Let me show you a few pictures from Iceland, to illustrate the introduction to my new book Landings: Poems from Iceland. First the introduction. I call it The Way Home.
We are in the open Atlantic. Every poem about to open before you springs from a place and bears its name. At each of these wells, the earth speaks through human and animal life. Flowers bloom and knock around in the wind. There is always wind.
And just like that, you are in an island in the North Atlantic. In his great anti-war novel The Shore of Life, written in anguish immediately after the Battle of the Somme in World War I…
… Gunnar Gunnarsson noted that the land is ringed with a deadly surf, that one must cross, either for fish or for the world, and must cross back home again for shelter, I think he had Iceland’s eider ducks in mind. Look at them here in Neskaupstaðir, fishing with their chicks in the surf.
Some of the chicks get tossed a metre into the air, and then dragged down a metre under the waves.. If I’m right, this is Gunnar’s image of World War I. So much has gone into portrayals of its butchery and horror and senselessness, yet to deal with his own horror, Gunnar chose an image of life, and one at the heart of the Icelandic soul. That choice is at the heart of this book, too. This is a book of hope, and of coming home. As I point out in the introduction…
1100 years ago, Icelanders settled this volcanic island in the middle of the ocean. The place is not so much a land as a landing, that moment when the keel of a boat hits shore and is lifted and held up, suddenly solid and free of the grey sea.
The days of going out into the open ocean to catch a few low-value fish are over, yet the knowledge gained from the experience remains, and has found its way into words here.
These poems are the moment when the land lifts you up: not an object but an energy and a process. Here’s a central passage from my poem “The Meeting Place”, one of the book’s Landings:
As speakers of English, we are all home here in Iceland. Landings is a map. It’s not in bookstores yet, but I’ll get you a copy. I have a few maps, too. Just ask. Drop me a line on Facebook, at www.haroldrhenisch.com, or @hrhenisch. We’ll be talking soon.
A decade-long love affair with Iceland fills my new book with poems and prayers that are lifted by place and magic. This is a book for people who love the Earth, told in a language physically anchored to the roots of English in the old sea-going North.
It is also full of trolls, elves and other land-based understandings of consciousness the Norse brought from Norway 1100 years ago. In Iceland, even a man or a woman could become a troll, even while living, as the word originally described only the relationship of a person to a specific place. Only? Well, it’s a lot! Here’s one of my favourite haunts.
It is always good to know where the neighbourhood volcano is.
Here’s how Sharon Thesen describes the book:
It is, as you can see, a work of love. The “Landings” of the title are those moments when the earth lifts up the keel of a boat and holds it steady, where just a moment before it was rolling at sea. It is an energy that precedes “land” and more accurately describes human relationships to it. In other words, it is a book about being home on the Earth, and is the culmination of decades of work exploring the roots of English to function fully as an indigenous language. Here is Petursey, Peter’s Island, one of the elf cities of the Icelandic south.
These are simple poems of wit, grounded in experience. They come with a rich glossary of names, giving the story of each place in which they are set. As the publisher says:
Here’s an example from the glossary:
Hallormsstaður / Hawthorn Farm
This old parsonage houses a children’s art school within an arboretum of exotic trees from the global North, and a guest house in the dormitory of a girls’ boarding school, where the girls of the district were taught Icelandic embroidery as part of the project of freeing the country from Denmark. It worked. Never underestimate embroidery.
I spent a month just up the fjord as writer in residence in 2013, talking to the local thrush. Here’s Ljósárfoss, The Waterfall of Light, in the Birch and Hawthorn Forest the girls embroidered a country from:
And the embroidery? You can tromp through the hills and still pick these flowers today. The poems in the book are like this, too, following sheep and farmers through the heather and the grass.
In addition to a textual table of contents, the book’s frontispiece is a map as well, showing the whole country as the book.
Thanks to my editor, Daniela Elza, for urging us to make this deep ecological guide.
Those girls are one of my inspirations. The book is a woven artefact, like the lines that sheep make wandering through the Icelandic summer, which are spun and knitted again into the charms we call sweaters to keep us warm together in the winter dark. Here’s how Patrick Friesen describes this approach:
This is the poem craft I have learned after forty seven years at this game, written out of love and in honour of all that Robin Skelton taught me of poetry, magic and the weaving of silence in among words. This is not a poem of the past, though. Its songs are of the present and the future, physically grounded. It’s not just the horses grazing on the old turf house ruins at Eiðar, the farm called Fate, that stretch across a line of verse but don’t break it…
… but words as well. Here is the ending of my poem Findings, contemplating the Syrian exodus from the lost harbour of Stapavík in the Icelandic East.
Here’s the view from the Stapavík Trail, looking north over black sand and the dunes of the bird sanctuary between the Seal River and the Glacial River itself.
The beach, though, is not for humans, and that’s about right.
These are poems for living voices. Here’s how Marilyn Bowering describes them:
In this time that seems to want to drive people apart from each other and the land, I found myself in Iceland, writing a book about coming home to a renewed Earth and feet solidly standing on it. Sometimes those are the feet of a thrush, those curious birds that follow you around, stare you in the eye, and always on the verge of speech.
This is the work of a poet, as I know it. Here’s the first half of my poem “The Poet’s Work.”
The first half of writing this book was to build a musical language of spirit embodied in the Earth. The second half is to share it with readers and listeners. Thanks to my publisher Byrna Barclay of Burton House Books, for finding the love poems in my travels and bringing them into print for us all. The best way to buy this book in these strange times is from me, or from Burton House. Or order a copy into your local bookstore, and gently suggest that we do a reading together.
And, please, be in touch. We’re open to any ideas as to how I can bring these poems to voice and ears and keep us all close as we start to heal our broken Earth, one word and one landing at a time.
Let’s talk soon. Here’s the book details your store will need.
John La Greca and I are driving down the Fraser Canyon tomorrow to bring John’s poetry from the streets of Vernon to the streets of Vancouver. I will read from new work, including the first-ever reading of material from “The Black Queen” about oil pipelines, T-Rex and a wild night right through the city. The reading is at Massy Books, which is at 229 East Georgia Street, in Vancouver. Click that link for a map. It starts at 7 p.m. We look forward to having a chat with you there. John is going to be filmed for an up-coming film on poetry in the Okanagan. It should be lots of fun. Wish us good weather! Here’s Poet’s Corner’s info on the event:
Yes, we are having a reading in December! We can’t think of a better way to de-stress from the Holiday Season than by listening to some fine, fine poets and poetry. We have threefeatured poets stepping up to the microphone on December 19! All three are out-of-towners, so let’s welcome them and show our appreciation for their efforts to get here during a busy time of the year. We have to poet stalwarts and we’re introducing someone relatively new to the reading scene. Take a look at who’s coming and read their bio’s, here.
December’s First Featured Poet
Gary Geddes has written and edited close to 50 books of poetry, fiction, drama, non-fiction, criticism, translation, and anthologies and won a dozen national and international literary awards, including the Commonwealth Poetry Prize (Americas Region), the Lt.-Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence, and the Gabriela Mistral Prize, awarded simultaneously to Octavio Paz, Vaclav Havel, Ernesto Cardenal, Rafael Alberti, and Mario Benedetti. His non-fiction books include Letters from Managua, Sailing Home, Kingdom of Ten Thousand Things,Drink the Bitter Root. and Medicine Unbundled: A Journey Through the Minefields of Indigenous Health Care. His most recent books of poetry are Falsework, Swimming Ginger, What Does A House Want? and The Resumption of Play. Geddes has a PhD from U of T and has taught at Concordia, Western Washington University, and University of Missouri-St. Louis and has been writer-in-residence at U. of Alberta, UBC’s Green College, Ottawa U. and the Vancouver Public Library. He lives on Thetis Island, BC with his wife, the novelist Ann Eriksson.
December’s Second Featured Poet
Harold Rhenisch is the author of the critique of book culture, “The Art of Haying: a Journey to Iceland,” the sufic ghazals in “Two Minds,” the spellcraft of “The Spoken World” and twenty-seven other works of fiction, essays, poetry and environmental writing. He works as a professional editor in Vernon and does reviews for the Ormsby Review. He won awards in the CBC Literary Contest in 2007 and 2017 and won the Malahat Review Long Poem Prize twice. He met John la Greca while he was Writer in Residence at Okanagan Regional Library.
December’s Third Featured Poet
John La Greca. I’m 64. I’ve been a client of government social agencies since I was 13. I cracked up when I was 17. It wasn’t until 1980 that I got hospitalized in a psychiatric ward. I’ve been off and on Welfare ever since. I studied at Okanagan College, McGill, Guelph and UBC. Everything that came after, including six months of homelessness, can be seen in the light of an oppressed individual in the social welfare and psychiatric gulag that is present in Canada. I write because the rich and the beautiful and the connected have the monopoly on communication access and distribution. Cultural marginalization cannot kill my essence.
Because we will have three featured poets for this reading, there will be a shortened Open Mic segment for this reading, so if you want a chance to deliver one of your best poems, get there early. Doors open at 6:40pm. See you all at December’s Poets Corner reading on Wednesday, December 19. We’re underway at 7:00 p.m. sharp.
Poet, editor, blogger, Harold Rhenisch has written more than twenty books in different media. Born near Cawston, BC, he grew up working in the orchards of the Okanagan and Similkameen valleys, and has drawn lifelong inspiration from his native terroir.
In all his prolific writing, tireless blogs and breathtaking images, Rhenisch has been striving “to create an authentic literature for the silent rural parts of Canada, to place their images and dialects on an equal footing with those of the modern urban world.”
Harold Rhenisch was the 2007 recipient of the annual George Ryga Prize for Social Awareness.
Event Type: Author Reading
I have put together a slide show, to circle around my poem Saying the Names, and its roots in the land and the work of poets Al Purdy and Pat Lane. There is a story of many of us walking together. This festival is a celebration of the legacy of one of these joined voices, the playwright George Ryga…
Again, here’s how the festival puts the story:
About George Ryga
Writer & Playwright
George Ryga, considered by many as Canada’s most important English language playwright, lived in Summerland from 1963 until his death in 1987.
His prolific multifaceted writings includes stage plays, radio, TV and film scripts, novels, short stories and novellas, critical essays, travelogues, music and song lyrics, and poetry.
Most of Ryga’s creative output originated from his home in Summerland, including The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, which was published to critical acclaim in 1967 and remains the best-selling Canadian play of all time.
Born in 1932, Ryga was raised poor in the Ukrainian farming community near the town of Athabasca. Despite having to leave school at the age of 13, he soon won a scholarship to the prestigious Banff School of Fine Arts on the strength of one of his very first stories.
George Ryga first found national fame when CBC television produced his play Indian, and soon two of his novels were published in England. In 1963 he and his wife Norma brought their young family to Summerland, where they bought a small orchard on Caldwell Street. It was here that Ryga came to write his most famous works, including The Ecstasy of Rita Joe (1967), which awakened a nation celebrating its centennial to the continuing tragedy of its Indigenous Peoples. Two years later the play was revived to open the new National Arts Centre in Ottawa, an event attended by the prime minister and all ten provincial premiers. As the late great director John Juliani wrote, George Ryga should be remembered and celebrated for “bringing the contemporary age to the Canadian stage.”
I will be talking about one place where all of this comes together, the heart of the Plateau, Palouse Falls:
Since before its first occupation 8,000 years ago, this has been a living human space. We serve ourselves well to enter it. I hope to see you in Summerland!
I hope you can come and take part in a discussion about the visual culture of the Okanagan. Tania Willard and I will be speaking at Kelowna’s Alternator Centre for the Arts from 6 to 8 p.m. on December 5, which is this Tuesday. Tania will be talking about her #Bush Gallery curatorial project and her work as a Secwepemc artist and curator. Expect to learn about this exciting work:
I will be speaking about the connection between eye and world in the valley, through a discussion about English as an Earth Language. I will work to set the concepts of Land, Landscape, Property and Place to the side and replace them with living terms. Expect to see images from Iceland, the Okanagan and across the Pacific Northwest, as I explore the words of my ancestors, including “Far”…
I hope to see you there. There will be lots of time for you to speak as well. The event is organized by Katherine Pickering of the University of British Columbia Okanagan, and, yes, UBCO landscaping will form part of the show. See you there, eye to eye.
l to r: Cornelia Hoogland (Tourists Stroll a Victoria Waterway), Laboni Islam (Lunar Landing, 1966), Sarah Kabamba (Carry), Alessandra Naccarato (Postcards for My Sister), and Saying the Names Shanty (Harold Rhenisch).
I am proud that my poem Saying the Names Shanty is making its way across the country today as one of the five short-listed poems, and I am humbled that only five poets are representing the 33 poems of the long list, announced last week. That is a great responsibility.
Wouldn’t it be great if all 33 of us read our poems together and then opened the floor to a big open mic for the other 2400 entrants. It would take a full weekend, at least. Or a year-long tour. I’m all for it.
Closer to home, you can see that my writing workshop group here in Vernon is thrilled. And surprised!
And here is my poem swimming towards the Manhattan Project’s moth-balled plutonium reactors on its journey into the world…
…across the nx̌ʷɘntkʷitkʷand on…
The nx̌ʷɘntkʷitkʷ (The Columbia River), or Who Needs the English Language Anyway!
Some of that water is the snow that falls on the valley that speaks, in part, through me as Saying the Names Shanty. The nx̌ʷɘntkʷitkʷ is one of the big rivers of the continent, with a massive pull, but it looks like the poem has good legs, so that’s good. As I mentioned last week, here, the poem is about saying the names for the social fields, rivers, grasslands and rivers in which I live, including the qawsitkw, below, that leads salmon through the reactor fields to Siberia and back home to the rattlesnakes and prickly pear cactus.
The Syilx Fishery at nʕaylintn.
The last unbroken salmon run on the Columbia and the source of renewal for the whole plateau.
The poem is one of many eyes of this story I have landed on. Here are some of its sisters, at Ktlil’x:
The sacred water at the heart of my country, with a rogue Russian Olive trying to blend in as only a date can.
You can find out more about syilx names for this country on the naming project, sqʷəlqʷltulaʔxʷ, or, roughly, Voices on the Land.
In the spirit of coming together, let’s sing a poem today and be brought to life by its voice, wherever it finds us, however we make ourselves open to it, in a shared giving of thanks that poems can still find us. I’m so proud that my poem is out there, giving thanks in a brighter voice than I can without it, and in your company, too. What a bonus! Thank you, from a Transparent apple tree and its dandelion-headed caretaker.
My poem “Saying the Names Shanty” is part of a book-length manuscript of songs for being at home in the west beyond the West, and especially in the grasslands between the mountains, and of following the road across the mountains and prairies to the east. To which, with respect and thanks for the syilx people, whose land, whose Nxʷɘlxʷɘltantɘt, this is, I add the Okanagan Nation declaration:
“We are the unconquered aboriginal people of this land, our mother; The creator has given us our mother, to enjoy, to manage and to protect; we, the first inhabitants, have lived with our mother from time immemorial; our Okanagan governments have allowed us to share equally in the resources of our mother; we have never given up our rights to our mother, our mother’s resources, our governments and our religion; we will survive and continue to govern our mother and her resources for the good of all for all time.” https://www.syilx.org/about-us/syilx-nation/okanagan-nation-declaration/
To all syilx people, yours are the names. Thank you for keeping them alive and for sharing them. Your act of sharing has given me life, and a chance to sing of love. The woman whose hands are on the wheel in the poem, is the poet Linda Rogers,
who introduced me to Al’s poem “Say the Names” by reading it to me late at night in her kitchen in Victoria, with, if I remember correctly, a whoop of joy. I sure felt one, at any rate. Thanks, Linda. All of us, and the poet Pat Lane…
…whose poem “Similkameen Deer”, which begins with a road sign like this …
…Driving through the Similkameen valley
I watch for deer on the Road.
Miles roll out beneath me….
… probably below the screes and Mount Mazuma Ash at As’nola Mouth, where the waters of the Pasayten Wilderness and the Cascade Range meet between Hedley and Keremeos, began me on this journey four decades ago, have, among others, made this poem together, although the words came to it through me. Friends, poets, brothers, sisters, words and spirits, thank you. This moment is yours, a gift for you for the gifts you’ve given. Thank you, CBC, for the chance to share it.
Well, for one thing, if we did our work ourselves instead of relying on virtual human slaves to do it for us, we would all look a lot less ridiculous. This urban scene (notice its lack of humans) is a landscape of slavery from one end to the other, with the exception of its deviations from order: the weeds on the right, and the sign that can’t resist irony. Poetry helps make these non-human, slave environments livable. And that’s just peek under the hood of my project Steam Punk City. More peeks here: https://www.witual.wordpress.com
Tonight, March 9, 2016, at 6:30 p.m. at the Laurel Packinghouse, at the corner of Cawston and Ellis in Kelowna, I will be helping to unlaunch the Okanagan. Read all about it here. I will talking about stories, such as this one at Dry Falls…
… and my heart, Palouse Falls, just north of the Snake River.
I will also be talking about the loons of Kokanee Bay, from my book Winging Home, or the Centre of the Universe, from my book Tom Thomson’s Shack. Time will tell. Why not come and find out?
Humans, are you feeling trapped by the book? Are you tired of trolls like this?
Well, there’s help. I’m giving a talk about all this at Cottage Bistro in Vancouver on Sunday, February 28, at 5 pm. Here are some slides from the book, with their original captions.
Do you feel that books fill your heads with thoughts and lead you down the garden path to a field choked with thoughts and then locks the gate and you can’t even figure out the darned latch?
Do they not even bring you any sugar cubes anymore?
Well, you’re not alone.
The performance is at Cottage Bistro, at 4470 Main Street in Vancouver. Their phone is 604-876-6138. The show is at 5 p.m., Sunday, February 28.
Here’s a hint of the story I’m going to tell from my new book, the Art of Haying.
I didn’t find this story. It found me on the Camino through the dark forest of Germany, where I lost my identity right about here …
…was give a temporary identity to ride to keep me going, now that I didn’t have a book to hold me …
… and then met the Afrad (one of “The Chosen Ones”) Khedr when I was completely emptied out. He appears now on the cover of my new book of poems, Two Minds, a series of sufic ghazals, conjuring consciousness out of the winds of the world. That’s what Khedr does. He is the force of the world.
I’ll be talking about him on Sunday. He dropped me in Iceland a few days later.
I made new friends.
They taught me that humans build farms under the cliffs, and keep sheep, and that this is a form of writing but writing in the world, not writing on sheepskin or paper. They taught me that I already knew this, and that there are creatures who are keeping these farms, so that humans keep sheep, because these creatures love sheep. They me that I am a kept thing, within these books. They taught me that I am prey.
And so in Iceland I learned to see the pens and fenced pastures of the book. Here’s a collection of such books, including human house, abandoned turf houses, elf house and farm, and in the background, looking out over the fjord, a troll.
Here’s a young Icelandic reader learning her craft with a machine that is killing her, while gentler machines on display in this agricultural college are calling to her: “Go get a horse, dear! We can do that for you.” But she doesn’t hear over the machine.
And so I learned the way out of the pastures of the book into a new wildness.
I learned old forms of creativity that are still new on Iceland.
I learned to read the modern creative individual, the kind that Creative Writing programs are designed to craft (somehow, it didn’t take on me) …
… and the lures that book set to draw humans into domesticated fields …
… and I met many people, many ultra modern people, of the book’s fields. This guy in Reykjavik, for instance. Yes, he is a blockhead.
The Spirit of Reykjavik, too. Well, actually a film-maker’s Norse curse on the Americanized Reykjavik across the harbour from his encampment.
And this woman in Seyðisfjörður, after her body set her aside to dry in the sun after a hard day shovelling snow.
I learned that identities can be put on and taken off when they come to the end of their usefulness for the book trolls who run the farm. Here’s an art gallery of human book identities in downtown Reykjavik.
I also learned there is something else that is stronger than that identity and remains when it is stripped away, as mine was on the pilgrimage path through the German Revolution of 1989, and the Celtic Revolution of … well, long before that.
There is a form of creativity that predates the modern age and is stronger than it. It is still alive in Iceland. Khedr led me to it. It’s time to talk about these things. There’s a way out of that field, my friend.
Does that look like you, living on an elf hill, sniffing the grass in my hand, as I stand beneath the sacred rowans of the graveyard that is always beside an elf hill? Yes, it is! Come on, let’s go to Iceland. I’ll give you the key to that gate.