Peter Richards, Helsinki

Publisher: Action Books

2011, 96 Pages, paperback, $16

i can’t tell you what Peter Richard’s third collection of poetry, Helsinki, is about, but I can say that the inability to easily retell its story or message in no way detracts from the pleasure of reading it.

Helsinki grapples with big ideas, universal themes: Love is in there, and Death—both the fear of it, and fearless embracing of it—and an awareness of how each of these have the power to shatter, re-form, and resurrect. Take, for example, an excerpt of the opening poem:

In time I came to see death was the hay

binding one soldier to another and my own

death would appear partially lit as during

a nighttime operation the moon barely attends

whereas I with new density carry on as before

again I go razing Tanagara so plainly familiar

to me that it does sit upon my own reflection

Thematically, Helsinki also seems to be exploring the power of memory. As we all know, memory is not absolute. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the poems in Helsinki are so full of transformation and mutation: they mimic recollection in their twist and turns. What begins as one experience recalls another; and, so, the poems ricochet unfixed in time. This also offers one explanation as to why the locations the narrator describes are both familiar and unknown:

When I came to it was a place impossible

to distinguish from the place in my sleep

and so severe was the damage to my sleep

I could see a great mistake had been made

An inability to differentiate between dream, past, and presently occurring events is supported by the tumbling diction used when the narrator is simultaneously most uncertain, yet adamant:

I came to that underground field

each aspect appears on the blades

it’s one of the qualities underground

we each appear indelible visible

precisely as ourselves but in the way

letters in a name might come oddly

In recognizing boundaries—of language, of form, of story—Helsinki tests them. The result is a shifting, surrealist literary landscape, wherein each element of the writing complements and complicates.

Untitled, unnumbered, and unpunctuated, the poems in Helsinki offer readers little guidance as to where one might pause to catch a breath. Certain poems in the collection are like a maze of language, and the reader must find ‘correct’ turning points, line to line, or risk becoming horribly lost. But, the book’s strong narrative elements may help a reader when its lyrical deviations threaten to baffle, because Helsinki does have a cast of recurrent characters and locations that ground the work even at its most synesthesia-influenced surreal. These poems can be difficult, but are not impenetrable. Readers may find a refreshing challenge in a book like Helsinki that does not contain instructions as to how it should be read.

—Jenny Hanning