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Review: Inside Voices, Outside Light, by Sigurdur Pálsson

Gerður Kristný Bloodhoof, trans. Rory McTurk, Arc Publications £9.99 pbk
Sigurður Pálsson Inside Voices, Outside Light trans. Martin S. Regal, Arc Publications £10.99 pbk

If Icelandic literature means much to the sometimes translation resisting readership in the UK, it means the Sagas. More recently, however, Icelandic writers have contributed to the vogue of Scandi-Noir in the novels of Arnaldur Indriðason, or Yrsa Sigurðardóttir. The Sagas used to be part of English literature courses of many British universities, but that is no longer so common, although Saga scholarship is alive and well (and, no, that's not a reference to the University of the Third Age!). Gerður Kristný's Bloodhoof is, actually, a version of the story of Freyr and Gerður as told in one of those sagas, Skínismál. This recounts the wooing of the Giant maiden Gerður by the god Freyr, through the go-between Freyr's servant, Skínir. The original accounts of the wooing leave open the question of whether the two meet, although another poem by the author of the Skínismál, Snorri Sturluson, suggests that they meet, marry and produce a future king of Sweden. The first thing to note about this Arc publication is that it is a beautiful looking object from the cover with its bold colouring and illustrations of entwined horse and dragon, and 'celtic' knotting. The text is beautifully laid out with the poem itself in short tanka-like verses placed one-to-a-page in both the Icelandic and the English. This means that the pace of the reading is slowed to a meditative pace and the lovely detailing of the writing rises to the fore.
In his introduction, the translator, Rory McTurk writes that he has not produced 'a literal [translation]' which 'does not reflect on a one-to-one basis the stylistic features of the original'. At the same time, he encourages the reader to read the original out loud and gives a pronunciation guide to help that process. If McTurk has taken liberties with Kristný's original then that has not created a text with anything other than a real sense of stylistic unity. And, having heard Kristný read from this book when it was launched, and having spoken to her then, I can aver that her English is more than good enough to have, I'm sure, have made her feelings on that translation known. Kristný's poem is both powerful and delicate. It's brief paragraphs refract both the Icelandic summer light and also that hunkered-down winter withdrawal.
The poem itself is written from the point of view of the maiden Gerður, who looks back on the wooing, the marriage night and the aftermath of that, as she holds in her arms the son born to the union. And the account of the marriage does not make for happy reading. Gerður expects difficulty in the moment she accepts the proposal, 'I said yes, I would come// and I saw my face,/dead, reflected/in the envoy's sword/. One view of the Sagas is that they report a form of dark ages brutality, and act as the originals for the 'sword and sorcery' story-telling that culminates in the kind of rather masculine, Game of Thrones world which is around today. Certainly one of the most famous of those sagas, Njál's saga, is sparked by the beardlessness of the protagonist, Njál. Kristný's account of Gerður's vision does not lack darkness and brutality, and this results in very robust but deeply beautiful writing, even in those tanka-like forms.
Sigurður Pálsson's Inside Voices, Outside Light is a very different, but equally exciting book. Pálsson travelled to Paris at the age of eighteen to study drama at the Sorbonne, has translated a range of French authors from Feydeau, via Camus, to Prevert and Eluard, and has since been awarded honours in France. That sense of French experiment runs through many of these poems. But it is an experimentalism which Pálsson has very much made his own. This book is a selection from Pálsson's books from 1980 to 2012. Each one of those books has a title beginning with the word ljóð, a word which means both 'poem' singular, and 'poems' plural and, so translator Martin S. Regal tells us, is derived from the Old Norse hljóð meaning both 'sound' and 'silence'. Thus Pálsson's first book is called Ljóð Vega Menn 'Poem Way Men' and his latest book is called Ljóðorkulind 'Poem Energy Source'. Regal's introduction also comments on the way numbers and numerology has affected the construction of both forms and books in Pálsson's work. All that might sound rather tricksy, even pretentious, but Pálsson is a poet who pays close attention to the human condition, and its situation in a world which is observed just as attentively. From that first book is 'Nocturne for Saturn', which I quote in full.

The lamp cries
blond tears
The cards on the table
the tongue immobilized
The smoke still in the air
(always a half-open door)
Panes in windows darkness
a car passes
then silence once more
The lamp cries no more
no smoke
no explanation.

Pálsson creates an oblique narrative in which the characters have absconded and left behind the remnants, even debris of a moment. There is a blush of surrealism in the personification of the lamp. And the modernist epiphany creates that narrative. But Pálsson's observation of the moment is such that we become part of the drama which the lyric enacts. Elsewhere, Pálsson is equally at home with the prose poem in which the 'I' sits centre stage. One such is 'Plywood' which begins with a typically sardonic gesture 'The first woodwork project I chose to do that autumn was to saw a map of Iceland out of plywood'. The year goes on and eventually, his project reaches its culmination. 'The sun shone on the moorlands, lambing had begun and the school year was coming to a close as I sawed my way into the harbour at Reykjavik'. Pálsson also tackles mythology, and towards the end of this book in the sequence 'By River and Ocean', we find, 'A bright strong blast/ ripples the face of the sea/just off Syracuse// ripples the mind/ where Aeschyus/ my friend/ smiles from afar// Wind and ocean/ neither old nor young// Eternal drama/ with mask/ of wind and ocean// A mask that thinks/ of Aeschylus/ smiling in the distance'. At this point, Pálsson's sardonic irony moves into a vision of doubleness whereby the mask of drama becomes the mind of the dramatist thinking itself/himself into existence.

These two collections suggest that Icelandic poetry has a charge and dynamism which is the equal of their best fiction and should be just as well known.

Ian Pople, The Manchester Review