A Journey Through a Poem: A Gift for You

This fall, I will be completing a guide for poets, readers and writing teachers, to illustrate the techniques of my new book Landings: Poems from Iceland and guide you into its language. This is ecological poetry, in many forms. I’d like to share a draft of one of these introductions with you today. This one is for my poem, The Way Home. I’m hoping this guide will help pass these techniques on and illustrate some old techniques of poetry in new love poems. Each gives some background to the poem, discusses some of the techniques that power its shape and help it achieve its effects, and presents a few exercises for practice and enjoyment (I hope!) The Way Home is a circular poem. The discussion begins with the Old Norse concept of world, a spherical space. You can get a glimpse of it in the mouth and eye of the ogre below, on the Arnarstapi shore,

The guides will discuss everything from Old Norse’s influence on English as an Environmental Language to the psychological roots of elves, and from the use of couplets, double rhymes, cross-stitch chiming effects, pass-it-on rhymes, to oral effects on the page, kinetic verse and symbolism. You can download the file below. There are 16 pages in the full file. This one discusses the journey words make from the throat to the lips to the ear, and the use of soft rhymes following hard internal chimes and rocking wave patterns to shift the emphasis of language away from reportage to embodiment.

Also, the poem is about coming to the edge of the known world… and then going further. For that, the full poem, in the book, is just the thing:

The King of Atlantis and You

Consider him looking over our shoulder in Reykjavik while we read Landings: Poems from Iceland, on a morning after snow.

Einar Jónsson’s The King of Atlantis

A century ago, the myth was strong in Iceland that it was part of the lost continent. Gunnar Gunnarsson, the novelist in whose house much of the book was written, even took a cruise there in 1928. That’s three landings, I think: Gunnar’s to the Canary Islands, mine to his house, Skriðuklaustur, and this crowd’s on the Icelandic shore:

My New Book Has Landed!

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.

Gerðuberg

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.

And, yes, it was an Island not all that long ago, but things change.

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:

Early April

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.

Map by Trista Bassett and Harold Rhenisch

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…

All Horses are Poets in Iceland

… 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.

Stapavík is Pretty Much Straight Below.

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.

A Thrush in Neskaupstaðir (Shoptown on the Spit)

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.

Ancestral Memory and Poetry

People write poetry for many reasons. Any that is written is not poetry, though, but an incantation that allows for poetry, a force within the universe, to appear. People cannot be taught to bring these appearances forth in the world, because people are not in conscious control of a process that is, ultimately, not human. People can, however, be led to moments in which the possibility of appearance is possible. The rest is up to purity of heart. Not very modern thinking, is it. No. Here’s a moment of possibility:

rivergallagherfish

That’s the Okanagan Nation fishery on the Okanagan River below a cliff that is an ancient story and which records the history of a war between the Syilx and Secwepemc people that ended with an agreement to share this land in the grasslands inland from the North East Pacific Shore. This is my home. Here is a cliff face in South Iceland. Geologists will point out, rightfully, that it is an ancient seashore cliff (that runs for a couple hundred kilometres) lifted away from the sea by tectonic forces. This image was taken from a point on the old seabed, for example. That kind of thing. It also has a stile and a beautiful woman who I love and who (I am blessed) loves me, walking through grass almost as tall as she is. This is a moment of my ancestral memory. It forms the foundation of my book The Art of Haying. It’s not, after all, a cliff. This is me. Iceland Day 3 to 5 065It is also, if you have eyes to see, a troll, with two gaping eyes, a pug nose, and a broad, frog-like mouth, with water spilling off the top of its head and forming a farmyard spring. You can see the farmyard rhubarb patch to the right of the image, just above the green lump, which is the ruins of an old turf house. What I’m doing here is showing you how an image of the earth is seen when ancestral memory and contemporary thought are one. I am not asking you to agree with this, disprove this, argue it, or abstract it in any way because it is incontrovertible. Still, if you’re used to setting this kind of material deep within a form of romantic consciousness called the unconscious, subconscious, memory, fantasy, imagery, emotion, creative imagination, or any of the modern terms that separate your identity from it, a bit of a guide might prove interesting. You’re seeing a few things. The troll, for instance. A large-green headed ram below the troll’s right eye. An ewe’s skull, teeth bared, below his chin. Another below that. A scatter of human heads, all formed of stone, on the ledge above the bottom section of the falls, and a baby troll peering out of the steeply-angled green hill just to the left and behind the stile. What’s more, the troll has one eye open and one closed. It is Oðin, the Norse cultural hero who plucked out one eye at the well at the centre of the world as payment for receiving wisdom. There is much more, plus a beautiful woman walking through it. The image, framed by the boundaries of the technology of the camera, is called art, because it brings these correspondences into relief, but, hopefully, I have pointed out successfully that these images and correspondences are in the world, exactly in the way that modern humans, such as you or I, are trained to read or parse poetry. On that foundation, let me point out that when a man is one with his mind and with the earth, he looks out at the earth and sees himself. What that means is that walking through this landscape, I am walking through my thoughts, which is, of course, exactly the process of writing a poem. There are a few things, though, which the poetry of the world is not: fantasy, for instance, emotional confession, too, literary dialogue, for another. It’s not a portrait of my feelings, an exploration of my thoughts, or the opening of a social dialogue. It is not an installation or a performance. It is not art. And yet it is poetry. This is poetry:

P1080198Ancestral Watcher at sx̌ʷəx̌ʷnitkʷ.

This is poetry:

P1140209

nm∋lqaytkw at Chopaka

This is my home mountain and my home river.

Look at it this way: on a foundation of geology, weather and biological evolution, on a field of societal evolution and history, on a journey of personal presence and breath, in a unified consciousness, this is an image of my self, which reveals itself to me as I walk through it. Some nut has built a concrete water diversion structure in it, which is the way of modern, non-unified consciousness, but make no mistake: it is inside me. I have to accommodate that. That’s where I live, in a space in which every breath, every thought, everything I see and walk through, is poetry, which is not, I feel I should stress, not something I make, something that can be studied in a university department of literature, taught in a department of creative writing, or something anyone else can make. This is not something I made. It is vital to remove the traditions of book thinking from images like this. Book thinking? Yes. If you see a landscape in the following image and if you see a narrative in it:…

buckHanford Reach

… it is book intelligence you are viewing it with. Behind that green flood bar, just to the right of this image, the plutonium for the Trinity Test and the Nagasaki bomb was manufactured, as well as most of the plutonium for the Cold War. Does that stag look like he is swimming home? He isn’t. He is home. So am I. This is my poetry. Anyone can find Facebook on their own, god help them. To find their ancestral, non-human intelligence, the thing that makes them human, a guide helps. Here’s mine:

17Robin Skelton

He was the earth, standing up and walking. He was the sea. And I? I am here to tend an ancient fire

P1000865I used to think that this fire could be kept burning in books, but that was before I realized that literature was a game of artifice and I was not speaking of artifice. I still passionately work with poetry, edit books of poetry, review them, write poetry, and walk through it daily, but I do so from the ancient context I hinted at above, because the work is to keep the world alive, all of it, or die. In my recent book of ghazals, Two Minds, the Sufic force of unified nature, the Sufic Green Man, Khdr, fills the body and mind emptied of self, the lost traveller or lover all-in-a-tangle, with the world, so that the world is there at the core of the soul’s movement through the world, not the technologically-created, abstract, book-based, Enlightenment self, as beautiful a piece of engineering as it is. We can be more.

twomindsWe are more.
monolithAncestors at Extreme Low Tide, Discovery Passage, Facing Cape Mudge …

… where their descendants live.

This is what I have learned during 58 years on this earth. It is not what I was taught. It is more. This is my standard for poetry. It must be alive. After all, I am a man of the earth. I am memory. I am the fire keeper.

Presenting the Haig-Brown Lecture

Tomorrow, I’m off to Campbell River on Vancouver Island, to present the 4th Annual Haig-Brown Memorial Lecture in Environmental Writing. I will be arguing that this Icelandic River lies at the heart of Canadian political and environmental traditions, and is a place to situate our government.

p1430251The New Canadian House of Parliament

 Talking with the earth and including it in our social group is not a new idea. It is at the root of English. In fact, it is at the root of being human. If we, the people, reclaim that language, the government will follow. It will take time, but over time, we will speak again. Some of us will even speak like this.

p1430114

Harold Thinking Out Loud in East Iceland, April

When I get back, I’ll tell you all about it.