The Kalevala (3)

By: James Parker
April 1, 2016

The Kalevala is a sequence of folkloric songs, runes and charms from the Karelia region of Finland, collected in the field and concatenated into epic form by Dr. Elias Lonnrot (1803-1884). The versions presented here are not translations or transliterations — they are respectful bastardizations, working from the 1963 English version of the Kalevala produced by the versatile and witty Francis Peabody Magoun Jr.


[being a bastardization of Rune 5 of The Kalevala, lines 45-139]

In a pocket of world-stop, in a mindspace
      of fog,
sits a man in a boat with a bottle and a dog.
Calmly they sit, calmly they float.
He’s tipping sloe gin down his throat.

He is Vainamoinen of the dripping
super-bard, cosmos-singer.
He drinks sloe gin.
He looks within.
He’s been out here all day,
fishing, wishing,
drinking fermented berries in the skerries
      of Kaleva Bay.
He gives a tweak on his fishing line
and his little hook queries the quiet brine.

Patient in the prow sits Smüt the dog.
His coat with misty drops is pearled
and his doggy world
is loosely furled
in fog.

The mist it maunders, the mist it mooches.
Vainamoinen raises the bottle and quietly
“Ahhhh…” he says. “See, this is the
      good stuff.
The second batch. More personality.”

The mist it muddles, the mist it mopes,
and he hoists the bottle and heartily topes.
“Yes. Fucking yes. You can taste the rain
settling into the blackthorn bushes.
You can taste the cowshit.”

The bard’s poetic word is slurred.
Talking to your dog is like talking
      to yourself,
like talking to nobody, like talking to God.
Your subjectivity feels odd.

“You know I’m the greatest, Smüt. Eh?
Right? The best of the bards by a
      bloody mile.
Wherever I walk, I step in golden turds
      of language.
Watch this. I’ll get us a fish.”

He inhales,
and then, oh how beautifully, he sings.
He sings, the mighty bard!
Little Smüt, little best friend, there in the
      damp prow,
attend to your master now!

“O salty bottom, green with sailor souls,
lit by treasure, where the flickering shoals
move like bright ideas through sunken hulls
      with holes.
O undersea aristocracy,
pray send up something for us
      surface proles.
We don’t need a whopper,
or a heavyweight flip-flopper.
Give us a middler.
We’ll take a tiddler.
We’ll —”

CRASH! And with a shattering of waters
and light flying in flakes
and fishscales like irises going everywhere
suddenly a great fish is there
in the boat jumping
a single syllable of muscle
bending its spine like metal
the ribs of the boat with its tail thumping
kinking and flexing in agonies of air!

“Holy hell, Smüt! What a fish!”
See him scramble, the old curmudgeon,
scramble for his oaken bludgeon.
“Come here, you! I’ll put you out of
      your misery
I’ll bash your brains in!”
Hee, haw, the boat seesaws.
The fish is writhing all over his nasty
      old nets,
splattering puddles of boat-broth.
“Grab it, Smüt! Grab it!”

The fish stops its dramatic death-dance.
Stands up. Looks coolly at Vainamonen.

“You don’t know me, do you?”

“Uh… Should I?” says the bard.

“Wet-socked old man, with the
      hairless pate,
and the oversized prostate — I am Aino!
Aino, by your lechery made
      mentally unsound.
Myself I could not live with, so myself
      I drowned.”

Vainamoinen is aghast. Wordless.
Creation quakes.

“But I was too young to die,
and much too beautiful, as you are aware.
So my sorrow sank,
was depth-compressed to a fishiness
and then came soaring upward,
full of surface-seeking joy.”

Smüt the dog barks a shapeless bark,
Vainamoinen makes a grab for the
      talking fish,
swipes at her radiant flanks,
but she twangs into the air,
flashes in scorn the exclamation of
      her nudity,
and disappears over the side.

“Damn it, Smüt! You scared her.”
Despairing, Vainamoinen sniffs his
and is overcome by their fishy redolence.
“I could have had her but she’s gone again!
You’ll pay for this, dog. When we get home
I’m tying you to a post for two years.
I’ll feed you nothing but sparrow-bones.
And every morning, patiently and dutifully
and very bloody thoroughly,
I’ll flog you with a knotted rope.”

And whoops, there goes Smüt over the
      side too,
swimming busily away, his snout
      fastidiously high.
He’s had enough of the old man’s hands,
the pattings and the thrashings,
the endearments and commands…
He became king of the seals, you know.
Slept at night in a sea-cave, warmed
by the oily bodies of his people.
Left behind entirely his world of
      doggy need
and wore a cold crown of weed.

But that’s another story.


ALL INSTALLMENTS: INTRODUCTION: Laughter in the Womb of Time, or Why I Love the Kalevala | RUNE 1: “The Birth of Vainamoinen” | RUNE 2 (departure): “Vainamoinen in November” | RUNE 3 (1–278): “Wizard Battle” | RUNE 4 (1–56): “A Failed Seduction” | RUNE 4 (300–416): “Aino Ends It All” | RUNE 5 (45–139): “An Afternoon Upon the Water” | RUNE 5 (150–241): “The Blue Elk” | RUNE 5 (departure): “Smüt the Dog Praises His Seal Queen” | RUNE 6 (1–114): “Therapy Session” | RUNE 6 (115–130): “Joukahainen’s Mother Counsels Him Against Shooting the Wizard Vainamoinen” | RUNE 11 (1–138): “Introducing Kyllikki” | RUNE 17 (1–98): “The Dreaming Giant” | RUNE 23 (485–580): “The Bride’s Lament” | RUNE 30 (1–276): “Icebound” | RUNE 30 (120–188): “The Voyage of the Sea-Hare” (Part One) | RUNE 30 (185–188): “Losing It” | RUNE 30 (departure): “Across the Ice” | RUNE 30 (departure): “Song of the Guilty Viking” | RUNE 30 (departure): “The Witch’s Dance” | RUNE 31 (215–225): “The Babysitter” | RUNE 31 (223–300): “The Screaming Axe” | RUNE 33 (1–136): “The Cowherd” | RUNE 33 (73): “Song of the Blade: Kullervo” | RUNE 33 (reworked): “The Breaking of the Blade” | RUNE 33 (118–284): “The Cows Come Home” | RUNE 34 (1–82): “The Pipes of Kullervo” | RUNE 45 (259–312, departure): “The Wizard’s Secret”.

Series banner contributed by Rick Pinchera.


MORE PARKER at HILOBROW: COCKY THE FOX: a brilliant swearing-animal epic, serialized here at HILOBROW from 2010–2011, inc. a newsletter by Patrick Cates | THE KALEVALA — a Finnish epic, bastardized | THE BOURNE VARIATIONS: A series of poems about the Jason Bourne movies | ANGUSONICS: James and Tommy Valicenti parse Angus Young’s solos | MOULDIANA: James and Tommy Valicenti parse Bob Mould’s solos | BOLANOMICS: James traces Marc Bolan’s musical and philosophical development | WINDS OF MAGIC: A curated series reprinting James’s early- and mid-2000s writing for the Boston Globe and Boston Phoenix | CROM YOUR ENTHUSIASM: J.R.R. Tolkien’s THE HOBBIT | EVEN MORE PARKER, including doggerel; HiLo Hero items on Sid Vicious, Dez Cadena, Mervyn Peake, others; and more.