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Poetry

Throwing Voices

By Linnea Axelsson
Translated from Swedish by Saskia Vogel
Everyday objects serve as touchstones of Sámi culture in three prose poems by Linnea Axelsson.
A close-up of a threaded needle
Photo by Sunbeam Photography on Unsplash

The Kisa

The kisa is round with a domed lid; he keeps it up high in a kitchen cabinet.

He inherited it from his mother. She in turn inherited it from her mother, whose mother gave it to her.

Somewhere down the line of generations they stored coffee cups in it while migrating with the reindeer. His mother had called it a “goahppagiisa,” a kisa, that is, a large box, in which to keep cups. But he leaves it empty, it sits there in the cabinet with no specific function, he likes looking at it. Not that he looks at it often, he just likes that it’s there.

He likes its shape, the touch of the old wood worn smooth, how his fingers take on a whiff of brass when he’s held on to the ring on the lid for a while. It might even be his most prized possession, for how it feels to hold and look at, and for its history, the fact that several people have had it before him, so it’s part of his origin. He wanted it.

It reminds him of the people from whom he comes, but it also reminds him of regret, falling out with his brother, who’d also wanted to inherit it.

There was only one kisa, and he made sure that he’d be the one to have it. They were aware of other similar kisas that had once been in the family, but those had been sold, lost to time and motion. There was a demand for old Sámi functional objects—from museums, foreigners, collectors. But this one had been spared and now it’s his. He likes the patterns cut into the wood. Sometimes he browses the old book that also came with the inheritance. It was written a long time ago by a researcher into scientific racism who traveled around with his forefathers in order to study their race. This particular researcher was a talented illustrator and drew almost everything he saw—objects, people, animals—all with equal care. And however ill at ease he feels each time he leafs through that book, he’s glad the illustrations exist, so that he can study the patterns carved into butter boxes, on knives and salt bottles. But this specific pattern, the one on his kisa, is nowhere to be found in the book.

He doesn’t know who etched it, when it was made, or where the tree it was taken from grew. But it did come from a tree.

A tree that grew from the earth and lived, like the person who made the kisa had lived and grown. Perhaps it was someone who enjoyed beautifying the objects around him. Or did so because that’s what was done.
 

A soul that had withered and died, then to reside in silence in the lower lake, hidden in ground, below the lake visible to the eye. If that soul is still there, if it didn’t instead disappear after death, by becoming something else, perhaps water, wandering through roots and branches.

 

The Photograph

This photograph was taken sixty years ago. It was in July, and the people who were staying at the summer residence near the mountain lake had gathered for a church weekend. After the service in the newly erected church-hut they took a seat out in the sun and talked. Some had smiled amiably as the tourist passed by with a camera.

On this particular morning an artist arrived, she looked at the photograph, which lay in a box of bric-a-brac in a flea market. She asked if she could buy it.

The sun was already setting by the time she returned home, but it was summer, it would be light all night long. The window had been left open and she had to shut it to the mosquitoes gliding into the still air and its sweetness; a green field partly overgrown with brush lay beyond the farm. She locked the door so as not to be disturbed, took out her pens, then worked late into the night.

She heard the neighbor’s cat begging to be let into her house, but its meowing was unreal, hollow in the stifling heat.

Her glasses slipped down her nose, and the sky grew ever more pink and yellow. She wiped her fingers on a cloth that graphite was turning gray.

The people in the old photograph held still in the lamplight’s glow. The darkness spread out in the corners, but the space of those who were no more was immovable, unchangeable, as luminous as when she’d first caught sight of it in the box. She spent a long time working with the white light in the shawl of the woman looking into the camera, the same light that cut through the jacket and cap of the child in front of her, the stick the child was holding, and the shawl of the older woman sitting next to them in the grass. She tried to find the white light shimmering in the tips of their strange hats. Most of all she liked the woman farthest to the right, who was sitting a bit on her own, her body seemed mighty, with her long white shoes, and a bright white plastic bag in one hand.

She probably knew who the people were. But she was interested in what she didn’t know. What they didn’t know about themselves.

 

The Needle

In the lamplight her fingers give off a hot, damp filth. Her eyes are narrow, her practiced fingers move blindly with the needle through the old patterns, the domesticated lines, constructions she inherited and has known for so long.

A new envelope of needles is in front of her on the table. Glover’s needles that can push through fish skin and leather, fine needles for summer cloth and lace.

She is sewing a cap for her child. As long as she has a needle she can sew their own clothes. Kolts and belts, bags and shoes. She can make them visible. With this needle she can create anew what would otherwise disappear. She can create a cap, she can recreate it. It has nothing to do with the earth and growth, its species, birth and death.

The needle makes her finger tender, but she never learned to use a thimble, she wants it in her hands, the needle and the fabric she’s shaping. She cranes her neck and looks to the side, letting her fingers glide across the blanket covering the boy lying beside her on the sofa. She remembers the morning, him standing there in the doorway, quietly taking in the patterns moving across the walls and paintings as the birch tree’s large crown was lifted up, radiant with sun.

The shadow play of leaves had slowly drawn the boy’s gaze to the side, back and forth, like an intricate brush. Taking with it his thoughts. Like a puzzle she wished would last forever.
 

These pieces were commissioned for Throwing Voices: A Sámi-Inuit Musical Conversation,” featuring Linnea Axelsson, Taqralik Partridge, and Kate Young, performed August 13, 2019, at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Scotland, and on February 2, 2020, at LitFest Bergen, Norway.

Copyright © Linnea Axelsson. First published 2019 and 2020. Translation © 2022 by Saskia Vogel. All rights reserved.

 

English

The Kisa

The kisa is round with a domed lid; he keeps it up high in a kitchen cabinet.

He inherited it from his mother. She in turn inherited it from her mother, whose mother gave it to her.

Somewhere down the line of generations they stored coffee cups in it while migrating with the reindeer. His mother had called it a “goahppagiisa,” a kisa, that is, a large box, in which to keep cups. But he leaves it empty, it sits there in the cabinet with no specific function, he likes looking at it. Not that he looks at it often, he just likes that it’s there.

He likes its shape, the touch of the old wood worn smooth, how his fingers take on a whiff of brass when he’s held on to the ring on the lid for a while. It might even be his most prized possession, for how it feels to hold and look at, and for its history, the fact that several people have had it before him, so it’s part of his origin. He wanted it.

It reminds him of the people from whom he comes, but it also reminds him of regret, falling out with his brother, who’d also wanted to inherit it.

There was only one kisa, and he made sure that he’d be the one to have it. They were aware of other similar kisas that had once been in the family, but those had been sold, lost to time and motion. There was a demand for old Sámi functional objects—from museums, foreigners, collectors. But this one had been spared and now it’s his. He likes the patterns cut into the wood. Sometimes he browses the old book that also came with the inheritance. It was written a long time ago by a researcher into scientific racism who traveled around with his forefathers in order to study their race. This particular researcher was a talented illustrator and drew almost everything he saw—objects, people, animals—all with equal care. And however ill at ease he feels each time he leafs through that book, he’s glad the illustrations exist, so that he can study the patterns carved into butter boxes, on knives and salt bottles. But this specific pattern, the one on his kisa, is nowhere to be found in the book.

He doesn’t know who etched it, when it was made, or where the tree it was taken from grew. But it did come from a tree.

A tree that grew from the earth and lived, like the person who made the kisa had lived and grown. Perhaps it was someone who enjoyed beautifying the objects around him. Or did so because that’s what was done.
 

A soul that had withered and died, then to reside in silence in the lower lake, hidden in ground, below the lake visible to the eye. If that soul is still there, if it didn’t instead disappear after death, by becoming something else, perhaps water, wandering through roots and branches.

 

The Photograph

This photograph was taken sixty years ago. It was in July, and the people who were staying at the summer residence near the mountain lake had gathered for a church weekend. After the service in the newly erected church-hut they took a seat out in the sun and talked. Some had smiled amiably as the tourist passed by with a camera.

On this particular morning an artist arrived, she looked at the photograph, which lay in a box of bric-a-brac in a flea market. She asked if she could buy it.

The sun was already setting by the time she returned home, but it was summer, it would be light all night long. The window had been left open and she had to shut it to the mosquitoes gliding into the still air and its sweetness; a green field partly overgrown with brush lay beyond the farm. She locked the door so as not to be disturbed, took out her pens, then worked late into the night.

She heard the neighbor’s cat begging to be let into her house, but its meowing was unreal, hollow in the stifling heat.

Her glasses slipped down her nose, and the sky grew ever more pink and yellow. She wiped her fingers on a cloth that graphite was turning gray.

The people in the old photograph held still in the lamplight’s glow. The darkness spread out in the corners, but the space of those who were no more was immovable, unchangeable, as luminous as when she’d first caught sight of it in the box. She spent a long time working with the white light in the shawl of the woman looking into the camera, the same light that cut through the jacket and cap of the child in front of her, the stick the child was holding, and the shawl of the older woman sitting next to them in the grass. She tried to find the white light shimmering in the tips of their strange hats. Most of all she liked the woman farthest to the right, who was sitting a bit on her own, her body seemed mighty, with her long white shoes, and a bright white plastic bag in one hand.

She probably knew who the people were. But she was interested in what she didn’t know. What they didn’t know about themselves.

 

The Needle

In the lamplight her fingers give off a hot, damp filth. Her eyes are narrow, her practiced fingers move blindly with the needle through the old patterns, the domesticated lines, constructions she inherited and has known for so long.

A new envelope of needles is in front of her on the table. Glover’s needles that can push through fish skin and leather, fine needles for summer cloth and lace.

She is sewing a cap for her child. As long as she has a needle she can sew their own clothes. Kolts and belts, bags and shoes. She can make them visible. With this needle she can create anew what would otherwise disappear. She can create a cap, she can recreate it. It has nothing to do with the earth and growth, its species, birth and death.

The needle makes her finger tender, but she never learned to use a thimble, she wants it in her hands, the needle and the fabric she’s shaping. She cranes her neck and looks to the side, letting her fingers glide across the blanket covering the boy lying beside her on the sofa. She remembers the morning, him standing there in the doorway, quietly taking in the patterns moving across the walls and paintings as the birch tree’s large crown was lifted up, radiant with sun.

The shadow play of leaves had slowly drawn the boy’s gaze to the side, back and forth, like an intricate brush. Taking with it his thoughts. Like a puzzle she wished would last forever.
 

These pieces were commissioned for Throwing Voices: A Sámi-Inuit Musical Conversation,” featuring Linnea Axelsson, Taqralik Partridge, and Kate Young, performed August 13, 2019, at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Scotland, and on February 2, 2020, at LitFest Bergen, Norway.

Copyright © Linnea Axelsson. First published 2019 and 2020. Translation © 2022 by Saskia Vogel. All rights reserved.

 

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