By Mark Chamney Asch“I hope you will enjoy the diversity of languages here this evening,” said host Kristín Vilhjálmsdóttir, introducing Monday’s program at the Reykjavík City Library.
These readings, part of Monday and Tuesday’s Pass the Word readings, a literary programme hosted by Reykjavík UNESCO City of Literature, in tandem with the PEN International Congress and Reykjavík International Literary Festival, also marked the new fall season at the Library’s weekly Café Lingua nights of linguistic and cultural exchange.
The night’s six readers, hailing from Iceland and continental Europe, read in four different languages, and each in their way …..
70% in Icelandic and 32% in English
“How many non-Icelandic speakers are in the audience?” asked the first reader, the Icelandic poet Aðalsteinn Ásberg Sigurðsson. Counting the show of hands, he said, “Ok. I will read 70% in Icelandic and 32% in English.” Aðalsteinn read three poems from his book Black Sky, a collaboration with photographer Nökkvi Elíasson, available in both Icelandic and English-Icelandic editions. Each of the poems, which in print accompany dramatic black and white photographs of abandoned Icelandic farms, was delivered emphatically, as if echoing across places outside of history. A final poem, “Stone Poem,” from the collection Self Portraits, considered the poet as an explorer equally in the wild domains of nature and memory.
Dagmar Trodler, a German historical novelist based in Iceland, read next, and delivered an English excerpt from her most recent novel, Der Duft der Pfirsichblüte (“The Scent of Peach Blossom”), a rare opportunity for English-language readers to experience her work, thus far largely unavailable in this language. The novel is set in 1810, and the section Dagmar read concerns a mother and daughter aboard a prison ship bound for Australia. The women aboard the ship—a six-month voyage—are described as both chained physically and “captivated in their own fear”; the link between physical and psychic bondage is underscored as the protagonists lose track of the passage of the days below-decks: “Time was invented by the men who had sentenced them.” Dagmar’s descriptions of life on a 19th-century prison ship were memorably visceral; in the excerpt’s final movement, one of the heroines breaks down into fervent as she witnesses another passenger being whipped, an ironic invocation of the spiritually in a disturbingly material world.
Rather than alternate between Icelandic and English, as others readers did, Gerður Kristný, the Icelandic poet, novelist and children’s author, introduced herself in Icelandic and launched straight into a selection of her Icelandic poetry, before switching abruptly to English and introducing a selection of her work recently printed in Modern Poetry in Translation, in an issue dedicated to the 2012 Parnassus poetry festival. Holding up the journal, Gerður noted dryly: “I even got to be the back cover girl, isn’t that an honor?” She nodded, forcefully. Gerður set up the the poem “Skagafjörður” with a little personal history: “One of the arguments I had with my husband was over where we are going to be buried. It’s one of the few arguments I’ve lost to my husband. So I’m going to be buried in Skagafjörður, which is… (She waves her hand, vaguely, in a northerly direction.) … It’s very cold. I don’t know a lot of people there.” So the poem’s narrator discusses what she will do for her children, so that they will visit her grave and tend to her memory; in this way the poem also becomes an earnest evocation of motherly love. “Triumph,” also set around Skagafjörður, describes a hunter tying a recently slain arctic fox to his jeep: “No one mentions Achilles or Hector, and I know to hold my tongue.”
Job Degenaar, a Dutch poet, announced that he would read first “in my own language, so you can hear the sound.” That poem, when read in English, proved to be centered around the refrain, “So this is summer,” the thought of a melancholy bird. The half-dozen poems he read, about the loveliness of the world and the sadness of its inhabitants, culminated with one called “The Art of Poetry,” which described the seeds of the dandelion, a fragile flower that nevertheless grows everywhere thanks to its “delicate barbs,” which “still binds the earth to itself.”
Markéta Hejkalová, a Czech author, read an abridged version of her short story “Little Manchester,” about a Czech author attending a literary conference in Serbia. The poignant attrition of history—manifest in European countries that don’t exist anymore, and languages that are no longer gateways to shining new worlds—is mixed with reflections on love, memory, and the changeover of generations, as the protagonist becomes a grandmother, and loses her own mother: “the world could only sustain three generations at a time.”
Finally, Þór Stefánsson read ten short poems in Icelandic; printouts of their English-language translations, a collaboration with a Canadian poet met at a Swedish conference, were handed around. Þór’s poems are minimalist verses about the paradoxes of love: “Love doesn’t / tarnish. // It streams ahead / with menace, // digs a deep bed, / leaps in a high waterfall. // Who would keep on swimming / in still waters?”
Afterwards, attendees were encouraged to stick around, “If you’d like to have coffee, or a language.”
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Photographs: Markús Már Efraím Sigurðsson