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Greek translation Greek dictionariesEleni Vainas [ CV ]
Kirsti Simonsuuri: Finnish Poet, Scholar, Writer

Virginia 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 myths.

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
Susan Sontag.

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 Archaeological
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 the Nordic
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 students from
Finland who are in Greece for three months doing research and visiting
archaeological digs. She holds seminars and oversees the students'

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 and economic
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 Translation
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 poetry. She
herself had begun studying and writing poetry "secretly" during
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. "Movement between
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 through her
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. This ability
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 sense, the
humanity of the people shows that this is an old civilization.
In Nordic countries, people's lives are more compartmentalized, their
identities more fixed.

There are some things in Greece that make her sad. She dislikes seeing
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."

A childhood memory
by Kirsti Simonsuuri

When 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.

The 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.

The 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.

From Onni ja barbaria [Bliss and Barbarism] (Helsinki, 1995).
Poem & translation copyright Kirsti Simonsuuri (1995, 1996).


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