Cardinal Points Journal:  www.stosvet.net

Nancy Mattson

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.


Wonganperä USSR                            19 13/10 32

My dear sister greetings again from here we have been hoping for a letter from you but as none has arrived we have been thinking you may not have received ours indeed we wrote to you almost instantly when we arrived we stayed in Uhtua one month and then came here to Wonganperä punkt time goes in such a hurry that any direction we go we stay behind building work happens in a great hurry the first buildings were put up one month before we arrived right in the middle of the forest but now we already have restaurant bakery sauna laundry-hut shop warehouse red corner office building and stable completed another five buildings should reach completion in perhaps a pair of weeks we will get to live in new houses a couple of weeks from now the intention is for each family to have a separate room provided only that time can be found to prepare all the spacing-between walls at present there are 21 women here and about a hundred men and to my knowledge still more are coming I have been busy doing many different duties picking berries cleaning fishes gathering mosses digging up potatoes and many other little jobs indeed what a lot of berries there were we could not preserve any blueberries for the winter because we lacked suitable containers however we have two large wooden vats full of mashed lingonberries and a third one still to come the great plan was to have one thousand five hundred litres but we did not achieve that because such bad weather came with lots of rain even snow and frost but now the weather is nicer.

Letter from Somewhere, 1932

In the unmapped centre of the uncut forest
before we came somewhere from Uhtua
happy workers hustled up the first buildings
                in the fourth year of a five-year plan
                time moves so fast whatever our purposes
restaurant sauna laundry-hut bakery shop
warehouse stables office red corner to hang
faces of leaders posters photographs banners
charts to drill this alphabet into our wooden heads
prepare us to work for the common good
                as our leaders so often remind us but
                our plans our wishes our feet go dragging
in a pair of weeks five more buildings perhaps
we will live in new houses the scheme is a grand one
a separate room for each family if only time can be found
to prepare the making-space-between-us-walls
                I hope they hammer fast
                slap the muddy backside of time
21 women live here now about 100 men
more will arrive I believe in carts and wagons
I keep busy with jobs chosen only for me
                and 20 other women life is merry
                the weather is nicer what else to say
berries for picking with fingers and buckets
fishes for cleaning with knives and thumbs
mosses for hands to grasp from the ground
potatoes to raise from the earth with hands
                so many joyful tasks and little duties
                but fate will soon blow in from the north
so many berries no jars to preserve alas
this blueberry heaven in rows of glass
two wooden vats of lingonberry mash
but the rains came even snow and frost
                our great plans to amass one thousand
                and five hundred litres all gone awash
elokuu the life moon of ripeness has turned
to syyskuu the reason moon of cause and effect
now it's lokakuu the moon of frozen dirt
soon it will be marraskuu we always called it
                moon of death
                our cold fate

Finnish words: elokuu - August, syyskuu - September,
lokakuu - October, marraskuu - November, kuu - moon



  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?


Petroskoi, 1933

I'll scribble some lines from our new home in Petroskoi we both work at the ski factory time flies too fast we wanted to leave Wonkanperä because it's so far from the railway and winters are so cold and long with snow to the armpits here the ground is clear we planned to go all the way to Leningrad but were a little afraid of language difficulties I must admit I fancied town life again since I lived in towns for so many years now we are in the capital of Karelia it will be a nice town once there are more streets and streetcars to travel around in my job is exactly what I hoped for I always had it in mind to work in a factory at present I work outdoors but that is actually fun as it is warm there are fourteen souls in this tent all family people and a good gang but it is difficult to write when every corner speaks there's a small village nearby only eight kilometres we go there by ship or boat even I have learned to row we have already had three entertainment evenings here the theatre group from Uhtua came to perform and films are shown two or three evenings a week we have a radio in one tent when we get to live in rooms there will be several radios and phonographs there is a family from Rouyn Quebec in this tent they know our brother Jacki Gusti and they had travelled from Finland with our brother Iisakki one of the lads has already gotten himself a Karelian missus well young men really don't waste time do they we have joined the Mobriin Oso* as well as the workers' union and the gymnastics club there sure is plenty to do here also political circle meetings a couple of evenings a week…

* International Workers Aid Society, known colloquially by its Russian acronym, MOPR, established in 1922 in response to a Comintern directive to render material and moral aid to all captives of capitalism in prison

Written on the back of 1933 playbill
from the People's National Theatre

We went to see this play A Million Saints it was a really good comedy set in New York and the Vatican's castle rooms sister Sanna wrote that she is on a local authority farm in Finland I suppose conditions are not so great there either Fiija said she has not received letters from any relatives for more than a year now and was really surprised that we have come here


Scribbles from Petroskoi, 1933

Scribble scribble scribble, voi voi voi
we have a new home in Petroskoi
it will be a nice town once we have more streets
and streetcars to travel around in

But it's better than the forest up at Wonkanperä
so far from the railway and snow to our armpits
we planned to take the train through to Leningrad
but the Russian language worried us a bit

Time goes flying by when you work work work
both of us work right now at the ski factory
it was always my hope to work in a factory
I admit we're outdoors now but the weather is warm

It will be a nice place when we get to live in rooms
we'll have more than one radio several phonographs too
there are fourteen souls together in this tent
all family people a nice gang all good fun

I try to find places to write but it's hard to think
with fourteen people and every corner speaking
there's a small village only eight kilometres away
we go there by ship or boat I've learned to row

We've had three entertainment evenings since we came
there are two or three weekly films and an orchestra
a theatrical group came all the way down from Uhtua
we listen to the radio or dance to the phonograph

A family in our tent's from that gold mining town in Quebec
they know our two brothers Jacki Gusti and Iisakki
one of the young bucks has nabbed a Karelian missus
lads nowadays don't waste any time now do they

Busy busy busy idleness leads nowhere
we've already joined the workers' union
and the Mobriin Oso to send some help
to all the victims of capitalism in prison

Furthermore we attend the gymnastics club
and political circle meetings twice a week
we saw this comedy A Million Saints hilarious
set in New York and the Vatican's castle rooms

I guess times aren't so great in Finland either
Sister Sanna's on a municipal farm
Sister Fiija said she's had no letters from family
for over a year she was quite surprised we came here

Say hello to all the souls I know remember to write
good night and all the best scribbled by Eino and Lisi

voi voi voi - tsk tsk tsk


  Stash
(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