Cardinal Points Journal: www.stosvet.net
LISI'S LETTERS FROM KARELIA
These poems are based on letters that my great-aunt Lisi Hirvonen wrote from Soviet Karelia to her sister Anna Mattson in Canada - my grandmother. Anna and Lisi had emigrated with their parents before World War 1 from Finland to Saskatchewan. Anna stayed, a pioneer farm wife with eight children, but Lisi and her husband Eino volunteered to join 6000-8000 Finnish North Americans who moved to Soviet Karelia in the 1930s to help build a communist utopia. They lived first in Uhtua (now called Kalevala, the name of Lönnrot's Finnish folk epic) but Lisi's first surviving letter is from Wonganperä punkt, a lumber camp in the far north. Lisi and Eino then moved to the Karelian capital - Petrozavodsk in Russian, Petroskoi in Finnish - where both worked at the ski factory. Eino eventually worked as an actor in the Finnish People's National Theatre, which still performs plays in Finnish. Anna and Lisi exchanged letters from 1932 to 1939, when Lisi disappeared. In 2009, 15 of Lisi's letters were found in my brother's basement; they are now in the Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections at York University, Toronto (Varpu Lindström fonds, F0558, Nancy Mattson collection of original letters, 2009-025/042(12). They were translated from Finnish by Iiris Pursiainen (BA Honours, DipTrans, MCIL), who lives near Bristol, England. My grandma Anna's letters are lost.
It was like leaving Eden for the hope of Eden,
this journey from new world to utopia.
Sister to Sister, 1935
(Lisi writes to Anna)
So our eldest brother is workless
his wife is suffering illness
indeed it's a life of resistance
sowing hope and reaping rust
Do your girls still have long hair?
I might not even recognize them now.
Our family's stuck in a hard-luck rut
all the seeds our father planted
have grown into a harvest
of targets, rivets, bullets
Is the little one's hair still as white
as the last time I saw her?
It's always the same for the poor
other families are much like ours
indeed we don't float through life
or dance on a field of flower-tips
I plan to have another picture taken:
the one I sent you earlier was blurred.
All the old proverbs have come true:
the women run on needles
the men walk on knife blades
the children play with hatchets
My sister, I may not see you again.
Are you connected yet to electricity?
(Anna rereads Lisi's letters)
I hide them away in a tin box
with a hinge, a sailor on the lid
I read them all again and again
in order, backward, sometimes
shuffle them or shut my eyes
pick a single leaf at random
like a raffle ticket from a basket
to catch myself by surprise
Remember the cat we had
that pounced at its own shadow
on the wall or dust in the light
for lack of a fresh mouse?
Your letters never become stale
but I handle them so much
my fingers have lost flesh
their skin worn thin as paper
scarified along the folds, air threaded
between the words I know so well
I recite them when I scrub sheets
again and again on the washboard
rub my knuckles against its ribs
wishes against facts, your words
as intimate as clothes
softened by years of washing
as tough as sinews
holding my body tight