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BOOK REVIEW: Finnish-American Poetry by Rauhala, Vartnaw, Hagelberg

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Finnish-American Poetry by Rauhala, Vartnaw, Hagelberg
Reviewed by Sheila Packa,
Poet Laureate of Duluth, MN
Poetry is a language within a language; it is both gesture and song and offers a glimpse of the unfathomable. We shouldn’t expect an easy entrance. Yes, it seems deceptive with its narrow and brief text, but it has hidden doors and surprising depth. The chapbook of Finnish-American Poetry is like this. The poets, all from California, have poems that fit together well.
Johanna Rauhala has beautiful language, rich in the assonance and consonance, a sound like bells, sweet remembrance. Her landscape is intimate—of home. Communication opens the section of her poems, a meditation of palms and bird’s wing. These poems are infused with spirit, and convey not religion so much as honest grappling. In Faith, she writes, “Belief: only a dream I cannot recover, though/I have looked, Lord/ for a long time.” Rauhala has a warmth and light. Her poem Knell has echoes of Emily Dickinson as it conjures the moment before death, rich with sound. The poem, Departures, is about her mother wrapping her china cups; it moves forward and back with an archeological perspective to embrace all departures.
Bill Vartnaw uses the pantoum form in his poem about Viet Nam, Cousin Rick. He writes about a Pow-Wow, using the dance as a metaphor for identity and life. In his poem, Sustenance, family journeys to an old Finnish homestead, gone except for berries. The poem Rivers braids the currents of both his mother’s life and his own. The end of the poem has an interesting detail; a whale has entered the river. “…it disappeared the day she died/ I always suspected my mother’s complicity/ having been her Jonah.” In other poems, Vartnaw pays homage to other poets, Native American Paula Gunn Allen and beat poet Diane di Prima.
Don Hagelberg presents the reader with topics one might consider as traditionally Finnish-American: the sauna, fishing, the labor movement, a Finnish Hall—but he brings us to South America and India as well. Hagelberg brings his social consciousness to his work; the reader appreciates his call for justice.
In this collection, the poems are accessible and satisfying. They give us insight into the changes that time has made into the families of Finnish Americans. The migrations of our parents or grandparents continue in our journeys. The booklet of poems, stapled and in large font seems hand-made. There is an unexplained section about favorite desserts in each part; perhaps a reference to a public appearance they’ve made. The desserts are irrelevant; the chapbook offers the reader the substantive fair of seasoned poets.
The chapbook is available at:
Finnish Kaleva Hall,
1970 Chestnut St.,
Berkeley, CA 94702-1723.

$6.95 uncut;
$3.98 postage in the United States;
$3.00 extra for Europe.

Sheila Packa is Poet Laureate of Duluth, MN. She has two books of poems, The Mother Tongue (Calyx Press, Duluth, 2007) and Echo & Lightening (Wildwood River, 2010). Her work was also featured in Finnish-North American Literature in English (Mellen Press, 2009) sheila packa .
New World Finn, Vol.12 #1, Winter 2011, p9.

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