Nancy Mattson’s Finns and Amazons: the personal tie to history

The cover of 'Finns and Amazons'

Nancy Mattson. Finns and Amazons (UK: Arrowhead Press 2012).
Nancy Mattson. Lines from Karelia (with letters by Lisi Hirvonen, translated by Iiris Pursiainen) (UK: Arrowhead Press 2011).

Finns and Amazons is a large book, both in size & in vision, especially of the author’s Finnish forbears, mostly lost, definitely minor, but still caught up in some of the major crises of the 20th century. It begins with Mattson’s interest in the ‘Amazons of the Avant-Garde,’ six Russian women artists shown at London’s Royal Academy, & then in Sonia Delaunay, who was born in Ukraine but with Finnish connections. Somehow their work as artists in the first half of the 20th century connected in her mind with the life of her great-aunt, Lisi Hirvonen, whose letters from the USSR to her sister, Mattson’s grandmother, turned up in 2009. Lines from Karelia tells that story, & feeds much of the poetry in Finns and Amazons.

But Finns and Amazons begins with a section of poems dedicated to those artists, who worked in multi-media, & were part of that in initial dedication to experimental art-making that they felt connected to the Revolution (until Stalinism killed that idea). The very first poem, ‘Simultaneity I,’ sets up a series of trans-temporal connections that will be fulfilled throughout the rest of the book, as the poems seek through documents of the past & explorations in the present to construct some sense of the lost life of Mattson’s great-aunt & the world of those avant-garde artists as it turned to dust.

Thus ‘Simultaneity I’ shifts through various times through the smallest connectives to

that moment in Paris
when 1909 flung itself
outward a century and caught me
in Sonia Delaunay’s painted web
that captured a Finnish girl
defiant surprised wary obedient


that moment I opened
the door to Sonia’s studio
and caught her committing
my great-aunt Lisi to canvas

And this sets the whole book into motion. The rest of ‘I, Back to the Avant-Garde,’ constructs intriguingly personal ekphrases of paintings & other art works by those women, as well as some of their male companions in art & little narratives of their lives through various personae.

‘II, Loss’ begins with ‘What Can Be translated,’ which mainly tells us what cannot be translated, & implies that many translations of even the plainest writing might be necessary to get some flavor of the original. In many of the poems about Lisi, & even in the verions of some of the letters found in Lines from Karelia, there are differences that subtly suggest how Mattson’s involvement with them has led her to deeper interpretation in the representation of what her great-aunt wrote. Feeling her way into that then allows her to construct a series of representations & narratives about both her great-aunt’s life in Karelia & Petroskoi. She also writes about her own quest for whatever information she can gather at those places & in the archives. Thus the book opens up into a series of sequences that reveal what has been veiled by time, memory-loss, & historical & archival lacunae.

I found the most inventive poems to be the most interesting, like ‘Parsing the Ancestors,’ & its fantastical imaginings, ‘Missing Letters’ in its two columns, or ‘Night Train, Petroskoi to Petersburg’ & ‘Double’ with their magic-realist visions. As she says in the last, ‘History goes so far, then story and wish leap over. / I’ve never been to Moscow, yet the pinafore girl // on page 219 is my photographic twin, staring at the painting as I stare at her.’ Still, those two poems, the final ones in the book, would not have the power they do were it not for the slow accumulation of historical & personal knowledge the other poems & letters have built. ‘Simultaneity II,’ like ‘Simultaneity I,’ reminds us that one mind having seen both the art of those Amazons & the letters of that Finn, will, must, bring them into explosively bright contact across both space & time.

Finns and Amazons is not a book you can just dip into for a poem or two; it’s a carefully assembled construct designed to bring into the light the lives of some powerful women, whose lives & work meant & still mean. Read as a sequence, it delivers far more than any single one of its poems would suggest.

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