Woolf, Sylvia Plath and Simone Weil all intrigued Kirsti
Simonsuuri as a young scholar. Their lives embodied
the question of why so
many women don't succeed, or of those who do, why so
many seem to have a
tragic ending. This theme is also expressed in Greek
When she was first teaching in the United States her
longing for home and
things European sparked further study of the life of
one of these women,
Simone Weil, resulting in the idea that drove her first
novel: how much can
we know another person, and to what degree we as readers
have the right to
know about the life of another person. Although little
is known about the
early life of Weil, a Parisian writer and philosopher,
she was a brilliant
woman who lived in a tragic time, leaving behind a large
volume of work at
her death in her early thirties.
Later, as she wove some understanding of these women
into her own life,
Kirsti became interested in and met women who had "made
it" and were
thriving emotionally and professionally, women writers
who continued to
live their lives successfully: women writers such as
Elizabeth Hardwick and
She learned well from her studies. Three novels, seven
or eight books of
poetry, a published doctoral thesis on Homer, five or
six books in
translation: French, Swedish and English from Finnish.
This is indeed a
publishing history which would make any writer proud
and happy. Add to that
years spent teaching and lecturing in Finland, Germany,
England and the
United States, and you have a full schedule for the
normal person. But to
characterize a truly amazing woman, you must attach
yet another page to
this overflowing dance card: Director of the Finnish
Institute in Athens. This is Kirsti Simonsuuri: poet,
scholar, writer. A
woman who has "made it" in the world of literature
and scholarly studies. A
woman to look up to and for young women in particular
to see as a
successful model to emulate.
She has directed the Finnish Archeological Institute
since her arrival in
Athens in the summer of 1995, when she helped inaugurate
Library. Right now, to bridge over an interim period
at the Institute, a
new director has arrived in Athens.
The work at the institute keeps Ms Simonsuuri rooted
in scholarly work:
right now she is working with a group of seven doctoral
Finland who are in Greece for three months doing research
archaeological digs. She holds seminars and oversees
As a Cultural Counselor, she oversaw, among other things,
a visit from the
woman governor of The Bank of Finland, Dr. Hamalainen,
(now member of the
European Currency Board) and a Women's seminar on cultural
issues, last fall.
It is through poetry that I have had the opportunity
to know her and her
work: it comes from a quiet center: depth overlaid with
layers of depth.
She has read here in Athens at Compendium Books, at
Poetry Festivals in
Ireland, Paris, London, Toronto, Montreal, Finland and
Berlin, and lectured
worldwide. Enchanting Beasts, an anthology of modern
Finnish women poets,
which she edited and translated, won a Columbia University
Award in 1991.
At UCLA she taught the one and only poetry class she
has led. Encouraging
others to write was an illuminating experience, taking
her outside the
normal world of her writing process and gave her an
understanding of the
difficulty other people have expressing themselves through
herself had begun studying and writing poetry "secretly"
adolescence, and, although her writing comes in great
bursts of work
followed by long periods when she writes no poetry at
all, it is something
that has always been with her.
When she has a large project in mind, such as another
novel, she tries to
place herself in a new environment. She wrote one of
her novels in a
writer's room in Paris, worked on another on the Island
of Mykonos. These
places, both off the usual path of her life, encourage
a suspension of the
everyday and enable her to create the unique worlds
where her characters
exist and live out their lives.
If there is any recurring theme in her work, perhaps
it is a sense of loss.
This includes the loss of a loved one or anyone important
or close in one's
life, even that loss of a bigger world: a sense of place.
cultures is the experience of our century. People who
live in exile,
nations that migrate are recharting and transforming
the world that we
know. Ideas and images that thereby shift and enmesh
form new ideas through
new associations. "I believe that this is one of
the tasks of poets. Poets
are everywhere messengers of future, messengers without
a permission, a
very special class of ambassadors. The future is a facet
of the present,
and it is the task of the poets to demonstrate, to make
evident, the future
in the present."
She also explores the idea that inadequacy and imperfection,
incompleteness, are part of life, as in the myth of
Sisyphus. The rock
Sisyphus pushes to the top of the hill always rolls
back down, and he must
push it back up each time. It is not just in myths that
nothing is ever
really completed and must be done again and again in
a search for
perfection. For example, even though a book being written
is as finished as
it is possible to be, in some ways it's never really
done. There is always
more to be said, something else that could be changed
or enlarged upon. It
is only an innate sense of "enough" that enables
one to stop writing, be it
a book, a short story, a poem.
Through her work Ms. Simonsuuri tries to capture the
larger meaning of loss
in life. The knowledge she gains in her search and exposes
writing comes from her understanding of the complex
set of emotional
involvements one has in life. "In my work I seem
to be looking for the
restlessness and peace that is in life itself."
The author's own quest,
transformed by the larger stage of literature, enables
others to gain new
knowledge and understanding within their own lives.
What will she miss most about Greece when she returns
to Finland and takes
up her teaching post at the University of Helsinki (where
she is already a
frequent lecturer)? The closeness to "nature"
she sees here, both in the
vegetation of the country and the nature of the people.
For her, Greece is
a place where people let each other be themselves. The
kiosk owner, the
small shop owner, an old widow walking on a country
road all give back a
sense of themselves, their place in time and space,
their humanness, their
curiosity and friendship, expecting nothing in return.
demonstrates just one part of a valuable gift she feels
Greeks have: their
humanity. It is easy to meet people here, to be friends
with them, to know
them well in a short space of real time. In a historical
humanity of the people shows that this is an old civilization.
In Nordic countries, people's lives are more compartmentalized,
identities more fixed.
There are some things in Greece that make her sad. She
abandoned buildings, richly textured, once beautiful
in their day, now
desolate, torn down and replaced with the sterility
of more modern
Is there anything she has not done here as yet? Or something
she would like
to do once again before leaving for her homeland? (She
plans time in
Helsinki this summer to fix her apartment there before
taking up her
University post in the fall.)
"I think before I go... I would like to... see
some places I have not yet
seen. And have a period of ordinary living, where I
have time to simply
look at the stars and the sea."
by Kirsti Simonsuuri
I wake up at night, warm sleep breaks.
Birds are flames, and their song
rings as a brook in the rain. In the river
of wild thought everything drowns
and everything again rises onto the shore,
onto their opposites, like birds.
door opens at the unlit room.
The gap is formed: a light-shot on the floor,
the smell of smoke, unknown voices.
He has come home at night, festive,
sets the table with leavings from the fridge,
brings in the ham and gherkins
beside the vodka and the beer.
He talks to unfamiliar voices,
rising and falling. He won't believe
in the thousand-year kingdom, he says,
and will not make a world beyond words.
clicking of glasses,
circles of smoke in the light. He's come home
at last, he won't leave any longer.
Friends have gone, he paces alone
unable to sleep. My hand grabs the handle,
silence returns, a borderland.
The door closes, darkness flickers for a while.
Onni ja barbaria [Bliss and Barbarism] (Helsinki,
Poem & translation copyright Kirsti Simonsuuri (1995,