reviewed by Erin Lyndal Martin
Early in Peter Richards' Helsinki, a persistent question forms: where—or what—is Helsinki? Helsinki is clearly more than a city in Finland here, to state the obvious. But the actual meaning with which Richards endows the name is harder to pin down. Helsinki is a liminal space where all these poems occur seemingly simultaneously. Each poem, untitled and comprised of a run-on sentence, flows into another other like ectoplasm. These poems walk through walls. And if they are indeed ghosts, whose spirits are they? These poems are the final haunting of a life remembered, a life slowly pieced together, poem by poem.
"I myself forget how my death was privately tended," Richards opens the poem on page 12. "I myself was rumor," he continues later in the poem. Page 11 begins "My tube was never removed so this painting depicts / the continuation of sound passing through one boundary / wall to the next on and out into space…" That painting may well be these poems, a canvas whose gouache smears and runs and bleeds messily onto other canvases. Or, rather, who is to say there is more than one canvas? Helsinki is many places but ultimately only one space, the hovering moment between life and death where sparks of memory appear like narrative bread crumbs. "Not even Helsinki has something to do with itself," Richards writes on page 85, asserting the foggy definition of the space from which he writes.
“Julia” is a returning character, but memories of her appear slowly, at first in a blur ("not like the lap of a choir / or the officer's lap or Julia's lap or even that lap on a track") and become revealed more gradually throughout the fractured narrative. The next time we encounter Julia, it is in the poem on page 23, a poem which entangles Julia's identity with that of her horse:
[…] one was named Julia and as it came free of her hoof it too sprouted wings from its own iridescence and like a naked girl endlessly climbing a horse so Julia climbed upon it and when finally the other shoe fell…
Indeed, Julia's identity is slippery, especially as she takes on a bigger role in the narrative. On page 44, Richards writes:
[…] it might change Julia into an island capable of holding as many ships as she can until she herself is the island's freed ringlet of ships
The next poem opens thus: "Sometimes do I wonder is Julia a rethought / sensual being feigning nature eclipsing smell." On page 59, there is a reference to "the glutton Julia / had become…" In this sequence where the narrator is ever-changing, Julia's convoluted orbit becomes another point of destabilization even as her presence grounds the narrative. One feels a kind of comfort when Julia returns, having encountered her before. Yet, her role is so amorphous that her power to anchor the story is limited, and she instead becomes a reflection of the narrator's own instability.
The shifting, permeable nature of these poems—as well as their formal similarities—means that, for the most part, singular poems are not as memorable as the total, all-encompassing fog of the sequence. The poem on page 39 stands out for having a refrain of "yes I accept it," but that makes the poem unique in the context of otherwise ungrounded pieces. The anonymity of single poems is the price Richards pays for a sequence this seamless, this dreamlike.
So too does Richards pay a price for his sometimes clunky line breaks. Part of the poem on page 74 reads "and began to leave rings gorges and blue tactical / meats this time." "A really good nautical band whose primary / sail is pink and white paper used for packing / meat…" (95) is another example. The syntactic halts that these line breaks force create a jerky reading experience that jars in a distracting fashion. Other line breaks, like the poem on page 33, attempt cleverness but ultimately only come off as puns: "the officer drew me in his likeness he drew me / a pistol and asked me to wear it." In the context of a book full of lush and detailed images, the play on the double meaning of "draw" is unoriginal in a way that Richards is capable of transcending.
All that said, Richards is a master of fresh, well-rendered images. The poem on page 76 concludes "YES white prawns white lips white / dot panning the mirrors for white." Page 70 opens "The travagant white tip of a nurse / Adonis spooning a raptor…" Page 27 features an image of being "planted / in meat." The poem on page 11 reads of a "tile or patch of laminated / foil on the head of a rat." "We are both sad virgins warbling in a tower" (91), concludes one poem. Such unique and palpably descriptive images seem to roll easily off Richards' pen, and they never seem out of place in the narrative.
This beauty amid the strange, liminal narrative arc is strangely evocative of the cinematography in Blade Runner. Both feature the same moments of pure beauty in an otherwise dystopic landscape. Just as there are brilliant sunsets and cityscapes in the film, Richards has his sad virgins warbling in a tower among the death and decay that permeate the book. It is perhaps this comparison that helps the reader situate Helsinki as, in many ways, a cyberpunk novel. There is nothing explicitly futuristic about the book, yet it would not be surprising to find out that this story takes place in the distant future. The instability of the "I" and the Julia character points to a universe in which multiple realities occur simultaneously, a frequent theme in cyberpunk. Further, the story is rendered in verse, not prose, creating the sense of a choppy novel. That sense is heightened by the poems not having any titles. Also, the book further evokes the "choppy novel" sensibility by being divided into several arbitrary-seeming subsections.
The question of Helsinki's genre remains unanswered by the closing poems, which do anything but nicely tie up the narrative. In the final few poems, all Richards says of the titular place is "I never really did feel / at home in Helsinki" (95) and that in "Helsinki there's a club called Timocharis" (95). And so the narrative remains unconcluded and inconclusive, leaving the reader feel like a trip to Helsinki was nothing but a dream.