Left behind

March 15th, 2010 § Comments Off § permalink

A clause in my contract reads ‘Visual artists must leave a work behind in the Museum but writers are not required to do so.’

It’s liberating to be excused from producing any work during this residency. However, it seems strange that I should be exempted on account of working with language, when Greenlandic has proved such a rich resource to me. (As well as poems suggested by its rich vocabulary, an ‘ABD’ artist’s book is now in the works and a word-a-day short story is being aired on Facebook.)

So I decided that I would break my contract. Following those who believe that we should leave nothing behind but our footsteps, I’m leaving a linguistic trace. I have excised a word from my own language, which I will never be able to use again. I aired it for the last time to an iceberg this morning, and the iceberg shone impassively on, with the glorious contempt for all languages common to its kind.

Fearing the iceberg was not the best custodian, I slipped a small manifestation of my loss between the pages of the old Greenlandic Dictionary in the Museum. I suspect it will remain unread for years. Many Greenlandic words (particularly those associated with Christianity and modern life) are loan words from Danish, and so it is a language that is used to welcoming newcomers.

And what word did I chose? Well, of course, I can’t say. It’s a small word upon which the future depends. As it’s already been done to death by one poet, I don’t think I’ll suffer by its absence – although I may have to learn to bite my tongue.

Susan Richardson: Creatures of the Intertidal Zone

March 11th, 2010 § Comments Off § permalink

Environmental issues play a considerable part in the work of the Welsh poet and performer Susan Richardson. Alongside her own writing, Richardson runs Wild Writing and eco-poetry workshops and also broadcasts for Radio 4. In 2006 she embarked on an ambitious journey through Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland. Her travels in the Arctic and sub-Arctic, witnessing the impact of global warming, were to prove a dynamic influence on her work.

Richardson was teaching a course on ‘Intrepid Women Travellers’ at Cardiff University when she found a reference to a tenth/eleventh century female Viking called Gudrid which piqued her curiosity. Further research on Gudrid, (who appears in the Greenlanders Saga and the Saga of Eirik the Red) led to an ambitious proposal to follow her footsteps across the North, which received a Churchill Memorial Travel Fellowship. Richardson’s experience generated Creatures of the Intertidal Zone, a series of poems that chart the landscapes and icescapes of these regions, and question the nature of ‘wilderness’ and where exploration segues into exploitation.

By sharing Gudrid’s topography, “the environments which both formed and fortified her”, Richardson developed a remarkable empathy for her character. She writes:

“I felt most awed, and most in touch with her, on the Snaefelsnes Peninsula in Iceland – a thin peninsula, a bit like an arthritic finger, jutting out from the west coast of the island into the North Atlantic. Gudrid was born there in a farm at the foot of the now-dormant Snaefelsjokull volcano, topped by a glacier, with plaits of lava trailing down its lower slopes, and with an extensive lava field at its base. I was shown an ancient track through the lava that a local academic/expert on Gudrid felt convinced she, too, would have used. The coast alongside the lava field is made up of eccentric basalt cliff formations – caves, pillars, arches, blowholes – and (in the summer) populated by millions of breeding sea birds. There was definitely a timeless feel to this landscape – when I walked there, it was hard to believe that a whole millennium separated me from Gudrid (even though, of course, I was wearing stout walking boots – for her, the terrain would have been way more challenging, dressed as she would have been in thin leather shoes and with a long woollen skirt constantly snagging on the jags of lava!).

“I had a similar experience in Newfoundland or, should I say, on the waters off the remote northwestern tip of Newfoundland, where I had the opportunity to sail on a replica Viking boat, view the land from the sea, as Gudrid would have done, and note some of the navigational landmarks which the Norse would have used when travelling to (what’s believed to be) Vinland from Greenland. As we sailed along the coast, I imagined Gudrid huddled, night after cold cramped night, beneath one of her boat’s half-decks, short of both food and fresh water, her skin raw with sores from wearing perpetually wet clothing. Once again, I was conscious of how easy my travels were in comparison, protected whenever I needed to be in my three-layer windproof, waterproof Goretex.”

As well as these close encounters, Richardson knew that, with over a thousand years separating their journeys, some aspects of Gudrid’s experience were destined to remain “blurred and imprecise”. Much of Gudrid’s life is a puzzle to academics, but Richardson, as a poet, found that the absence of “any definite ‘truth’ gave [her] the freedom to invent, speculate and fill in the gaps and absences in the poems [she] was writing.”

Inevitably, Richardson’s poetry is informed by the impact of climate change on the Arctic and sub-Arctic. She says, “Over the years, I’ve become a passionate believer in the potential of poetry to make a difference, to inspire shifts in perception and create new patterns of thought and experience. I feel committed to writing and promoting poetry with an environmental focus – ‘poetry for the planet’.” Her enthusiasm has led her to team up with writer Siobhan Logan to form Polar Poets.

Richardson is currently working on Up There Where the Air is Rarefied, a collection of poems accompanied by prints by the artist Pat Gregory (due to be published by Cinnamon Press in 2011). This work examines the metaphorical significance of ‘the North’ – a concept which has a different resonance in different geographies and cultures. Richardson and Gregory have drawn on a wide range of sources including Inuit folk tales, Icelandic sagas and polar explorers’ narratives, as well as their own travels in northern regions. Both Richardson’s publications are available from Cinnamon Press.

Susan Richardson has kindly allowed the poem sequence ‘Gudrid the Rare’ from Creatures of the Intertidal Zone to be quoted in full below. Copyright remains with the author.


1. Arnarstapi, Iceland

I know the gasp this grass gives
when it’s first touched by snow.

On deep winter nights,
I hear the darkness breathing.

I know the sigh of these cliffs
when the guillemots leave after breeding.

I hear the cry of whales
when their meat is hung to dry
and the shriek of this sky
when fire streams from the mouth of the mountain.

I know each place where this rain’s absorbed by the sea,
as after my mother died
when Halldis and Orm
absorbed me.

2. Greenland

They call it the Green Land: it is not green.
Green has gone, along with my innocence.
Each day I replay the terrible scene

of our journey here – my foster parents
seized by the sea, waves snatching them away.
The wind still echoes their screams: I can sense

them everywhere. Faces glacial-grey,
they loom from the gloom of the fog which dwells
throughout this charmless land.  I’m told to pray

to some new God, but I’m still drawn to spells.
I’m drawn to Thorstein too.  He smiles and oh,
such a strange and perplexing feeling wells

up in me.  Like the land I used to know,
I’m all surface ice - but fire burns below.

3. Vinland

The sea which brought us here was calm,
our boat cupped like a gull’s egg in a child’s palm,
then set down in this nest of sedge and spruce
in this brand-new land

and the sun is a new sun,
stronger than the sun we knew,
bold as the taste of a crowberry

and Karlsefni loves me in a new way
his words soft as skyr,
his sperm like buttermilk

and we have a new son,
our Snorri.

There is no need for spells in this new place
where I smell no ghosts,
no need to pray.

Yet still, for my son, I stay on guard
like an arctic tern at Arnarstapi.
I’m ready to dive to fend off threats
and - should it invade this new land -
to peck out the eyes

4. Rome

Here, it’s easy to believe –
and in an honest merchant-God
who trades kind skies for virtuous deeds,
as we gained bright cloth and gold
the year we sailed for home
with our cargo of sagas from Vinland.

Here, my head’s free of doubts,
sharp chunks of black lava.

But there, dwells a God who’s mad as the sea,
who can take from me husbands,
who makes each bush feel pain
at the birth of every berry.

I will mount the horse of my belief
and ride it there
over boggy ground
to face

5. Nun’s cell, Iceland

My mind, at this   time, creaks      like the   ice
on mighty    Snaefellsjökull;
like the   longboats on which    I sailed
to      the Green Land,    Vinland,  Norway, Rome –
and home.

My limbs have   stiffened,
like     Arnarstapi’s cliffs,
into basalt       pillars.

Only   my soul is supple.
It has    opened,
as the land has   split  at    Thingvellir,
to entice

Where in the world

March 6th, 2010 § Comments Off § permalink

At the museum, Beathe is processing applications for the 2012 residency. She’s received bewildered enquiries. How do I travel to Upernavik? Should I fly to Iceland or Norway first? This bemusement is understandable. On Google Earth the museum appears to be floating in the middle of Baffin Bay, and the truth is not far off. Very few travel websites make allowance for Greenland in their search engines, let alone this small northern community.

To appease Beathe’s frustration we concoct some fantastical replies, describing air routes from Europe via Sydney and Moscow, or journeys which entail taking a flight to Toronto but parachuting from the plane over Greenland. The truth of the matter – a three-day, five-flight ordeal in increasingly perilous craft – might appear equally implausible to most sensible travellers.

One person’s north is someone else’s south, and to Beathe, who has no desire to travel beyond Upernavik, Thule is still ‘Ultime Thule’ but also Qannaq, the nearest town up the coast. We may be sitting in the most northern museum in the world, but we are at the centre of our own universe, with a horizon of 360 degrees. I find it as hard to justify to Beathe the cultural and practical reasons for Europeans’ confusion, as to pinpoint my own emotions at being so far beyond everything I know, yet still behaving in a relatively rational manner, drinking coffee and doodling. The exotic seems strangest in proximity to normality.

The Arctic carries an exaggerated sense of the exotic, since it has been represented in explorers’ narratives from antiquity until the present as the ends of the earth. I try not to fall into this trap, but on my journey here, my amazement completely outweighed my terror as ‘twin otter’ planes flew low over vast tracts of uninhabited whiteness. I arrived in smaller and smaller airports, the names of the town cut with a jigsaw out of plywood and painted in bright colours. The times, and sometimes the days, of the flights were uncertain, and often I felt as powerless as a toy traveller in the bedroom of a child who had abandoned his games and gone to tea.

I found myself writing sonnets about the foibles of geography. For this uncertainty is expressed not only in the emotions of travellers, but also in the choices earth scientists have to make. There are ongoing debates about where to draw the southern boundary to the Arctic Circle (and whether it should be a real ‘circle’ of latitude or a wiggly line). Inevitably these have become even more complex as the climate changes. Also, there are several Poles in the Arctic, including the Geomagnetic North Pole and the Pole of Inaccessiblity (now obsolete). The North Pole was decided on as the ‘proper’ Pole, but even so it is not fixed. It wafts about the Arctic region through a variable known as the Chandler Circle. I’m quite that relieved finding it was not in my itinerary.

Island Worship

March 1st, 2010 § Comments Off § permalink

Upernavik reminds me of another island, which I lived on a decade ago, Lindisfarne in Northumberland. Lindisfarne was one of the earliest Christian communities in Britain, famous for its sanctity and the production of exquisite devotional objects such as the Lindisfarne Gospels and mead. It could not have been more unholy while I was there, but all islands draw lost souls eventually. I was working as a barmaid – perhaps had I been polishing the church brass I would have seen life from a better angle.

Upernavik has nothing like Lindisfarne’s claims to sanctity – quite the opposite. I read in the history books that it was the last place in Greenland where the population could be persuaded into baptism. The last heathen soul was saved in 1864, and even afterwards, it is recorded that Christianity was pursued in a desultory manner while belief in the shaman and pantheistic spirits persisted. Finally, the catechist tried to exert his authority by burning all the drums on the island, as these were used in shamanic trances to summon spirits.

The relationship between the fifth-century Brendan, abbot of Clonfert in Galway, and the church in Rome was not quite so critical. Nevertheless, faced with pressure to bring his spiritual practice into line with Christian orthodoxy, Brendan rowed off into the “desert of the ocean” in a wicker carraugh to find a freer contemplative space. An epic account of his seven-year journey exists, an ecstatic work describing incredible spiritual and natural wonders. Brendan was a beguiling traveller who appeared to lack any sense of fear in the Arctic waters. When he encountered an iceberg so huge that it could been seen for three days before he reached it, he decided to row though a tiny hole in it, which in the evening light appeared to be “like the eye of God.”

Strangely, even with these two noble religious traditions before me on the island, it is not shamanism or Christianity I turn to in order to make sense of this small place on the edge of the physical world. I’m impelled by the brightness and closeness of the constellations to reread the Greek myths. I find particular resonance in the figure of blind Orion, who appears in November, the season of pomegranates and sea storms, the hunter who walks on water. But that’s another story…

Where am I?

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