Swan of Tuonela

Today I’m delighted to host a poem by fellow Holmfirth Writer Mary Lister, from her forthcoming collection, Trapezing in the Dark, published later this month. Mary’s piece is inspired by Finnish epic poem The Kalevala.

Swan of Tuonela

I longed to return to Suomi,
to the Finnish forests and lakes.
So I called aloud to the wild trees,
the Rowan, the Birch, and the Oak.
“Who will give me wood to make
a fine sledge, with a slicing edge, 
a sleigh to carry me on my way
that can double as flight, or float?
-A transport light as a swan’s feather
bound with elk and reindeer leather?”
The copper Rowan, whispered,
murmured in the wind, and sighed.
“Not I, not with my wood or copper berries,
I must watch over water and air.
The gold Oak shuddered its golden leaves,
“Nor I … I am too stern, too rooted firm,
with stout arms that reach the sky.”
But the silver Birch shivered, sighed and quivered,
“Take my wood, I’m one of many, many am I.
My roots are of Karelian chants, 
my rustling leaves Sibelian dance,
the Kantele my branches high.”
I made of her a fine long sleigh,
a flying sledge, light as a feather 
that soared like music in the wind.
And I was on my way
 to the lands of Sariola, of Pohjola, the Northern lands
where the sun can barely shine
one hour in every day.
I met with Vainamoinen then, inscrutable, a man of myth,
Spirit of Water, and frozen lakes,
with the Sampo in his hands.
“You only have a little time,
a moment here, a passing dream.
Your journey takes you on
to the darker lands of Tuonela,
the Shadowlands, the Isle of Death.
Your time is nearly done.”
Then Vainamoinen helped me search
for a snowshoe made of birch, a leather belt of reindeer hide,
the black feather of the sacred swan….

A perturbation on the lake,
a rippling shadow in blackness bleak.
The Swan of Tuonela flew down,
with a cello sound, a haunting horn,
and a swansong in its beak.
I clung around its downy neck,
cradled in its feathered wings.
We took flight among the scudding clouds,
billowing, torn as tattered shrouds.
Forests and frozen lakes below
seemed scattered as we flew.
We came at last to Tuonela,
Hel’s home, isle of bones,
of grey wraiths, and flitting ghosts
and jutting standing stones.
I have no Lemmenkainen tricks,
and no shape-shifting shaman power.
The light is taken from my eyes
approaching this, my final hour.
I write this tale, these thoughts, this note,
traced on snow, soon melted, gone.
-A message with no journey on -
with the black feather of that swan… The Swan of Tuonela.


One thought on “Swan of Tuonela

  1. Thanks Tim, for including Mary’s ‘Swan of Tuonela’ on your blog. I now urge readers to listen to Sibelius’ wonderful piece of music of the same name. Sibelius was greatly inspired by the ‘Kalevala’.


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