A review of The Sauna is Full of Maids by Cheryl J. Fish

Reviewed by Suzanne Ondrus

The Sauna is Full of Maids
By Cheryl J. Fish
Shanti Arts Publishing
ISBN: 978-1-951651-74-9, softcover, June 2021, 71 pp. $15.95

If you are an aficionado of Finland and saunas, this book is for you.  Cheryl Fish has over fourteen years of experience and connection with Finland, going to the country about every year. She first became acquainted with the country as a Fulbright professor in 2007 at the University of Tampere. It was through a Fulbright alumni platform that I heard of Fish’s book. As a former Fulbright scholar and as someone who loves learning about foreign cultures, I was keen to vicariously travel to Finland with her book and keen to enter the sauna vicariously in these pandemic times. As a side note, UNESCO has deemed Finish sauna culture as an important cultural element and Fish’s work contributes to its value.  This is a travel poetry book that features 19 poems and 31 photos, mainly photos done by the author and most of Finnish nature landscape.  The quality of the photos is very good, and it is amazing to have a book for $15.95 with so many color photos.  This is a very accessible poetry book that reads like diary entries or travel notes.

In conjunction with many photos of the author and her friends, which constitute ten out of thirty of the photos, this collection is as though I were taken into someone’s home and intimate sphere, which is what happened to the author.  For example, in “Live Simply,” one of my favorite poems, we travel to three people’s homes where we learn one friend’s reason for coming to Finland: “Dave swapped England for Finland, Brexit burnt toast in his throat.” We are introduced to the couple Lea and Leon who sew and make sailboats.  The speaker wonders about Leon who  “can’t hear in one ear” and asks “Might he sing like old Väinämöinen/ in the Kalevala as he chops wood and considers the origin of/ words?”.  We see Lea’s “four sewing machines with various needles” and learn that she “knits socks and mittens, pink and gray, purple, red, thick for cold months filling up shelves”.  Fish also shares American friends in Massachusetts who made a “homemade sauna, down the hill,” and “shunned careers to build cabins.”  The message seems to be the simple life and simple people make the best friends.   

This book has much Finish food, such as “Lea’s green nettle-potato bread, her seed bread, her fruit loaf” (46); “reindeer meat and lingonberry”(20);  Viili is a dairy product that tastes like glue; piimä quiet buttermilk/on the tongue” (17); and “muikku fish, fried in kettles.”  We also travel to “The Ice Hotel/…where tourists sleep in furs dreaming/with white candles and mirrors.”(34). Beer seems an integral part of sauna culture where you sit off to the side with your beer and “soak up the strokes.”  The national Finnish beer debuts in the first poem where the speaker  has “a Lapin Kulta Premium.” and then aims to “Find out who’s where” in the sauna (17).

In addition to noting how politics affected an English man to emigrate to Finland, international trade where “Forests from islands become logs/piled high/near train stations. Bound for China”(54) is also addressed.  International tragedies have a personal element through bringing people’s stories to the page, for example, supposed refuges’ stories.  On the island of Ii working at “Orient Kebob/Pizza” is “an Iraqi Kurd. One of only a few in a small Finnish town.  His family was gassed/during the war with Iran.” We also meet Ali from Afghanistan who “grew up dreaming of/Nokia, gadgets, magic screens. When his parents died during/the war, he walked to this country of reindeer and boreal forest,/learned to speak Finnish”(47).  While the author at her writing residency on Ii island intends “To make bridges with words” such as “air-girl/water-daughter/ city-dweller-in-the mushroom forest.” a friend’s drunk friend sees her, an American, as “stupid” assuming she voted for Trump and she cannot shake him from it.

She deftly touches on American politics through looking at a footbridge and tells us “Liars cross the line so often they fell bridges./A van drove into turbulent seas filled with /unsuspecting believers./Can you experience pure goodness, envying others as you do?/Living with the senseless demagogue who orders more bridges/when there’s no longer a river?” (60). There is a glint into environmental problems with a Japanese guest who “swallows salmon soup with gratitude” and we glean her true gratitude as coming from consuming safe food in Finland when the fact is stated that “After the Fukushima/nuclear accident, they test vegetables for radioactivity.”  Likewise in Jukkasjärvi, Sweden  “The town is sinking.  Citizens, monuments, homes must/be       moved or demolished/From cracks and crevices, the sound of cash….[and] Ore always matters more.” (34-35).

Friendship is also noted in the sauna:  “Our friendship expands and quiets/over eleven years since I first visited Suomi.” And in the sauna these two friends “Leave/imperfection/and judgment./Sweat and cold, wood and skin.” It is the space of the sauna that brings these women together and that heals such wounds as “I lost my father this year.  He/slipped out of the room”(63). In “Flesh from Stone” friendship and sauna food culture merge:  “the smoke sauna outside the city with a lunch buffet.  We talk/and sweat, then drink beer. The city unfolds in the present of presence, melding steam from green.  Sex between solitude,/ separating flesh from stone.”

The author has experienced saunas in many different places, from in Finland’s countryside, to its capital, in Massachusetts, and on a cruise ship. She recounts how a sauna caught fire, and in a photo we can see red emergency boxes outside of the saunas. The heat “is hot enough/to melt a stone.”(20) In “ The Thin Man at Kuusijarvi Sauna” she observes how a man manages the sauna:  “He cultivates heat like wanton love” (20). The high temperatures penetrate deep:  “Heat builds in our teeth.  We need the plunge-pond for /muddying burning feet. We need water.”(28) The heat has transformative power. In “Prior Previous-Ness” she discloses “We un-do done graduate school/striving, for hot-heat relaxation, nudity.”(25).  Everyone is included:  “Women old and young, of every shape    naked or not/tingle and talk//We take steps   from steam    to smoke/ to electric”(38).  

I wish there was more inclusion of the Kalevala, observation of Finnish culture (mannerisms, customs, and behaviors), heightened language, and purely nature observation poems,. I would like to see more luscious haiku elements, jumping elements that let readers rest and wonder. For example in “Songs Captivate the Traveler” she beautifully moves from asking “Could it be a sha-man, or sha-woman blows through this wind and water?” to ”How can the cuckoo bless a forest/if only one tree remains unfelled?”, to “Silence. River, I miss your shadows” (18). 

One poem stands out as really bringing in many layers, from personal, national and nature. “Origin & Motion, “a top poem in this collection, merges Finnish literary and creation myths, sauna culture, and Finnish food and uses those elements to interpret an aging American mother “a widow, [who] grows old in a hot place.” This mother though far away is felt close:  “My mother’s voice cuts through woods like the earth/in dark rye bread.”  The poem moves from Finland’s epic poem and piece of national pride, the Kalevala, where “a barren water-mother’s knee is the place/where birds lay eggs. The bottom half of a smashed egg becomes/earth” and ends with letting us ponder on:  “Motion molds us into elements/beyond our drives.  My mother worries in syllables she cannot sing./ Pain arrives in her feet like eggs hatched.”

About the reviewer: Suzanne Ondrus’ first book, Passion Seeds, won the 2013 Vernice Quebodeaux Prize. She was the 2013 Reed Magazine Markham Poetry Prize winner, a 2017 UNESCO World Book Capital featured poet in Guinea, Conakry, and a 2018-2019 Fulbright Scholar to Burkina Faso, West Africa. Her next poetry book, Death of an Unvirtuous Woman, is due out September 2022 with Finishing Line Press.