for Äiti


I ask how Rovaniemi was built again
after the War. Ritva tells me sisu,
a Finnish word that means “strong will”
or “gallows wit”—or just enduring sauna
when its scalding clouds could almost drown
        One winter, water was fire’s daughter—

and undoing. Three motherless daughters
reaped the wind (and set sail). Marrying again,
their father had a son. Someone drowned
in the Torne River (those were years of sisu).
Still, the daughters missed home and sauna;
walked out on Triumph of the Will.

In new homes, they were called willful

After sweatshops closed, they told their daughters
about a farmer who couldn’t find a sauna
hot enough for him. The devil said Try again
at my mill. If you don’t have the sisu—
better if your baptism had been a drowning.

No rabbit hole, this fumarole. Steam could drown
and smoke a salmon at the same time, or wilt
rusty nails. The farmer just had sisu—
said Make it hotter. The devil’s daughter
smiled and ladled water.
                                             Don’t come back again
Old Nick decided. Maybe heaven has a sauna. 

Cold War occulted fire—but stoked sauna
diplomacy back home. A premier would drown
his cares in Stolichnaya, but then again,
the premier would have no clothes. He will
not drink alone.
For 13 days, the daughters
said, Nikita doesn’t have the sisu.

After they’re all gone, I discover sisu
on my own. I go into a wood-burning sauna
where forebears bore their sons and daughters—
as if puerperal fever could be drowned
in this purgatory, a stove stone could will
steam from latent fire, or a heaven could be gained 

from hell (and sisu). Others almost drowned
in sauna water—and drew breath. Something wills it all
again. There is no shame in being born a daughter.



             Smith Island, Maryland



Checking traps for what lives
on our capital’s leavings off,

I found a clock.

An old word for this
is clepsydra.

Gears circulated water,
marking time. Witnesses
spoke of what they had seen,
and lives ebbed away.

Everything has its hours.
Used to be twelve
of light, even in winter—

but summer hours were longer.

A throstle’s heart
is faster than your own.

When I was a child,
I, Thales Evans, like others
before me, might have said
that all arose from water.

Silt filled the river’s mouth.
Blood had its salinity.
Crabs were pulled from shallows
that had been fields and towns.

But water is not the same as time.
For water is inevitable.

Water rising through lath and plaster,
staining the wallpaper, is inevitable.

The cormorants drying their wings
on the ruined pier are inevitable.

Even the marsh grass reaching up
like someone drowning is inevitable.

Was a time the marshes were
fields—before that, forests.
Their roots have held us here,
entangled with our own.

Was a time you could skate
of a winter. A century past,
a furrier brought black cats—
but the water froze.

They got away.

The bay hasn’t frozen since
before you were born.

The last house on Holland Island
tore up and fell to pelicans, ghosts,
or the sea.

In Amsterdam, they raise bulwarks
and sing A Mighty Fortress.

In Venice, they seal the lagoon
and hold their ground with charnel.

All tides ebb. Let this clay remain.
Let throstles sing in the rushes.



"'Sisu Sestina' brings together family stories about a group of sisters who left Finland for America after their mother died, their father remarried, and their future looked very bleak. My great-grandmother was one of these sisters.

'Water Thief' was inspired by folklore that I’ve encountered on Smith Island, the last inhabited island unconnected to the mainland in Maryland.
The ancestors of the Smith Islanders settled in the 1690s. Their English does not sound like standard American English. Due to global warming and other factors, the Smith Islanders may not be there that much longer (some scientists are predicting 30 more years). In 'Water Thief,' I created a Smith Island waterman named Thales Evans. I hoped to bring together contemporary American English and a few artifacts of something much older. Also, as another Thales once argued that all arose from water, this Thales considers how water may soon take his world."

Carol Quinn’s poetry has appeared in 32 Poems, Western Humanities Review, The Cincinnati Review, Pleiades, Colorado Review, and other journals, as well as the Women Write Resistance and Hot Sonnets anthologies. Acetylene, Quinn’s first book of poems, was selected by Dorothy Barresi for the 2008 Cider Press Review Book Award and published in 2010. Carol Quinn also recently won the So to Speak: A Journal of Feminist Language and Art's Poetry Prize.