If some of these poems feel like song lyrics, that’s because they are. Pentti Saarikoski’s best-loved work was set to music for the sixties folk group, Muksut. You can watch their original videos in the national treasure trove that is YLE, the Finnish BBC. His handwritten draft of one of them, Minä soitan sinulle illalla was the cover of one a Muksut album. This poem is just right for this season in Finland, when the snow’s still here, but in other places, spring has moved right on. Especially this year, when you can’t just hop over to see a host of golden daffodils somewhere else.
A good half-century later, A Window Left Open brings Saarikoski to a whole new generation in English. Fleur and Emily Jeremiah, the mother-and-daughter translator team, are the perfect pair to tackle it (another translation of theirs has just been longlisted for this year’s Dublin Literary Award). They’ve chosen a path for us through his work, from his fascination with antiquity (Saarikoski translated Sappho and The Oddessey) to the turbulent politics of the sixties and seventies, when neighbouring Russia cast a very long shadow.
I started this collection directly after finishing Johanna Holmström’s excellent biography of Finnish feminist writer Märta Tikkanen, who was married to another alcoholic male literary star of the same generation, so I felt far from ready to read this. I was still bristling slightly when I’d finished the introduction, but mellowed as I went on. Saarikoski himself didn’t feel he measured up to his own work.
This dual-language edition is the second from Norvik Press, and I hope there’ll be many more. I wouldn’t have wanted to read the translation alone; seeing it alongside the original, I enjoyed quibbling over choices and wondering about alternatives. Emily herself has said that one of the smallest words in Finnish, “hän”, is one of the hardest to translate, as in English you often have to choose a gendered pronoun, “he” or “she”. Even if you don’t know more Finnish than that, tracing matching patterns and similar sounds, or puzzling out which word or phrase could belong with which, is enormous fun. Looking at the two panes of the window on each language opens up a space between them, to let the images fly out.