counterpart, perched on a rock overlooking the choppy harbours.

Little details snag on the memory: a CCTV camera nesting inside the metal sculpture of a gull;  ghostly white lemons in a still life by the eighteenth century painter Nils Schillmark; the toothpaste-coloured neon of the central post office. Such a range of richnesses meant I found this visit creatively exciting, both a privilege and a delight.

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About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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