Archive for December, 2014

Full title: Kanteletar taikka Suomen Kansan Wanhoja Lauluja ja Wirsia

(The Kanteletar, Being Some Old Songs and Ballads of the Finnish People)

Published in 1840/1, the KANTELETAR is considered the sister book to the Finnish national epic KALEVALA. The name KANTELETAR is paraphrased to mean ‘zither-daughter’, from the name of the zither, kantele, and feminine participle ‘tar’.

Both works were the collection and selection of scholar-physician Elias Lonnrot. And both were collected from the eastern Finnish Karelia region of lakes and forest.



The KANTELETAR comprises three books of songs, ballads and lyrics.
Their subject matter can be startling.

THE KANTELETAR is published in English in the World’s Classics series, translated and Introduced by Keith Bosley. He also provides very useful Notes, and indicates all parallels between several ballads and episodes in The Kalevala.

The first book of the collection is concerned with lyrics sung by both sexes;
– the second book is in four sections and covers Girl’s Songs, Women’s Songs, Boy’s Songs and Men’s Songs.
– the last book contains a small selection of ballads, some of which are quite long. The oldest recorded, Bishop Henry, is dated by inclusion in the oldest collected manuscript of 1671, and deals with the (attempted) introduction of Christianity into the region.  Amusingly Bishop Henry was a missionary from ‘Cabbage-land’; you may think this is Germany with its traditional sauerkrauts, but no it is England!

The songs are, the Introduction states, ‘alliterative, astrophic trochaic tetramemeter‘, sung to simple tunes ‘built… on five basic notes, corresponding to the five strings of the earliest kantele‘, a ‘five-beat bar of six short and two long notes’. This is the rhythm Sibelius copied in the last section of his RAKASTAVA, Op 14 based on several of the songs.

There is an extraordinary song called Paying For The Milk. There are both girl’s and boy’s versions of this. The girl’s version begins:

How to pay for mamma’s milk
make up for mamma’s torment
for the pains of my parent?

Then follows a series of possible payments, none of which are found anywhere near suitable or sufficient. The last verse gives us:

Jesus, pay for mamma’s milk
make up for mamma’s torments
Lord, pay for mamma’s pains
all the cares of her who carried me!

Which is as much as saying no price on earth can pay.

The boy’s version is much longer, five verses of which the first and last are long, and the central one is where the mother replies to his questions of ‘what will pay?’.
It begins:

Lauri, an excellent lad
fair husband-to-be
thought this in his mind
put this into words:
‘The happy, the lucky pay
for their mother’s milk
for their mother’s blood with cloth
for her labour with velvet

Keith Bosley notes that the boy’s version has a happier ending, ‘but is less convincing’. How happier is it? He has to look after and tend for her up till and after her death, on top of all the feats he has already done for her.
A mother’s labour is literally her ‘sauna-path’, a kenning: the sauna was amongst other uses the place for giving birth.
The girl’s song convinces more because it deals with the ‘debt’ without deflection; the Notes state the singer, the girl, is leaving her mother for her husband’s household. This then, is one of the marriage songs which feature strongly in the book.

.The marriage songs are all paralleled in the Kalevala text. The Kalevala is particularly memorable for its unstintingly dour attitude to marriage: the girl is to live in the husband’s house-hold, to be the lowest in status until she has proven herself – by having children probably. But in this between-time she must work twice as hard as the others to prove her worthiness.

The girl’s songs have a poignancy all of their own:

The Birch and the Bird Cherry

I was a bough on a tree
fostered by a lowly birch
in a naked glade
on land with no strawberries.

Next door  a fair bird cherry
grew, a proud tree rose
on turf as thick as honey
on land the hue of liver.

   With its bushy boughs
and its spreading foliage
it blocked the sun from shining
it hid the moon from gleaming.

In short, everyone admired the bird cherries and no one noticed the other. The bird cherry, however, succumbed to rot, and

The bird cherry felt a pain
and filled it with care:
I remained standing
with my small future.

Note that ‘fostered’ in line two: what a wonderfully economical way of positioning status, vulnerability and demeanor! The descriptions are glorious: ‘turf as thick as honey’ etc, and then the ending, ‘small future’ so full of implication.


There is a group of poems in the girl’s section under the heading of The Victim. These deal head-on with a rape and its consequences. The girl falls asleep whilst tending sheep and ‘a stranger/ from the birches a bounder/ came and took what was my own….
Another form of this is ‘… a dog came from the army/ a frog from Savo’s border/ a bastard from Kuopio/ some war-scum from Helsinki…
And the result?
no refuge in the cabin/ no mercy under the roofs…. I’ll find refuge in the wind/ mercy among the billows…’. The temptation is to drown herself, to be a sister to the whitefish; then, though, her mother would have to carefully check the water she put in her dough for her daughter’s tresses.

There an interesting ballad that replies to this, the man getting away free whilst the maid suffered the consequences of his actions: The Thoughtful Dragon. The imagery here is also quite wonderful:

Let us go to the vale, young ones
us grasshoppers to the cliff

They strip the bast from a lime tree to make ropes to tie up a young man, and leave him where the king walks by. The king asks Why have they done this to him?
The response is: ‘This is why he is bound/ the woman’s son held: / he laid a young maid – / a young maid, a bride./ The poor maid was doomed/ to the dragon’s (literally ‘salmon-serpent’) jaws;/ but the dragon sighed – / it sighed and it gasped: “I’ll sooner swallow a young/ man, a young man with a sword….’.

And then there is the shocking Instructions to a Bridegroom:

Bridegroom, dear youngster
fair husband-to-be
don’t hurt our maiden
don’t you ill-treat her
with lashes don’t make her squeal
with leather whips make her mew!

And goes on to say if you must do then do where no one will hear; and do it where it will not show when she goes out.
This song is meant as a marriage jest, a wedding night tongue-in-cheek ribaldry, to scare the girl.

How I Was, a woman’s song, plays with change, deception and age:

I was once as barley-land –
as barley-land, as oat-land
as fair cabbage-land
as the best bean-field; but I’ve
ended up as mixed-crop land
I’ve become grassland
turned to a mossy hummock.


But the ending is depressing: old age is a curse because, as we saw implied in the boy’s version of Mother’s Milk, there is no one to look after the old – other than the unmarried daughter, and all the pejoratives that go with that.
In the Lyrics by Both Sexes there a similar bleak song on ageing, A Plank of Flesh:

Whoever created me
whoever fashioned this wretch


One remarkable work is the six-part  Ballad of the Virgin Mary.
This would require quite a feat of memory to recite.
Mary is introduced as a farm girl dressed in her finery, a: ‘She looks out into the farmyard/ listened out at the lane’s end./ A berry called from the ground/ a cowberry from the heath:/ ‘Come, maid, and pluck me/ red-cheek, and pick me…. Ere the slug eats me/ the black worm scoffs me!


The berry became the means of conception. Of course, when her mother noticed her pregnancy at last she spurned her; and a serving maid ran to tell Herod.
The whole piece tells the Christ story to the end. It is a remarkable feat of song writing. The imagery as in all the songs is rich and wonderful.

We cannot end without obeisance to Sibelius, his Karelia Suite and Tapiola.
the lyrics he used are here reproduced. The Herding Songs are set in the First Movement of  RAKASTAVA. Some of his Nine Part-Songs are also in this collection .
In a number of the ballads and songs we encounter pagan forest god Tapio. The Christian God is usually ‘Old Man’. The two co-existed in relative peace – in the songs.

This a book to savour and enjoy: bitter-sweet, surprising, and very life enhancing.


Posted: December 14, 2014 in Chat
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ROADSIDE PICNIC, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Published by Gollancz Sciene Fiction, 1977

CAUTION Contains Spoilers!


For such a short book this is extraordinarily provocative.
Published in the Soviet Union by two technical and science professionals, the novel keeps close to the real world. And this allows any deviation to appear even more devastating.
The book gives us a number of accounts over a period of time, of an event that happened in the recent past.
Style-wise we hear ‘70’s gritty Americana, full of dime-store fiction traits, and reeling with unregenerated gender mine-fields. The setting of the book is in fact an undisclosed area of America.

The basic premise is given early on, and we learn the details and consequences as the different narratives develop.
Twenty year’s previously the Earth was visited by an alien race. It seemed to happen on a sudden and be over before anyone unconnected realised.
The opening narrator is a Nobel Prize winning scientist, whose work revealed the origin of the Visitation to have been in the region of Cygnus. Coming in on the earth’s transit the Visitors landed in an arc of six separate places across the surface of the earth.
What was discovered in these places afterwards was so anomalous and dangerous that these landing places had to be fenced off, isolated: people had to be protected from them. The Zones were the site of strange artefacts, substances, occurrences.

Local people not caught in the original Visit became ensnared in a fascination for the Zone. Stalkers would enter in secret , learn safe pathways, where the danger areas were, and bring out objects. Red Schuhart was one of these. Stalking was punishable by imprisonment, but it was a compulsion. The objects retrieved developed their own black market system, because some, like the batteries that never ran out, showed great potential.  But there were also spillages: ditches full of ‘witches  jelly‘ which we later learn was colloidal gas – no matter what the name its effect on the human body was devastating.

Stalkers developed their own terminology for what they came across in the Zone: witches jelly, so-so’s, mosquito mange, black sprays.
Scientific Institutes provided a legitimate outlet for interest in the Zones. Red took a post at the Institute. His boss was a Russian, Kirill, the only one Red could respect and admire; Kirill’s motives were purely scientific, but he was careful, knew how to play the game with the authorities and yet retain his integrity.
They were working with ‘empties’ until  Red mentioned he knew where there were some ‘full empties’. What were these? No one knew – the Zones contained areas of a completely unknown kind of physics. ‘Empties’ were like glass jars, with metal top and bottom – only the glass, or whatever was the container material was not visible or accessible to analysis: two metal discs held in an unbreakable relationship; but Red had seen them contain blue material in between.

In one of the witty concepts of the book they gained a license to enter the Zone, and used the ‘flying boot’, a kind of hover car. The ‘full empties’ were obtained, and Red paid handsomely, but the consequences were severe: a moment’s lapse of concentration led to disaster. And guilt. Money, guilt and a mind increasingly disordered by Stalking in the Zone left Red to count the continual cost.

What was the Visitation? At one point Red runs through the possibilities – was it a statement of intent by an alien race, of contact? Will they come again? It was certainly an indication that we are not alone in the universe, and that there were other intelligent beings out there. That they had an interest in us. Later he wondered with a jolt – was it the beginning of an invasion? A slow seep of poisonous ideas and materials into our ordered world? Or was it, as someone else said, just a roadside picnic site – that they never even knew or cared we were there? That all these objects, anomalies left behind were just the garbage and refuse of lazy, loutish picnic-ers?

All this alien technology threw our own scientific knowledge and certainties into the waste bin. And along with them our ideas and hopes of progress. Our own civilisations can be seen to be no more that errors, blips, on the universe.

And then we begin to see the ecological impact implicit in this – a mirror of our own impact on the earth. The spill-off materials altered the soil, composition and environment of the Zones in unpredictable and unimaginable ways. It was found that the children of Stalkers were different; there was no detectable radiation in the Zones, but things were beginning to happen. Red’s own daughter changed – she was born with a hair covering, but a child despite that. In time she became less human, but not some other species. One night Red’s father appeared; he had died years before the Visit. ‘They aren’t people’, scientists declared. ‘We call them moulages’ they were the bones of the dead, and flesh material had gathered around them again. They walked, ate, breathed. What were they?
Like Red’s daughter they were not human, nor an alien species, but existed in some form, in some definition.

And the denouement was a trek into the Zone for the fabled Golden Ball.
It granted wishes, the legends said. As Red made the perilous journey it was a journey into the self: they will not be any old wishes it grants, they will the deepest wishes, the deepest most unknowable of the heart’s desires. He was the last of the real Stalkers – only he had the nous, the  knowledge for a protracted, perilous journey through the Zone.

All along, with the terrible price he was willing to pay, he had to prove he was worth this, that he was fundamentally a ‘good’ man – even with his petty, lowdown history, with the last ultimate deed he allowed happen, he had to be fundamentally ‘good’, ‘honest’, one of the few, the book reveals, of the surrounding sharks, gangsters and abusers of the community around the Zone.

The book leaves us with this.
We now realise he never intended to come back; his last act was to be one of sacrifice for the greater good.

Was that a wish to wipe away the Zones altogether, as if they never happened? Was ignorance preferable? Or did he wish something else?

Theodore Sturgeon in his Introduction writes of the book’s ‘deft handling of loyalty and greed, of friendship and love, of despair and frustration and loneliness…’. Another angle of the book is that between the ideal, desired, and reality. The book opens with Doctor Valentine Pilman trying to deflect the interviewer from pinning him down as the originator of the Visitor origin area: it was not so straight-forward or simple, a boy came up with the idea, but he got the Prize.
Throughout we see the desired life, rewards, and then the reality at odds with each other. At the end we see the Golden Ball –… only then Redrick looked up at the ball. Carefully. With caution. With a sudden fear that it would turn out wrong – that it would disappoint him… it was not golden, it was more a copper colour…’.

The influences of the book can be seen in Tarkovsky’s film ‘Stalker’, based on the Red’s character.


The witch’s jelly/colloidal gas’s effects can be seen in the the ‘mineral acid’ blood of the aliens in the film Alien . The Zone uncannily reflects Chernobyl’s own devastated zone.

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky:


(All poems are from the translations by Anne Pennington.)

One of the most interesting commentaries on the poetry of Vasko Popa has been Alexander Ronelle in his THE STRUCTURE OF VASKO POPA’S POETRY, UCLA Slavic Studies, 1986.

Here he identified in the first seven books published up to 1980 a definite pattern, as well as purposeful arrangement of contents. Each book he commented has its own identifiable pictoral symbol used in the book. Each book in turn is comprised of variable cycles of poems.


More books have been added since:


By far the majority of cycles are uneven in number, usually seven. He writes ‘…one element can be set off as the centre of the structure, in that the surrounding elements form opposing pairs, but the central element stands alone.
We can see this in the titles of the One Bone to Another cycle in UNREST-FIELD (1956): they are concentrically titled –
At the beginning – At the end
After the beginning – Before the end
In the sun – In the moonlight
and the centre poem Underground

The Quartz Pebble sequence has a similar but tantalising structure of titles:
The quartz pebble – Two quartz pebbles
The heart of the quartz pebble – The secret of the quartz pebble
The dream of the quartz pebble – The adventure of the quartz pebble
and the central one The love of the quartz pebble

The following book SECONDARY HEAVEN (1968), has less explicit titling of its sequences. Heaven’s Ring, for instance gives us:
The stargazer’s death – Fugitive stars
Heaven’s ring – the starry snail
Nothingness – The shadow maker
and the central one Orphan absence.

The book ’s first poem, however,  is The Stargazer’s legacy, of the Yawn of Yawns cycle.
Heaven’s ring is another name for the milky way; the Starry snail’s path also alludes to this feature. We find this feature, as well as the Yawn in the previous book THE UNREST-FIELD.

In the Quartz Pebble cycle we can see how the single Quartz pebble of poem one, through the central poem Love of the quartz pebble, relates to the last poem Two quartz pebbles. This is a distinctive arrangement. There are two arcs to this cycle; we need to know how they relate to each other.

The first half of the sequence centres on the quartz pebble and a number of unidentified agents: two in the Heart, a hand in the Dream. The second half, from The Love onwards identifies the other as He throughout and the He is identified as the Quartz pebble; the first half others are external and acting upon the Quartz pebble. The change from the insular, isolated ‘stubborn’ singular pebble of the first half occurs through the outward focus onto the her of the other pebble in the central Love poem; the singular pebble is described in the poem as being ‘transformed’.

The Adventure and Secret poems of the second half find the pebble with an awareness of self, and of its ‘cramped’ limits; in the Secret this self awareness becomes its own subject, but it with externalised consequences. And we find in the last poem that the sense of conjoining in Love of the central poem, has been lost in the awareness of separate selfhoods:

Two victims of a little joke
A bad joke without a joker.

In the first half we see the pebble acted upon and producing a display of what could be cosmic proportions, the broken open pebble’s glittering quartz likened to a snake around the sky of the earth: the milky way.

In the second half this self display is found wanting when compared with the discovery of the other pebble. But the two exhaust each other.

The Quartz Pebble cycle can be seen to be formed as a chiasmus, that is of two halves which relate to one another closely, and that the poems, as set out above, do relate antithetically to each other across the two arcs.
There are generally two basic forms of chiasmus; one consists of two arcs of paralleled ‘episodes’ (for want of a better term), they are paralleled in that the latter episodes refer to their former counterparts but in an antithetical or changed mode.
The second form is as the first but the change from first to second arc has its own episode which is generally referred to as the ‘turn’, as below.

VP4The consequences of the second form allow the first, central and last episodes to relate to each other closely.

Change the term episodes to poems and we can see that the first poem in the Quartz pebble cycle relates to the middle and last (also note how Vasko Popa uses the personal identifiers in each poem):

Two sweets yesterday
On the tongue of eternity
Two stone tears today
On an eyelash of the unknown  

(: Two Quartz pebbles)

Whereas the first poem, The Quartz pebble, has:

It holds all
In its passionate
Internal embrace
It smiles with the eyebrow of the moon

The central poem, The love of the quartz pebble, gives us in relation to these:

He is quite transformed
Into the white of her eye

Only she understands him
Only her embrace has
The shape of his desire

The eye image is transformed, and transmitted to the other: to see the other and the other to see him: identification of uniqueness in the mass. What we find here is a chiasmus and ring, which the second form of chiasmus above: the quartz pebble is first seen as

Headless limbless


A smooth white innocent corpse

(: The Quartz pebble)

and in the last poem of the cycle:


They look at each other dully
They talk without lips
They talk hot air

It is not the chiasmus we had expected from the titles, though: this is not the transformation through love of convention, but a love where the self is compromised, exhausted, through love.
Can this form be found in other cycles? The One Bone to Another cycle is another cycle of two halves, the first optimistic, positive, adventurous. The central poem Underground flips the mood to:

As if everything were beginning again
With a more horrible beginning
 (: In the moonlight)

The two speakers (one?) throughout the cycle move from positive if sometimes malicious glee:

What shall we do when the dogs come
They like bones

Then we’ll stick in their throats
And have fun
(: After the beginning)

Where all is open and visible and the senses/ a memory of senses, continue, to a cold dark eternity where nothing is:

There long awaiting us
No one and his wife nothing
(: Before the end)

The cycle takes the form of a dialogue, one bone to another, one of whom is witty and lively, the other appreciative. At the end of the cycle they cannot distinguish between each other, both are in the dark figuratively and sensorally: Why have you swallowed me…//…….It’s you have swallowed me.

Following the form of the Quartz pebble we need to know now if and how the first, middle and last poems relate to each other. In the central poem they resolve to … grow pure… until they are … eternal beings of bone// Just wait for the earth to yawn. In the first poem they can lay claim to being

The backbone of a streak of lightening


Pelvis of a storm


Ribs of heaven


But the last poem finds them lost:

Now no one knows any more
All is an ugly dream of dust

So yes they do relate bleakly to one another as before.

It is safe to say that a lot of Vasko Popa’s work deals with the destructiveness of relationships. It is also tempting to read into the two cycles just looked at, and bringing in unfashionable contextual elements, critiques of a growing isolationist stance in politics that led to the imposition of the Iron Curtain across Europe.

Do the seven books of Alexander Ronelle’s study also display this meticulous structuring and arrangement? That is a matter for another time.

Vask Popa (1922 -1991)