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Birch-bark_letter_292_real

arrow of God, your name is ten
arrow glittering arrow fires
the god who faults in us inspires

pull me tight, an instrument when
lightning strikes despondent pyres
arrow of God, your name is ten
arrow glittering arrow fires

renew my courage from this glen
of birch around the archer tires
driven by your thundering gyres

arrow of God, your name is ten
arrow glittering arrow fires
the god who faults in us inspires

~~~

As fixed verse, this poem is a rondeau tercet. The opening stanza, however, is not mine. It is a translation from a 13th century birch bark letter (shown in the image), the oldest known document in a Finnic language. It was found in 1957 by a Soviet expedition in Karelia, a deeply mythic region that straddles Finland and Russia. Most scholars agree that the birch bark was an invocation against lightning, or an appeal for protection to the Almighty, who was viewed as the god of thunder.

My paternal grandfather came from Karelia, so I feel a deep kinship to the shamanic traditions that politics, war, and religion have never been able to completely suppress. To construct this piece, I compared various translations into Finnish, Karelian, and English from the Cyrillic script you see here. Finnic languages are agglutinative; words and meaning cluster, so I’ve attempted to replicate that through minimal punctuation. (There was none on the birch bark!) It is my hope that by reading the invocation with a steady beat, you may feel a sense of the archer readying for battle centuries ago, calling on the highest powers—and affirming his/her intent by the most profound act of writing.

© Elaine Stirling, 2014

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