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.
In 2003, I wrote a series of 365 poems in 6 weeks. The series included several of my poetry books, including my favourite, The Spoken World (Hagios Press [Radiant] 2011). As no one has seen that book, or the speech between the living and the (so-called) dead, through the gates of love and Earth, here’s a small spell for stepping into the Earth’s embrace, that seems to have been written for these times.
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!
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.
Cassy Welburn and I are story-telling at Vancouver’s Cottage Bistro on Sunday, February 28. From fairies to a waitress at a truck stop who
calls out orders over the sound of retarder brakes and exhaust,
Cassy’s startling and life-affirming stories rise from the Celtic tradition after long experience as a performer and story teller. Click here for a review of Cassy’s book. Cassy and I were on stage in Lethbridge last fall and had a blast telling stories with each other. It’s your turn to be charmed. I will be telling stories from my book The Art of Haying: a Journey to Iceland,including encounters with elves, trolls, the Green Man, a dragon and others on a pilgrimage through the German forest and escape to the volcanic remnant of Atlantis in the North Atlantic. This is a love story and a tribute to the beauty of Iceland. I’m bringing a collection of photographs from the book to show you all the top of the world.
The performance is at Cottage Bistro, at 4470 Main Street in Vancouver. Their phone is 604-876-6138.
The show is at 5 pm. We’ll have you home in time for dinner with the elves.
This review just appeared in Dialogue. It’s so great to have a reader like Susan and a publisher who will give space to a thorough review like this. I am deeply honoured and grateful.
“Two Minds, One Household,” A Review of Harold Rhenisch’s Two Minds (Frontenac House, 2015) by Susan McCaslin, Fort Langley BC
Harold Rhenisch’s recent volume of poetry, Two Minds, is a unified long poem composed of a series of aphoristic ghazals, variations on the Persian classic form. To enter this sequence is to step inside a place where history, myth, language, and the poetry of the natural world converge. In these gnomic utterances, inner realities mirror and contain each other in a way that suggests everything is interconnected with everything else.
The “two minds” of the title are at one level the thinking-feeling individual mind and a more unified consciousness that includes and transcends it. Only a trickster mind capable of embracing apparent opposites can fearlessly hold such paradoxes as this:
The whole world and all of time can be seen,/ even by the smallest child, even in a Rufous hummingbird,/ / hanging, bronze, on the tip of a spring willow—/ once only, and again once only, and again. Only once.
(from “Everything and Nothing”)
The “two minds” appear in some contexts as the post-Enlightenment rationalist mind versus the shamanic mind, which is not to be confused with mere madness, but is a form of “divine mania”: “Sometimes a man is locked up for being of two minds. Sometimes he e capes” (from “Remembering Paul Celan”). The shamanic presence that haunts these poems is not merely the poet himself in his personal identity, but a presence we all have the capacity to become: “10,000 years ago, a shaman tracked deep into the night. /Now he is coming back. I meet him at the door. I open” (“Instructions for the Winter Ceremony”).
Reading the Contents pages is like reading a series of short poems held together within a longer one. Take this title, for instance: “As the Riverbed Forms Itself Into a Trout, It Swallows the Sky.” Rhenisch throws everything he has into this cauldron of a volume. The “I” speaks from a dark-light shamanic ground far beyond the world of the Cartesian subject-object split. Some- times it is as if Earth herself rises to speak: One yellow chrysanthemum with brown leaves burns in the white world. Ah.”
(from “Song of the Earth”)
Rhenisch’s ghazals lead us through diverse landscapes and cultures of Northern Europe but also encompass British Columbia and the Cascadia region of the Pacific Northwest, as, for instance, when he writes about the Nootka Fault line. The speaker is a global traveller, a pilgrim following the Northern leg of the Camino de Santiago, who pauses to see seeing, touch touching, lis- ten to listening. In his “Pilgrim’s Song on the Road to the East” he enters sacred space just as he is: I have mud on my shoes. This is how I enter the cathedral: on foot.
On this journey the monotheistic Judeo-Christian-Islamic God mingles with Paleolithic and pagan gods and goddesses. Rhenisch is not afraid to use the word “God” and alludes to the dynamic of time’s intimacies with eternity (“Where Time Ends and Eternity Begins”). His God is a mystery both transcendent and immanent. Christ is “a blooming Dionysus.” Even the Trinity is imaginatively revisioned in “The Day We Re-enacted the Story of the Trinity.” Bach stands in the doorway of a church shaped like a woman, but we are the ones who push the inner door open.
This volume seeks to restore the depths of western religious and mystical traditions, recovering Christianity’s lost roots in older, indigenous cultures. Yet clearly the Celtic Green man of the cover design is the unifying presence of the volume. The first poem in the book, “The Man with the Head of a Stag Speaks,” is followed later by “Green Man Rises.”
On his blog, Rhenisch explains the Celtic and Persian (Sufic) origins of this ancient forest spirit and how the Green Man mythos, inscribed in art and architecture, ties to the Islamic prophet Khezr (also called Khidr), who is said to have had the power to initiate seekers who have no guide and to rescue lost wanderers. Khezr clearly becomes the speaker’s primary poetic guide on his journey. (See the poet’s commentary: https://haroldrhenisch.com/2015/10/06/khezr-the-hidden-prophet- and-my-two-minds/ )
In Rhenisch’s ghazals, each couplet stands on its own, yet resonates within the poem as a whole, which in turn resonates within the entirety of the book. Each couplet is to the volume as a star to its constellation. Some of Rhenisch’s couplets may at first appear cryptic or opaque to linear reasoning. Like Zen koans, they invite you to knock your skull against them. Often a slight shift opens the reader to a larger gestalt: “The world that is the world begins/ with the ladder of integration, which has no rungs” (“All Fall Down”).
One classical rhetorical device Rhenisch employs fre- quently is chiasmus, a stepping forward and back within the structure of the lines. These surprising reversals and mirrorings allow us to bring two perspectives together. Through them Rhenisch develops the theme of the “two minds” which are held in tension as one. Things we think separate are revealed as indwelling each other. Some examples:
Cold determines nothing. Nothing determines the cold.” (from “The Return to the Trees”)
I walk out into the mountain dawn. The mountains walk in.” (from “For Children’s Eyes Only”)
The mind in its shell, thinking: the shell in its mind.” (from “The Shell Game”)
Recurrent themes run wave-like through the whole. One that stands out is that trees are elders and sentient beings (“The Return of the Trees”). The first line of the first poem in the volume takes us “outside the forest of words,” but soon we are returned to the inside of actual forests where we feel “the frog pulsing within the scales of a cedar” (from “The Shell Game”). As Rhenish puts it, “[T]he old language is spoken solely by trees” (“The Weight of the Sky Over a Shaman’s Fire”). In the world of the forests, human power hierarchies like that of Shakespeare’s Macbeth become irrelevant: “Trees are rooting in my feet; there is no longer a king” (“Everyone in the Script is Macbeth’). Or as Rhenisch puts it later, “This forest belongs to the trees.”
Another recurrent configuration involves the presence of the philosopher Plato. Surprisingly, the poems about Plato and Socrates are not abstract, but contemporary, jazzy and playful, with titles like: “Socrates Wears a Black Collar with Silver Spikes,” “Preliminary Notes to a Translation of Particle Physics Into Platonic Light,” and “Walking Out of the Cave Is Not the Same as Wisdom.” Rhenisch’s Plato is not the Plato of the “divided line” between time and eternity, but the Plato of Socrates’ shamanic teacher Diotima, a bearer of feminine wisdom: “Plato heard women’s voices singing among stones—/and wrote them down, so now it’s still there…” (from “Petals Drift Upon the Stones of a Mountain River”).
Rhenisch’s book isn’t only philosophical and shamanic but political in the deepest sense, addressing our current environmental crisis. He notes that “Clear cut forests recede into blue hills/ in sheets of smoke, which they enter as they reenter light” (“Where Time Ends and Eternity Begins”). And in a particularly poignant ghazal he laments that “The mountains are being taken down and loaded on rusty ships” (“Conservation and Rebirth”).
Rhenisch has created a shamanic dream book that lifts us out of our destructive anthropocentrism, but not out of who we are within the playfield of the all-encompass- ing natural world. A mysterious music plays through these poems that is and is not merely the individual poet. The author takes risks in exploring what some post- modern philosophers have rejected: transcendence. However, in this context transcendence does not entail abandoning the body for a “higher world,” but leaving boxed-in knowing to move toward fuller integration. The poems’ force field is larger than its ideas and concepts, and in harmony with the music flowing in, around, under, and through the words.
Review by Susan McCaslin Dialogue.
About Harold Rhenisch:
Harold Rhenisch has published 12 full-length books of poetry, including the spiritual precursor to Two Minds, “The Spoken World” (Hagios), and 26 other books of poetry, memoir, essay, and environmental writing. His The Art of Haying (Ekstasis 2015) completes the process of Two Minds with 200 photographs from Iceland and Germany. Harold studied with P.K. Page, Charles Lillard, Robin Skelton and Zsuzsi Gartner, has taught poetry and fiction writing at Vancouver Island University and has been writer-in-residence at both Okanagan Regional Library and Douglas College. He has won a CBC poetry prize, two Malahat Review long poem prizes, and a George Ryga Prize, among other national and provincial prizes for poetry, drama and journalism. Harold lives in Vernon, BC. ♣
As part of the national Mayor’s Poetry Challenge, I will read a poem about steam punk at the Vernon City Hall Council Chambers on Monday, April 13, 2015, at 1 pm. Everyone is welcome!
What is the Mayor’s PoetryCity Challenge?
Regina Mayor Michael Fougere challenges his fellow mayors across Canada to have a local poet read a poem at the opening of their Council meetings in March or April. The challenge is a celebration of UNESCO’s World Poetry Day (March 21) and National Poetry Month in April. The purpose is to celebrate poetry, writing, small presses and the contribution of poets and all writers to the cultural life in our communities. It also celebrates libraries, and the work of so many mayors and municipalities to promote the Arts, culture, and literacy and reading. Click here for the FAQ.
Come and Hear about My New Steam Punk City Project. Vernon from the ground up!