Finnish North Literature Association
Granddaughter of Finnish immigrants, Sheila Packa lives in Duluth, Minnesota,
where she is a social worker and works occasionally as an English Instructor at
Lake Superior College. Her paternal grandparents are Jacob Packa from Iron,
Minnesota, and Helen Packa from Zim, MInnesota, but born in Ylihärmä, Finland.
Her maternal grandparents are Oskar and Nelli Kamunen from Iron, Minnesota,
Oskar was born in Kalajoki, Finland, and Nelli was born in Upper Michigan; her
parents were born in Finland.
She grew up in Eveleth on Minnesota's Iron Range. She has an MFA from
Goddard College in Montpelier, Vermont, in 1995 and a Bachelor's in Social
Development from the University of Minnesota, Duluth, in 1981. She has received
a Loft McKnight Award and a Loft Mentor Award for Poetry.
She lives with her significant other, Kathy McTavish, near Duluth where she
spends most of her time reading, writing, hiking and cooking.
Visit her website at http://www.sheilapacka.com.
THE MOTHER TONGUE, Calyx Press, Duluth, c2007. (Scroll down to read a
review of this work.)
DEAR BIRD, chapbook and CD, Music by Kathy McTavish, cellist, published by
cellodreams.com, c2006, Duluth, MN.
TO SING ALONG THE WAY: Minnesota Women Poets from Pre-Territorial Days to
the Present, ed Sutphen, Tammaro, and Wanek, New Rivers Press, c2006.
UNCOMMON LIGHT, collection of poetry, Tamarack Press, c2003, Angora,
Minnesota (winner of 2003 NEMBA North East Minnesota Book Award)
ALWAYS SAYING GOOD-BYE: Poetry Chapbook, c1998, Poetry Harbor, Duluth,
Ploughshares, Earth's Daughters, Sing Heavenly Muse!, Wolfhead Quarterly,
Hurricane Alice, Sinister Wisdom, Rag Mag, Sidewalks, North Coast Review,
Loonfeather, Metis, Forkroads, Women's Times, YourLife, Canal Park Times
"Lake Trout" Walker Archives, "The Cure", Finn Stories, Otsa Press, 1998; "Under
the Weather", Sidewalks Spr 1998; "Honey" Evergreen Chronicles, Fall 1997;
"Sparky" Forkroads, Fall 1996; "Smoke" One Minute of Knowing, Loft Publication,
"The North Shore" North Writers II, University of Minnesota Press; "Owning the
Poetic Voice," A View from the Loft, May 1994;
"Feminist Mothering," Wellsprings, Delphi Resources; "Journal of a Pregnancy,"
Women's Times, 1984
RESPONSE, poetry and visual art, Calyx Press, c2005, Duluth, MN compiled by
Cecilia Lieder, Northern Prints Gallery.
SHARED VISIONS, Calyx Press, c2004, Duluth, MN, ed Cecilia Lieder.
Sampo: A Collection of Finnish American Writers, New Rivers Press.
My Lover Is a Woman: Contemporary Lesbian Love Poems, Ballantine Press.
Red, White & a Paler Shade of Blue: Poems on the Finnish American Experience.
Poets Who Haven't Moved to Minneapolis/St. Paul, Poetry Harbor.
For Love: A Review of Sheila Packa’s The Mother Tongue
By Beth L. Virtanen
Sheila Packa has given us moments to pause over a new book of poems that
reflects our most profound hopes, identifications, and loves. It isn’t a sentimental
work where words are written in jingle-verse to recur again and again, making us
wakeful when we would love nothing more than to sleep. No. Packa’s work is there
for us when we can’t sleep and our thoughts turn inward in introspection of our
innermost being, the self we know when we are naked and alone with no need of
Packa’s verse iterates what it is to know northern Minnesota, to be born of the
gaping wounds of open-pit mines that obliterate a landscape, of the temerity of the
awakening of love urges as we enter puberty, of our grounding in the aspirations
of our parents for us and their efforts to support our first steps into adulthood.
She opens the text with the title poem, “The Mother Tongue,” in which we are
located in the world of her mother, the quintessential mother to whom we are all
I migrated from another tongue
My mother spoke another language
had another border I didn’t learn.
I came up through her body
listening to the familiar voice
moving along new vowels, crossed
this fence in my mother’s arms.
She set me here, upon the leaves of grass.
Her language became instrumental, went
from my tongue deep into the body,
a vibration along the spine
from a heart through the breath
the shiver and release
a voice that I know from the inside,
a violin that hums and thrums[ . . . .] (9)
In this voice, informed by, but not continuous with that of the mother, Packa’s
narrator brings us from the moment of creation and into location within the world,
“among invisible and unknown borders/ and later those wide like rivers and
The mother locates and grounds the narrator, locates and grounds us. It is the
mother in whom we make our home and it is the mother who departs, leaving us to
carry on in the position of motherhood:
When my mother died, she brought me
to a border again, and
crossed by herself into silence.
From time to time, I come to that place,
a closed gate that one day will open.
I can give you only these words.
They will fall upon your body
as they will, no one knows
what will root, what tangle will tell, how deep
they might become. I know now
the curious life of words: now
I also speak in the mother tongue. (10)
The poem, like the book, encircles, perhaps tells, the life cycle: we are born into
the moment of our mothers. We grow into ourselves in reference to, and/or
opposite of, and/or extending her. At the moment of death, she brings us with her
to the border that only she crosses, and we learn to speak as she, in the language
of ourselves that came to us from her.
Through three sections, “The Mother Tongue,” “Torrent,” and “Fluency,” Packa
explores the facets of love, first as foundational through poems centered on
coming into being as a person, second as coming into being as a lover, and the
third as coming into being in the articulation of self into a complex and grounded
whole with capacity to speak, to name, to represent, finally, to render poetic.
The Mother Tongue is available from Calyx Press Duluth. Also check with
North Wind Books on the campus of Finlandia University.