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Helvi Juvonen (1919-1959)


Finnish poet and translator, whose poems dealt with the themes of illness, suffering, religious faith, and the mystery of nature. Helvi Juvonen died at the age of 39. Her literary career spanned only ten years in a transition period, when modernism broke into Finnish poetry.

I, a bolder
split off the mother rock
carried far by the ice
dumped by the ice,
am alone in the forest,
am odd.

(from 'The Boulder', translated by Keith Bosley)

Helvi Juvonen was born in Iisalmi into a large family. His father, Juho Petterinpoika Juvonen, owned a clothes shop. After he was widowed in 1915, he married nine months later Impi Maria Liimatainen, Helvi's mother. She was 19 years his junior and worked in his shop. Juho had hoped for a son, but as Helvi later wrote in her autobiographical sketch, her parents experienced a disappointment: "Instead of the expected son, only I was born." Juho died in 1930s, and his business collapsed soon after.

Juvonen's upbringing was religious. On the other hand, her parents also encouraged their children's artistic aspirations. At school, Juvonen avoided company – a personality trait which she never completely overcame. She seldom smiled. Her closest friend was her sister, Anja, who suffered from mental illness. She died in 1943. Also Juvonen's brother Eino had mental problems; he died in a hospital.

In 1930 Juvonen entered the lyceum, where she was especially interested in Latin. For a time she took music lessons, learning to play the violin. At the age of 17 Juvonen wrote her first poem. Uuno Kailas, Edith Södergran, Saima Harmaja, and Schopenhauer were for her important sources of inspiration, but her favorite poet was Emily Dickinson, whose works she later translated into Finnish. In 1939 Juvonen passed her matriculation examination. Next year she started to study Finnish language and literature at the University of Helsinki. She never graduated. Although Juvonen finished her master's thesis on Finnish night poems in 1947, the final examination was too much for her nerves.

During the war years Juvonen had difficulties in finding a rental apartment. She returned in 1942 for a period to Iisalmi, where she worked as a teacher. Juvonen dressed in a suit with a tie and she wore riding boots. Writing, and the Bible, had become more and more important to her. In 1943 she spent some weeks at the Lapinlahti mental hospital in Helsinki. Badly nourished, she weighted only 43 kilos; Juvonen was 158 cm tall.  Her friend Aila Meriluoto noted in her diary, that Juvonen smoked passionately, and she was bright, not as bright as she thought she was, but there was originality in her poems. With Sirkka Meriluoto, Aila's sister, Juvonen managed to rent a small apartment in 1949. They moved several times but remained roommates for about ten years.

After the war Juvonen changed jobs frequently until she decided to devote herself entirely to writing. When working, she had found it difficult to adjust to new surroundings. Barely managing to survive on her meagre income, she had a plate of porridge every other day. In 1948 she was again hospitalized – not the last time. Most of the poems in the melancholic Kääpiöpuu (1949, The dwarf tree), her first book, were written during this difficult period. Juvonen suffered from headache and depression. Moreover, she had lived years in poverty in cold rooms and she had lost her appetite because of the pills she took. In 1953 she had no taxable income. Being reserved by nature, Juvonen was not inclined to ask for help for anything. Though she did not complain of her lot in life, she wrote in 'The Boulder' wrote: "I'm not cold. I'll get warm too, / when the sun shines."  

In Suomen kirjallisuuden historia (History of Finland's literature) Kai Laitinen, who was Juvonen's friend at the university, has said that the author was in some respects the last great representative of the traditional style. In the late 1940s the poetry started to shift from regular to free verse. Several women poets produced modernist collections but Juvonen tried to create a synthesis between the old and new ways of expression. Her rhythm is often traditional, but her approach to poetry is modern, and she examined modernist technique.

Juvonen's writing is economical, controlled, almost laconic, and shows the influence of the Bible and Finnish hymns. Among her best-known poems are the haunting 'Merkillinen tapiiri' (The strange tapir), 'Kuningas Kultatakki'  (King goldcoat), the title work of her second collection, and 'Pikarijäkälä'  (Cup lichen) from Pohjajäätä (1952, Ground-ice), in which, typical of Juvonen, a tiny object, a single image, extends beyond itself into a pantheistic or metaphysical notion.

In 1951 Juvonen traveled to Rome and Florence, an experience which inspired such poems as 'Kardinaalin tilinpäätös', 'Vainotut', and 'Tevere'. In Italy she started to plan a novel, Rajamaa, which she never finished. Juvonen's prose pieces were collected later in Pikku Karhun talviunet (1974), edited by Mirjan Polkunen, who was her traveling companion on the journey.

Juvonen's illness affected her ability to work regularly, but her economic situation improved when she received the state literary award for her collection Kalliopohja (1955, Rock bottom) and had grants from the Finnish Academy. Juvonen's publisher WSOY also helped her. In 1957 she received the Eino Leino Award. To earn extra income she translated poetry and novels and contributed to the literary journal Parnasso and the newspaper Suomen Sosialidemokraatti. In addition, Näköala, Kuva, Nuori Voima, and some other magazines bought occasionally her poems. Juvonen's major translation work, T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral, was left unfinished.

Although isolation, loneliness and suffering marked her work, she saw an affirmation of the essential truths of the Christian faith in rocks, plants and animal life. The subject of hunger, spiritual as well as physical, is woven into several poems ('Siemen,' 'Kylläinen,' 'Mutta suurin kaikista,' 'Kannan kuolemaa ruumiissani,' 'Elokuun ilta'). Sometimes Juvonen identified herself with a bear kept in a cage, or a boulder "split off the mother rock." In 'Veli päästäinen,' written perhaps to a kindred soul or just echoing the teachings of Fracis of Assisi, a shrew is her "brother" – on its way through the dewy grass, it does not gather and store wealth.

Juvonen never married. She died in Helsinki on October 1, 1959. Both of her kidneys were damaged as a result of the regular use of phenacetin-containing drugs for the headache. During her life time Juvonen completed six collections. The seventh, posthumously published Sanantuoja (1959, The messenger), was her farewell collection. It also included translations from Gottfried Benn, Robinson Jeffers, Emily Dickinson, Georg Trakl and other writers. Her last poems she dictated to Sirkka Meriluoto in the hospital. Among them are three lines in which she pictured a common mole sleeping, seeing a dark soft dream – an ethereal, resigned version of 'The mole' from her first book.

For further reading: Pohjajään ilo: Helvi Juvosen runoudesta by Liisa Enwald (2006); 'Helvi Juvonen: Kuningas Kultatakki', in Pieni runouden asiahakemisto by Petri Liukkonen (2004); 'Helvi Juvonen (1919-1959)' by Liisa Enwald, in Suomen kansallisbibliografia 4, edited by Matti Klinge et al. (2004); 'Helvi Juvonen: kehityksen piireitä', in Todenkaltaisuudesta by Tuomas Anhava (2002); A History of Finland's Literature, edited by George C. Schoolfield (1998); Skating on the Sea: Poetry from Finland, edited and traslated by Keith Bosley (1997); Linnasta Saarikoskeen by Juhani Salokannel (1993); Suomen kirjallisuuden historia by Kai Laitinen (1991); 'Helvi Juvonen' by Eino Säisä, in Suomalaisia kirjailijoita, edited by Mirjam Polkunen, Auli Viikari (1982)

Selected works:

  • Kääpiöpuu: runoja, 1949 [The Dwarf Tree]
  • Kuningas Kultatakki: runoja, 1950 [King coldcoat]
  • Pohjajäätä: runoja, 1952 [Ground-ice]
  • Päivästä päivään: runoja, 1954 [From day to day]
  • Kalliopohja: runoja, 1955 [The rock bottom]
    - Berggrunden (urval, översättning och inledning Martti Soutkari, 2001)
  • Valikoima runoja, 1958
  • translator (with Arvo Turtiainen): Tohtori Živagon runot, 1958
  • Sanantuoja, 1959 (introduction by Tuomas Anhava) [The Messenger]
  • translator: Rumer Godden, Viherluumujen kesä, 1959 (original title: The Greengage Summer)
  • translator: Friedrich Hebbel, Juudit, 1959 (original title: Judith)
  • Kootut runot, 1960 (5th ed., 1995)
  • Helvi Juvosen runoja, 1964 (selected by Maunu Niinistö)
  • Pikku Karhun talviunet: sadut ja sadun matka, 1974 (edited by Mirkka Rekola)
  • translator (with Kaarina Halonen, Sirkka Heiskanen-Mäkelä): Valitsee sielu seuransa: Emily Dickinsonin runojen suomennoksia, 1983
  • Aukea ei koskaan metsään ovi: kootut, 2009 (edited by Mirkka Rekola and Liisa Enwald)

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