by Bo Carpelan
In our oldest stories, turns are often catastrophes. Lot’s wife looks behind her at her home and is punished with desiccation. It’s as if God vaporized her exile’s tears, leaving only a mineral crust. And Orpheus, master poet, turns to the sound of his dead wife’s steps following him out of hell…is it really Eurydice? Because he’s disobeyed the gods who have told him he mustn’t see her until they’ve reached the upper air, she’s taken from him forever. Catastrophe, these stories say, is a turn back toward the place or person you’ve lost.
I had a tooth for such catastrophe when I was in my twenties—what callow young writer doesn’t? So it was probably the tormented imagery that first led me to memorize this poem from Finnish writer Bo Carpelan. It’s from Carpelan’s The Cool Day (1960), and it’s included in his selected poems translated from Finland-Swedish by Anne Born. Not insignificantly, the book was loaned to me by a fellow grad student who’d been my drinking buddy for two years while I mashed my way through a queue of our fascinating but unstable colleagues. “Broken Pattern” was his favorite poem in the collection.
Right off, I loved the end-rhymed bell-tongues of “deranged” and “changed,” and the internal assonance of “winds” and “limbs” and “him.” Then there’s the ambiguity of speaker and spoken to and spoken about: how many people appear in this poem? Is this inner meditation or a strange dialogue? And—we were English Ph.D. candidates, after all—the fact that Carpelan breaks the chiastic “suffering that is burnt-out happiness” and “happiness that’s burnt-out suffering” across “the utmost darkness” seemed not only a crushing emotional twist but a syntactical tour de force. Plus, finally, the poem was short enough to remember and recite to my buddy at two a.m. after a couple bottles of crap Egri Bikavér.
Now, saying the poem in my head as I’m trying to sleep in a strange place, or to avoid panicking in turbulence, or to gather myself after a frantic week, I realize that what also draws me is its variety of turns. Within twelve lines, the poem shifts dramatically. Of course, poems with extreme turns are very popular at the moment. There’s that nutty zip you often meet in the work of Dean Young, for example. The poem starts in one place, zigs this-a-way, zags that-a-way, and refuses to slow down for fear of boring you. It’s a strand of American neo-surrealism that seems to have taken Mario Andretti’s wisdom as its own: “If everything feels under control, you’re just not going fast enough.” As I do a Coke with three ice cubes on the hottest day of summer, I can enjoy such poems for their prickly effervescence. They seem the natural features of a landscape dominated by video games and movies where everything is in Pixar or people’s skulls are always exploding. And sure, I appreciate an exploding 3-D head as much as the next person. But for the long haul, I’m likelier to take into my own brain a poem where the turns are less screwball and more an Archimedes’ screw for pulling vital fluids up from the depths.
If there were a model for the turns in “Broken Pattern,” it might indeed be the Archimedes’ screw. In the first line, we have that rhetorical turn outward in the apostrophe to the “you.” The line then quickly turns us backwards in memory: the “you” was once well-known but now seems to have turned away. The second and third lines, I think, give us the speaker turning from the silent addressee to an inward position where he must answer himself because the once-known who has been deranged in darkness will not respond. Then, with the next lines, the poem turns outward again, towards a nearly-surreal image of human helplessness or madness. You would be terribly vulnerable if winds ran through your limbs, wouldn’t you? And these aren’t just winds, but winds “like dogs.” Hungry? Snapping? Wild? This seems to be an image of someone reduced to bestial inarticulation. So when the speaker turns again to the “you” and curtly says “You’re like him. From you I can expect/nothing,” my ear hears a rejection. That terse comparison, followed by the sharp break of the long line into the single word “nothing,” seems to set the poem up for a final catastrophic turn away from the silent “you.”
But finally, with an astonishing shift, the speaker turns with great tenderness, as in a marriage vow toward the “you” to claim everything. Yes, I will take from you the inevitable sadness that comes when we look back on our now-ended pleasures. Moreover, when I’m in the “utmost darkness” of final estrangement or illness or death, I will also take the happiness that comes when suffering has “burnt-out” to memory.
Is the “you” a lover or brother or son? Is the “you” lost forever to the speaker? I’ve been reciting the poem regularly for almost eighteen years since my husband loaned me the book, and I’m not sure. What’s clear is that, turn after turn, this brief poem draws heart’s-blood from the depths of a long, intense relationship.
V. Penelope Pelizzon’s Nostos (Ohio University Press, 2000), won the Hollis Summers Prize and the Poetry Society of America’s Norma Farber First Book Award. She is also co-author of Tabloid, Inc.: Crimes, Newspapers, Narratives (Ohio State University Press, 2010), a study of the relations among sensation journalism, photography, and film between 1927-1958. Her poems and essays have appeared widely, and her writing has received awards including a Lannan Foundation Writing Residency Fellowship and the 2012-13 Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Scholarship.
† The version of the poem that we link to deviates from the original in its capitalization of the first word of each line and in a few small differences in punctuation. For a more accurate version, we encourage readers to consult Bo Carpelan’s The Cool Day, 1960.