An emotional history of poetry: Irina Javne

Poet Irina Javne from Espoo worked at the Saari Residence in November and December 2014. She finalised Surun synnyttäjä (Genesis of Grief), a work of poetry about the history of her Karelian family, intertwined with Warsaw war scenery.

The story of Surun synnyttäjä (Genesis of Grief) also reflects the stories of Karelian families at a more general level. Javne has been working on the manuscript for nearly three years, beginning in Warsaw in summer 2012. Surun synnyttäjä is her third work of poetry.

Javne’s grandfather died in the war, and her great-aunt was evacuated to Marttila in Southwest Finland. When reflecting on the influences behind her manuscript, Javne thinks of a large black-and-white photograph from her childhood, of her family standing by the open coffin of her grandfather. Only later, as an adult, has she realised the magnitude of the subconscious effect of the image.

During her time at the Saari Residence, Javne has written the opening poem for her work and will next finalise the manuscript, which means rewriting and reorganising poems. The poems are interconnected at the narrative level: only after finishing the opening poem will she be able to finalise the rest. The opening poem is the key to the entire work, outlining a narrative and emotional arc of 100 years for the reader.

The many meanings of riverbeds

Genesis of Grief is divided into series of poems that are connected to one another, constituting a patchwork-like whole. In the manuscript, rivers serve as metaphors while also creating a wider picture.

The series of poems in the work include “Lullabies of Warsaw”, “River Vuoksi” and “River Aura” as well as “Helsinki”, “Red River” and “Black River”. The poems deal with Finnish traditions, the ceded Karelia, relocation, being an outsider, cultural pride, courage and how to write pain away. The work is set against the backdrop of two destroyed landscapes: Warsaw and Muolaa, now Pravdino.

Warsaw and its Jewish people are another dimension of the poems. Javne finds many similarities between their culture and Karelian culture. “In a way, the Jewish culture in Poland becomes the protector of Karelian culture,” Javne explains.

Poetry, therapy and emotional history

Poetry is considered to be therapeutic. This is often regarded as something negative, but Javne believes poems must be entitled to have a therapeutic effect, at the personal and national levels, among other effects. Karelian history still has its sore spots, and poetry is one way to work through them. At the same time, Karelian culture is associated with openness: everything can be – and must be – talked about. There are no taboos.

The poems are an account of the Javne family history, and the poet has checked the historical facts. However, she emphasises that the work primarily is an emotional history, even at a more general level. Not all details can be included in a poem. Some are replaced by references and images, the language of emotional experiences. Poems are not accounts of actual history. Instead, they convey moods and emotions.

Sensitivity emerging from cultural darkness

Karelian people are generally considered to be joyful, enterprising and energetic, but their history of survival has given rise to a toughness that has suffocated some of their sensitivity. “Not enough attention has been paid to the emotional history of Finland amidst the constant survival and tough conditions. Things in our society are now better than before. This could be a good time to think about who Finns are at an emotional level and reconnect with the lost sensitivity,” says Javne.

Cultural darkness is one of the themes of her manuscript. Cultural darkness exists alongside natural darkness, consisting of sad and negative stories. “Why is there such a great need for these stories? What is their significance for us Finns? A catharsis of some sort? Perhaps sad stories have been a way to stay positive, despite all the hardships.”

Surun synnyttäjä is the tentative title of the work – and Javne believes it will be the final title as well. It best captures the paradox inherent in grief: while grief is a consequence, it is also being fostered over time. When fostering grief, it must be discussed what has been lost and how to live with the losses. This helps us understand loss as a separate process. It also helps us realise that, even with great losses, what was lost has been replaced by something new.

The challenges of writing

Javne had long wanted to write a work of poetry about the history of her family, but the time did not feel right until now. The topic would have been too difficult for a debut work. Even in a second work, it would not have been sufficiently supported by other works. Some issues can only be addressed after a certain level of merit has been achieved.

Javne uses her cultural heritage in her poetry. However, writing the manuscript was not easy, even though she was familiar with the topic and characters from her childhood. Topics that are close to the writer sometimes require time and space. At times, she has felt that people are not interested in Karelian culture and that Karelian people have clearly been regarded as outsiders in Finland. All this has been exhausting, but Javne thinks it is important to draw more attention to Karelian culture being a natural part of Finnish culture – along with the cultural traditions of Tavastia, Southwest Finland and other regions. Karelian culture has changed in some ways over time: today, the task is to keep the culture alive so that it becomes anchored in our time.

A sense of community at the Saari Residence

Javne finds working at the Saari Residence a rewarding experience; she feels that she is revisiting her childhood scenery. The manor provides a pleasant, peaceful setting for writing. Other guests in residence have been an important part of the experience.

“It has been interesting to see how similar our work processes are, even though we represent different fields of art,” she says. A sense of community has emerged among the group and become evident even in surprising contexts, through numerous discussions. “I consider the conversations with the other guests in residence to be a great gift.”