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from the June 2015 issue

Jerking Out of Rotation: Four Icelandic Poets

Given that its language is spoken by fewer than 350,000 people across the world, Iceland manages to publish an astonishing volume of poetry, reflecting the country’s nearly 100 percent literacy rate. In this modest cross-section of emerging, feminist/queer, and seasoned poets, some of the recurring themes of modern Icelandic poetry begin to emerge: deep reverence for nature and eco-poetics, progressive sexual politics, and the predilection for drawing out the capaciousness of the minute particular.

Magnús Sigurðsson figures the mind as a landscape—his articulated thoughts project onto fields barren or lush. For Sigurðsson the imagination is a fragile ecosystem compromised by flood and drought, both threatened and molded by the external forces that act upon it. One can raise a fortress around the imagination out of words that grow mossy and “green/like a peace/treaty;” this fortress ultimately acts as a buffer between the self that fears the world (and its ever-expanding web of connection) and the self that longs,—and needs—to love another’s humanity. It is a balancing act between learning inside the forest of the mind and leaving that forest in search of untrodden trails. Because, Sigurðsson insists, “Our duty is://to try,/to hope.” Born in 1984 in a small fishing village in Iceland, Magnús Sigurðsson received the Tómas Guðmundsson Poetry Prize for his first collection of poems, Fiðrildi, mynta og spörfuglar Lesbíu (“Butterflies, Mint, and Lesbia’s Sparrows”) and the prestigious Jón úr Vör Poetry Prize for a single poem, “Tunglsljós” (“Moonlight”). A prolific translator as well as a poet, Sigurðsson recently released his fourth poetry collection, Krummafótur (“Crow’s Foot”), and Bláar hýasintur (“Blue Hyacinths”), a volume of poems by Adelaide Crapsey, one of the (forgotten) pioneers of American modernism.  

Gyrðir Elíasson is a master of the paysage intérieur; that said, his inner landscapes are as expansive as his imagination, ranging from the microcosmic to the cosmological. For Elíasson, the earth runs in strong and self-determining cycles of growth and loss. A seasoned Icelandic writer (whose fiction appeared, in Victoria Cribb’s translation, in the 2011 Icelandic issue of Words without Borders), Elíasson sets up worlds as tangible as an “animal shaking off its restlessness,” but as sublime as a planet that suddenly jerks out of an ultrafast rotation. His is the landscape of dreams, a mindscape where darkness and light exist in such perfect harmony that they become irrelevant. Elíasson published his first book of poetry in 1981, and has since published dozens of works, including novels and translations. Generally very personal in nature, his work frequently takes up the discord between light and dark, human and animal, freedom and law, even humanity and law, within the earth’s atmosphere and beyond. For example, Elíasson’s poem “On the Sunny Side” recalls the Apollo 14 landing and Alan Shepard’s bewilderment when looking at the earth: “…it looks so peaceful…all the military and political differences become so insignificant seeing it from that distance.” We still have the ability to wonder at the universe, his poems seem to suggest. And as long as we practice experiencing the sublime, we can outlast boredom and survive ourselves.

Kristín Svava Tómasdóttir’s politics confront the reader a little more forcefully. “Do I look like a terrorist?” she asks. Born in Reykjavík in 1985 and active as an organizing member of the poetry collective Nýhil (a group that facilitated an international poetry festival in Iceland for many years), Tómasdóttir is a well-known feminist poet in Iceland. Peppered with black humor and references to pop culture, her poetics are also concerned to some extent with speaking frankly about the LGBTQ community. Strong rhymes and rhythms drive many of her poems (particularly “Austurvöllur on the day of the wake”) to a kind of climactic ideal—her mountaintops—conveying a sense that something is missing. Something is being taken for granted, overlooked. Egocentrism and consumerism have bulldozed our sentiments. The ultimate prize for Tómasdóttir seems to be freedom—but freedom as action rather than a state at which to arrive and rest. Her involvement with Nýhil constituted such freedom.

As prologue to the beguiling simplicity of Arngunnur Árnadóttir’s lyric, I want to borrow a line from her fellow poet Sigurðsson: the best poems are snerpa og skerpa, “quick and focused.” Árnadóttir’s first chapbook, Unglingur (Teenagers), was published by Partus Press—an independent poetry collective and press, whose small and beautiful editions showcase work from emerging Icelandic poets—in the series Meðgönguljóð (Pregnancy Poems, and also, with a pun in the Icelandic, “Little Pocket Volumes of Poetry"). The poems featured here—Bus I, II, III, IV—narrate the commonplace pierced by the uncanny. Writer and reader seem to merge in these prose poems, an effect Árnadóttir constructs by “recording events” in a journal nearly free of sentimentality. Born in 1987 in Reykjavik, Árnadóttir is a highly accomplished musician, performing as the principle clarinetist in the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra. Maybe it’s Arngunnur’s sense of music, that act of giving and receiving sound, that drives the convergence of reader and writer, poet and scene.

Within Sigurðsson’s minimalism, Svava’s leviathanic orðsnilld (“word genius”), Elíasson’s mindscapes, and Árnadottir’s chronicled bus rides, we find a range of voices, the pulse of different generations belonging to the same community. At the heart of this small collection is an ethos that goes beyond poetry, beyond borders; an ethos that simply asks, How do I live? Icelandic poets are in a unique position to speak—granted, through poetry’s slanted speech—to contemporary, global, political, economic, and environmental crises. Coming out of a society noted for its inclusivity and progressive politics (challenging stereotypes of island insularity), these poets triangulate those struggles and leave us with models in literature and life. 

© 2015 by Meg Matich. All rights reserved.

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