Nancy Mattson

I live in London, England, where I moved from the Canadian prairies in 1990. Born in 1947 in Winnipeg and raised in Edmonton, I spent all my childhood summers in Saskatchewan on my Finnish grandparents’ homesteads. I began writing poetry in 1977 after completing my MA in English at the University of Alberta, where I studied mainly British literature – everything from Beowulf to Virginia Woolf. At that time there was only one undergraduate course in Canadian literature on offer; and it was this course, plus a postgraduate seminar in post-1960s CanLit, that opened the possibility of writing my own poems. I wrote my MA thesis on the work of Canadian poet Earle Birney – who afterwards became a great friend and encourager. Another poetic mentor is Bert Almon, whose poetry writing course at the U of A morphed into a workshop which met in people’s homes. After ten years I left for England but the workshop is still going strong, though with different members.

My poetry, non-fiction and reviews have been published in Canada, the US, the UK, Ireland and Finland. In 1982 I edited and co-authored a history book, Life in the New Finland Woods. This inspired my first collection, Maria Breaks Her Silence (Coteau, 1989), based on the life of a 19th century Finnish woman who emigrated to Canada. The book was shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award and adapted for the stage as Lye Soap and Dancing Cows.

In 2006, Flambard Press published Writing with Mercury, my second full collection, and I was one of five poets in the Shoestring anthology Take Five 06. The poems in these two volumes are set in contemporary England, Canada, Finland and Italy and use memory, myth, history and family stories to create rich linguistic and cultural textures.

My latest collection is Finns and Amazons (Arrowhead Press, 2012), which begins with poems about some Russian women artists of the avant-garde but returns to the theme of family history, inspired by letters sent by my great-aunt Lisi from Soviet Karelia in the 1930s. The letters themselves have also been published in a pamphlet, Lines from Karelia (Arrowhead, 2011). Some of the poems from Finns and Amazons were drafted during a fellowship at Hawthornden Castle in Scotland in June 2007 for which I am very grateful.

My work has been frequently anthologized, for instance in Beth Virtanen’s Finnish North American Literature in English (Edwin Mellen Press, 2009), Myra Schneider & Dilys Wood’s Images of Women (Arrowhead Press/Second Light, 2006), Kate Braid & Sandy Shreve’s In Fine Form: The Canadian Book of Form Poetry (Polestar, 2005) and John Rety’s In the Company of Poets (Hearing Eye, 2003).

I’ve read my poetry at many venues from the Troubadour in London to the Greyhound in Wivenhoe and the Madras in Christchurch, NZ; at festivals including Torbay Poetry, Grand FinnFest in Sault Ste. Marie and Greenbelt in Cheltenham; at universities in Vancouver, Minneapolis, Kuopio and Petrozavodsk. I’m married to poet and mathematician Michael Bartholomew-Biggs and together we organise the popular Poetry in the Crypt reading series at St Mary Islington in north London.


I’m checking the ways to say that Cyrillic letter
shaped like a Roman three with a heelspur
or cricket stumps with a ploughshare
to cut beneath the bottom line of text:   Щ

One teacher suggests I pay attention
to the double thistle in the gap
scratched between two words
whose start and finish match:   Welsh sheep

Another says, listen to the scrape
of the hinge in a folding pushchair
or the mother’s voice when her baby’s shout
drowns out the bus’s brakes:    Hush child, we’re nearly home

Another wants me to try the sound of steam released
when you touch the pressure cooker valve
the cheery whistle of the sealed vessel
shortening the beet time for borshch:    БОРЩ

I remember the steam train
screeching to a stop at the station
delivering everyone’s grandmothers, flesh-cheeked
babushka-wrapped against December’s     harsh chill

I remember the shooshch
of my grandmother’s tongue and teeth
sucking her tea through a sugar cube
telling her stories in Finnish

Hush now, it’s the one about her sister
in Soviet Russia, how she barely survived
on watery cabbage soup:   ЩИ
but was finally crushed     lost      she

the sound is a soft shchi
one wave in an ocean of millions
that receded but never returned

        – from Finns and Amazons (Arrowhead Press, 2012)


As a mouse can slip into a space
thinner than an empty envelope

a letter can nudge a myth aside
put words into another story’s pocket


You wrote of your life in a Soviet lumber camp
getting better and better all the time, that line

of Stalin’s I think you believed. I’m not surprised
you won the women’s shooting competition.

The rabbits you shot as a girl in Finland
were soft targets for a sharp eye.

Did you spy any stray enemies
drifting over the border?

I’ve crossed that line. Now I walk between
tracks, train my eyes in misdirection,

consider random bullets, false targets
somewhere between not missing America

and the Soviet authorities allowing you
to move to a town closer to the railway.

Call me a capitalist rat. I’ve inherited your eye.
Call me an enemy hare. Even so we’re blood.


As a letter can hide for seven decades
in a space dark as a family rumour

so your story pushes my fear aside
turns the pocket of truth inside out

        – from Lines from Karelia (Arrowhead Press, 2011)
        & reprinted in Finns and Amazons (Arrowhead Press, 2012)


With this needle
splinter of a reindeer bone
whittled and pierced
I sewed for you the tawny skin
of a southern deer
to wear on your wedding day

The treadle under my foot
guides the needle
through gathers of ivory lawn
that will billow out
from the sinews of your waist

My dress when I married your father
was heavy and black
in the old style of the vanha maa
tight at the throat
I wore a crown of brass filigree
polished bright as gold

May you be blessed with a daughter
as wild and bright as you
the deer we saw in the forest
gazing down the hillside

If I ever marry again
I will weave the linen myself
the fit will be loose
I will walk barefoot
through the wolf willow
to the bottom of the hill
and all the guests will be strangers

        – from Maria Breaks Her Silence (Regina: Coteau, 1989)


Where have they gone, the wheels of yesteryear,
those rubber tyres with wide white walls
dusted with clouds of perfumed talc
by tender hulks in T-shirts tight with pride?

Where have they gone, those hubcaps chromed
in chrome times four, their domes rubbed shinier than haloes?
Where are the shock absorbers that subdued
the gravel under Studebakers, Packards, Chevrolets?

No more double features at the drive-in
on the city’s outskirts – where are the pairs
of dating couples in double-clutches
in front and back seats wide as chesterfields?

Gone are the movie reels, the giant screen
against a summer sunset, Ben-Hur in his chariot
racing James Dean in his hot rod
while Apaches and Comanches ambushed
wagon trains and stagecoaches,
their drivers dead with arrows in their backs,
as lady teachers clutched their collars,
collared preachers prayed and Annie Oakley
got her rifle out to help John Wayne
and a strip of a kid riding shotgun,
hooves and wheels a blur of dust,
sweat and heavy breathing.

Where are they now, those boys in ducktails,
girls in panty girdles? Last seen cruising
toward the suburbs without seatbelts,
trusting in bits of rubber and dumb luck.

        – from Writing with Mercury (Hexham: Flambard Press, 2006)


No one messes with you, the duke
of all the dudes in Bergamo:
you block the aisle of the number 4 bus
               split stance
in front of the ticket punch machine.

Your surfing gear is slick with logos,
from technoclothes in fake skin –
UV protective, fluorescent acid trim –
to thinsole trainers and wraparound
chromium shades, narrow as the slit
in a fencer’s visor. Dragons’ tongues
and tails flick upon your biceps.

Evidence points to razor fetish:
the moustache a pair of scimitars
carved around the jawline,
the scalp a reverse tonsure –
lower skull shaved bald and oiled,
a topknot pulled smooth
and clamped with elastic
to fall from the crown like an otter’s tail.

You need the feel of watercurl
under the balls of your feet
but in Lombardy, where ocean is only
memory or dream, you’ll ride
the inland edge of anything unstable.

As we head into the cemetery loop
you lean into the roundabout,
feet rocking on the floorboards.
Arms motionless beside your thighs.
This is one of the rules. Nor may you smile.

Widows with dark hose and rosaries
squeeze past you, muttering
but cannot distract you
from your focus on a vanishing point
in the street beyond the windscreen,
the ever-receding shoreline
of your own Waimea Bay.
You know its tides and sandbars
better than the driver.
                               He says nothing,
but keeps the bus steady on the turns,
smooth on the stops and starts,
with psychoanalytic skill.

        – from Take Five 06 (Nottingham: Shoestring, 2006)

Poems on this page Copyright © 2012 Nancy Mattson

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Last modified: February 12th 2012