Lifesaving Poems: James Tate’s ‘I am a Finn’

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I Am a Finn

I am standing in the post office, about
to mail a package back to Minnesota, to my family.
I am a Finn. My name is Kasteheimi (Dewdrop).

Mikael Agricola (1510-1557) created the Finnish language.
He knew Luther and translated the New Testament.
When I stop by the Classé Café for a cheeseburger

no one suspects that I am a Finn.
I gaze at the dimestore reproductions of Lautrec
on the greasy walls, at the punk lovers afraid

to show their quivery emotions, secure
in the knowledge that my grandparents really did
emigrate from Finland in 1910 – why

is everybody leaving Finland, hundreds of
thousands to Michigan and Minnesota, and now Australia?
Eighty-six percent of Finnish men have blue

or grey eyes. Today is Charlie Chaplin’s
one hundredth birthday, though he is not
Finnish or alive: ‘Thy blossom, in the bud

laid low.’ The commonest fur-bearing animals
are the red squirrel, musk-rat, pine-marten
and fox. There are about 35,000 elk.

But I should be studying for my exam.
I wonder if Dean will celebrate with me tonight,
assuming I pass. Finnish Literature

really came alive in the 1860s.
Here, in Cambridge, Massachusetts,
no one cares that I am a Finn.

They’ve never even heard of Frans Eemil Sillanpää,
winner of the 1939 Nobel Prize in Literature.
As a Finn, this infuriates me.

James Tate, from Emergency Kit (Faber, 1996)

I first came across James Tate’s ‘I am a Finn’ in Jo Shapcott and Matthew Sweeney’s anthology Emergency Kit (Faber and Faber, 1996). I loved it instantly, and set about buying all the James Tate books I could get my hands on as a result.

I loved the self-possessed naturalness of the speaker’s voice, which is completely confident of the importance of the ‘facts’ it transmits. I loved that these range very widely, both in terms of the tone of their delivery and the content of the information itself, from statistics about Finnish men’s eyes to the creation of the Finnish language to translating the New Testament to queuing for a cheeseburger.

The poem contains great phrase-making: ‘punk lovers afraid// to show their quivery emotions’; ‘Thy blossom, in the bud// laid low’ which are arresting and odd. At the core of the poem is a sense of homesickness, which finds its most concrete utterances in faux-rants at the injustice of not being noticed: ‘no one suspects that I am a Finn’; ‘no one cares that I am a Finn’. These are uttered in a voice which both relishes the speaker’s invisibility while appearing to rail against it. This brings to mind that line of John Ashbery’s about light ‘from the lighthouse that protects as it pushes us away’: it has the appearance of intimacy but is desolate at its core.

No matter, when I first read the poem it made me laugh out loud. How many poems can you say that about?

Most of all, ‘I am a Finn’ will always be close to my heart because of the memory it stirs of reading it out late one night in the summer of 2001, with poets Ann Sansom and Peter Carpenter at the Arvon Foundation centre at Totleigh Barton. Interrupted by sudden fits of giggles, questions and impromptu digressions our reading took nearly ten minutes. It is fair to say that wine had been taken. I remain convinced that half of the time we did not even know what we were laughing about. It is a matter of deep pride that Ann continues to sign her cards and emails to me with the words ‘Still Finnish’.

Lifesaving Poems

4 comments

  1. Clarissa Aykroyd

    I love this poem, and its sequel, ‘I Am Still a Finn’! This is partly for the reasons you’ve cited but partly because my mother is Finnish. I spent a lot of time there as a child and I was familiar with a lot of the poems’ factoids because of my mother. I have to admit that the poems remind me just a little of her in attitude as well… Finland is a very culturally rich country but I have noticed a bit of small-country-ex-pat-insecurity. (I can say that partly because I am an ex-pat from a country with a smallish population, Canada, so I kind of know what it’s like.) Delightful, anyway.

    Like

    • Anthony Wilson

      Dear Clarissa -thanks so much for your kind comments. I really appreciate you taking the time, especially as we are in the same business. I saw a link David Morley put on Facebook the other day which took me to the stone and the star. It is a wonderful blog, and I hope you will have seen that I have linked it with an RSS feed on mine. I’d be happy to send you a review copy for you to review if you would like one. I’m biased of course, but I so think Riddance will find a wide audience. Let me know where to send it etc. With best wishes and thanks, Anthony

      Like

  2. Susan

    How true this poem is. I loved it too. My mother was a Finn also- with 13 brothers and one sister.(five brothers left) What proud people they are. Farmers- Strong. Sisu <? She was raised in the upper penninsula,-Ironwood Michigan- and both my grandparents were from Helsinki. As far as no one knowing what a Finn is–I always laugh when I have to explain. I was looking for a poem (in Finnish) to tell my aunt that I love her–and I came across this! Kittos!

    Like

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