fimmtudagur, september 29, 2005


Enormous black Schäfer on the plaza, his head as long as my forearm and hand, huge triangular ears twitching fore and then aft, his tail near sweeping the ground behind him. He does not trot like Fido but glides, bent-legged, like a visiting spirit keeping a low profile in a wolf suit, a lupine lowrider. It's the gait of hip dysplasia. I question whether I ought to be appreciating its æsthetics, enjoying how deformity makes for an impressive-looking stride. He is not so unlike the long-legged nineteen-year-old now crossing the plaza, satchel over one tanned shoulder, her high shoes making her swing the flat blades of her hips to and fro so that heads turn and watch her pass.

Both of them make me think of a boy I remember whose mild scoliosis made his back a beautiful S-curve from front to back, tipping his hips and his ribcage out of the prosaic straight line most men have. It did not make him girlish, but rather powerful-looking, elastic. I drew him again and again in the margins of my algebra notes

Somewhere I read that the skeletons of Welsh bowmen had been unearthed in Britain. After years of drawing 200-pound bows with one hand, training for war since boyhood, they had built up such muscle on their right arms that it had pulled their growing spines to one side. Nature's symmetry was sacrificed for military effect, for the ability to rain death upon the French at Agincourt. Skeleton after skeleton came to light with the same swayed vertebræ, all speaking of intimate knowledge of bent yew. I wonder if, in life, these young men also had a compelling, unbalanced elegance in the way their shoulders tipped or the way they leaned in doorframes, if people admired their bent frames as a kind of beauty.

miðvikudagur, september 28, 2005


Creativity is a strange thing and sometimes quite difficult and uncomfortable. For this reason, when engaged, say, in the production of multiple drafts of a letter one is not even terribly excited about writing, it can be theraputic to consider the vocabulary of the draft itself.

The draft (or draught) has to do with dragging or drawing, pulling and hauling, as in draft horse and as in drayage. The cognates are clear: Icelandic draga (to drag) and its derivative drög (a draft). The rough draft can be rough going indeed, and we have perhaps all felt like the overloaded equine, straining between the shafts.

But sometimes the writing isn't going even that well, and that is when I derive some measure of glee from savoring how the Scandinavian word for draft, utkast (something just kind of thrown out there, I suppose), corresponds to the more amusing Icelandic uppkast, itself morphologically identical to, f.eks., Norwegian oppkast, from kaste (throw) and opp (up), and meaning just what you think it does.

That Icelandic word uppkast so well reflects, on a bad writing day, the sensation of having retched up something terrible, a sensation I think we all know well. On those days I sense Egill and Óðinn in the background, watching, probably laughing, in fact most probably snorting small beer out their nostrils as if in ironic recapitulation of the reigning metaphor. Of course, it all resonates, too, with the myth of poetry as the vomiting forth of the skaldic mead, the oral presentation, if you will, of the well-digested materials of inspiration. And, when one is really flying, creatively speaking, this is what makes uppkast appropriate even to those better writing days as well.

mánudagur, september 26, 2005

ljón norðursins

I am thinking of a mountain far away, increasingly white, where snow is falling in flakes the size of a dog's paw: hundslappadrífa. I have it on good authority that this is in fact occurring and also that hundslappadrífa is sometimes called ljónslappadrífa; the paw is then that of a lion. This makes me, here, thinking of the snowy mountain there, think also of the people there under that mountain (chilly, I presume, winding their mufflers ever tighter as the wind picks up) thinking of lions.

Actual lions are as far from them as their mountain is from me, for it isn't Kilamanjaro or even Olympus I have in mind, but Esja. Seen in that light, it is strange that any kind of snow blowing down Esja's mossy flanks should be called after a lion, an animal that has never trod the heaths of Thule or Norroway.

But other signs point to a collective boreal lion dream. Think of the lion of Finland, the axe-wielding, crown-bearing lion of Norway, Scotland's royal lion, England's three lions passant, the three blue lions of Denmark surrounded by a flurry of hearts. Some great feline stalks the Northern imaginary, clearly, one prouder and less shy of daylight than the black cats of Britain. Perhaps the fall of ljónslappadrífa is his actual airy tread.

sunnudagur, september 25, 2005


Today, a list of words pertaining to weasels. They were all new to me, and I feel compelled to share.

(all these are names for the polecat)
fitch (pelt of same, or a brush made of the fur of same)

(Should you crave more information on the nomenclature of the polecat, a fascinating article by Duncan Brown in Mammal Review 32:2 (2002): 145-9 can be found here.)

sweetmart (the pine marten; I will ever after imagine this animal wearing cologne)

zorilla (an African relative of the weasel, one who looks more like the American skunk. I hope that someone out there is as pleased as I am to find that zorilla is a real word.)

laugardagur, september 24, 2005


Did I mention the curtains? I think I mentioned the curtains.

fimmtudagur, september 22, 2005


Keep getting up and going over to the drawer. Open it. Close it. Open it. Look down into it at the brass whistle. Close it. Open it again. Look at the whistle. Touch it with your finger.

Stop touching it. Close the drawer. Walk away. Walk back. Open the drawer. Look down at the whistle. Pick it up and register its weight. Put it back. Close the drawer.

Open it again. Take out the whistle and put it to your lips, not to play it but merely to feel the metal there. Do not play the whistle. But consider that if you did, you would not hear the piping note.

miðvikudagur, september 21, 2005


I had not thought that these roses were pink, but that was before I bought these curtains. I see now that I was mistaken.

þriðjudagur, september 20, 2005


It's the hottest month of the year here, but the heat is coming up, steam up through the pipes, comes up daily now, or nightly, and typically at 4.00 AM with not so much a fanfare as a drumroll. In fact it is hardly so rapid a beat. The pace is dirgelike, or else like the drumbeat for rowers of some enormous becalmed boat, slipping through the dark water on brute manpower, pulled in time with the deliberate striking of a bronze-headed drum.

Or, such are the thoughts that might occur to the half-waking mind when that mind is pulled like a flopping fish from sleep at 4.00 AM by the insistent, slow, and not least loud clank and tap of the rising steam. The radiator in the next room becomes that bronze-headed drum, or perhaps the boat itself, of iron, like in a Russian fairytale, and that boat is the conveyance of sleep on the shining surface of the night. But, perversely, despite steady rowing by the crewmen of that great ship of sleep, you are yourself uncomfortably awake, and you remain so, considering that contradiction until the metallic drumbeat softens into a foghorn, and you are in Stöðvarfjörður or Truro before you know you are dreaming.

sunnudagur, september 18, 2005


A: "Drat. They are a little leathery again. Sorry about that."

B: (chewing) "A little leathery, but delightful!"


A & B: "Like bats!"

laugardagur, september 17, 2005


I hear that hawk again, and crows, and up the hillside I can see two broad-winged black shapes swooping and harrying, chasing the young raptor off. The undersides of his wings are very pale.


Tipsy, headed down the stairwell, meeting a passel of Swedes coming up the stairwell, confused, asking half-rhetorically och på svenska: how do we get out? --and the brain offers up only some hybrid Icelando-Norwegian: beint ááá ... ahh ... fram og svo (så?) til høyre ... and I wave one hand in a manner meant to clarify but conveying, too, my own internal disorientation.

The phrase halts and skips, the whole thing judders and squeaks out of me like the steam coming up through the pipes in the wee hours last night. It had jerked me awake again and again, first steam of the autumn, interrupting my dreams even as it soothed, invoking the memory of the restless old radiators of the house of childhood.

Do not ask me how to get to that place either -- the directions would be even less clear.

fimmtudagur, september 15, 2005


This morning's dream involved, somehow, opting for a double helping of otters. I believe I checked a box for 'extra otters,' and this meant that a forest over which I had some great and unexplained authority would duly be stocked with twice the usual allotment of wiggly, water-loving mustelids, as if the forest had been a latté ordered with an extra shot of espresso. Though I had no idea what the standard otter allotment might be, I nonetheless woke feeling optimistic, even peppy.

Then, in the forenoon, a casual glance out the window met with the sight of a young buck on the roof of the adjacent garage. He did not see me. He made a leggy clockwise circuit, sniffing the tar paper with unhurried interest, but, finding nothing compelling, then stepped off silently into the trees, vanishing in seconds. Perhaps he was disappointed not to have found it a two-deer garage.

miðvikudagur, september 14, 2005

oi bara

Bara Ijosmyndari for the New York Times
Eru þeir að grínast?

Bara Ijosmyndari for the New York Times.

Nei, því miður ... svona standa orðin fyrir neðan myndunum í greininni "Iceland Woos America with Lamb and Skyr." Ekki beint ljóðræn heldur, þessi fyrirsögn. En hvað um það. Og ég mun komast yfir það, að sjálfasta Times stafar Þrír Frakkar með P-i, þó að hneykslandi sé að blað blaðanna í BNA skyldi ekki einu sinni setja th í stað þórnsins.

En hitt er ansi ljót mistök.

Auk þess að við sitjum uppi með ýmsar spurningar: Hver tók þessar myndir?

Bára ljósmyndari, Einhversdóttir?

Eða bara ljósmyndari . . . bara einhver ljósmyndari . . . ?

mánudagur, september 12, 2005

í horni

Clatter in the jays this morning. One is standing on the roofline of the next house, crest up, looking offended. The crows, too, are in greater disarray than usual. Between their cawings and croakings the cause of this unrest is audible. In one of the trees nearby there is a young hawk. I can hear him, and so can the local corvids, but I cannot see him.

akt 5, scene 5

I had half an onion in the refrigerator, and I felt the beans needed about a half-onion-worth of diced, translucent, savory, sulfuric bulb, so I unwrapped it and chopped it. But it was the root-end half, the remainder resulting from the onion having been split along its equator rather than pole to pole, top to bottom (the way as I habitually halve onions after trimming both roots and the base of the leaves), and so I ended up chopping it in a new way, looking with interest after each slice to see if any contours emerged that were new or unfamiliar in any way.

Part of what is so pleasing about onions when one is cooking and wielding the long vegetable knife oneself is that they are already sliced in one direction. That direction is concentric, but no matter. Dicing an onion still requires maybe a third fewer cuts than dicing almost anything else. If you have diced a lot of onions, you know this, and I have.

But I had not (or not often, or not recently) made these particular cuts through an onion, sliced it just this way. The internal geometry of an onion is complex and layered, and I thought it might reveal itself in a new way, perhaps a dramatically new way, sliced in this unfamiliar manner. I watched carefully. I did not notice anything very remarkable, but it is possible that I missed it.

laugardagur, september 10, 2005


Dozing between waking and breakfast I dream more, of my grandmother, of her picking up a dark, shawl-like cloth, burgundy or black and covered with hundreds of red-dyed mother of pearl buttons of different sizes. Some of them had fallen off, but the broken thread-ends showed where they had been.

It was her conception sheet, she said, and I understood that to be the sheet on which she had been conceived by her parents. I understood that it had been saved, decorated, given to her by her mother when she had married.

And then I wasn't talking to her anymore so much as seeing, first and briefly, her parents, a married couple from such a different age than the present one, and next and in more detail the society that saves and passes down conception sheets, that has, no doubt, a better, native word for them than that. A people who might have felt they knew with certainty on what sheet each child had been made. The men are away a great deal in seasonal labor, perhaps away in fishing camps, twelve to a hut and twelve to a boat, only home for brief periods. Their wives would know, would save the cloth and wash it, sit with the other women and talk while sanding the shell buttons and sewing them on.

föstudagur, september 09, 2005

dragons & ponies

(looking up from book) "What's a dragoon?"

"Eh, a kind of cavalry. Medium, I think."

"Sounds like dragon."

"Yeah, it does. I have no idea what the etymology is. Hang on. (typing) Here we go, it does come from dragon, in French. Dragoons were mounted musketeers, and the muskets belched smoke and flames and so were called dragons by the French. At least by one account."


"Oh, and it's also a verb. 'To subjugate by force,' as by sending a bunch of dragoons in, or simply 'to compel.' And in 1828 there was another sense: 'to persecute by abandoning to the rage of soldiers.' Clearly a case of verbing going on there."

"Verbing also being a case of verbing."

"Indeed. Wait, this is weird. Dragoon also appears in another 1828 definition, that of bidet."


"I learn that in 1828 a bidet was a small horse issued a dragoon to carry his baggage."

"Carry it to the latrine?"

"Ah, it makes perfect sense. Bidet is French for pony, from Old French bider, 'to trot', and the older type of bidet was meant to be straddled, rather like one would straddle a horse."


"Yeah, language is a funny thing."

"Sheds a whole new light on 'the trots.'"

(makes strangled noise)

fimmtudagur, september 08, 2005



To see a new, or rather old, use for stuðlaberg, try searching for pictures with the string "Nan Madol." It makes me wonder what other paths architecture in Iceland could have taken. What would Guðjón Samúelsson built, had he known of these antipodal islands?

þriðjudagur, september 06, 2005

út í bláinn

Idle trolling of the veraldarvefur reveals that Traaie Coon means narrow shore, in Manx. Or at least someone claims it does.

Also that Luke 12:47-48 (in what edition, I have no idea) describes hell thusly:

That was the only light anyone ever saw in that place. The shore will be nearly gone, as the lake becomes full of the bodies of fallen angels and men, lapping close to the edge of the Bottomless Pit. If there are degrees of punishment as there are degrees of reward, then some will be cast on that narrow shore.

Not much better is Tacitus's description of the bank of the Sea of Judea, as translated by Thomas Gordon in 1737. It concludes with this note:

Moreover, into the sea of Judæa the river Belus discharges itself: The sands gathered at its mouth are, with a mixture of nitre, melted into glass. This is but a narrow shore, yet by such as are daily draining it of its sands, found to be inexhaustible.

Vergil's Æneid, book 4 (in translation by John Dryden), speaks of another land:

This little spot of land, which Heav’n bestows,
On ev’ry side is hemm’d with warlike foes;
Gætulian cities here are spread around,
And fierce Numidians there your frontiers bound;
Here lies a barren waste of thirsty land,
And there the Syrtes raise the moving sand;
Barcæan troops besiege the narrow shore,
And from the sea Pygmalion threatens more.
Propitious Heav’n, and gracious Juno, lead
This wand’ring navy to your needful aid:
How will your empire spread, your city rise,
From such a union, and with such allies?

Robert Louis Stevenson's "To all that love the far and blue" is cheerier, addressed to those who pursue the fleeing corners on foot---
Or, bolder, from the narrow shore
Put forth, that cedar ark to steer,
Among the seabirds and the roar
Of the great sea, profound and clear --

sunnudagur, september 04, 2005


Reading David Perkins's Is Literary History Possible? (Johns Hopkins UP), I find the author noting the poverty of emplotments available for oraganizing events in narrative literary history:

The possible plots for narrative literary history can be reduced to three: rise, decline, and rise and decline. The reason for this is that the hero of a narrative literary history is a logical subject --- a genre, a style, the reputation of an author --- and the plots are limited to what actions or transitions can be predicated of such heroes. They cannot, for example, go on a quest or be tormented in a love triangle.

What a pity!

And imagine if this were not the case. In my mind's eye, I see Ibsen's Reputation as a Playwright engaged in a biting feud with the Deconstructionist Turn. It would be played out in all the papers with an occassional volley from the International Reception of Scandinavian Literature.

And there, the Romantic Poetry riding out in full armor to the rescue of the Late Gothic Novel, imprisoned in a distant tower by Post-War Psychoanalytic Fiction and his co-conspirator, Social Realism. He will be aided, perhaps, by the Debate on the True Authorship of Shakespeare's Plays.

So much potential. And to think that Mr. Perkins answers his own titular question in the negative.


Today I found myself shopping for the ghost dog. This sounds like a lonely enterprise, but I had company. We admired the snappy collars, poked at dried pig's ears, hefted ceramic water bowls, squeezed squeaky toys. We were unsure of the specific tastes of the ghost dog. Did he prefer rubber or rawhide? Was he the type to de-squeak the noisier sort of toy before commencing serious play? Was he (or she?) acrobatically inclined, a chaser of flying rings and disks?

So much uncertainty. The shop owner asked if we were looking for something specific, and we demurred, slunk out without buying anything, tails between our legs.

föstudagur, september 02, 2005


I have been to New Orleans only once, and it was a long time ago. I remember abundant bougainvillea, wrought-iron railings, cannon, narrow cobblestone streets with gutters running down the middle, chicory coffee and the hot, sweet doughnuts at Cafe du Monde. In fact I have thought of those narrow streets and gutter in the middle every time I have walked down Bankastræti (often to Kaffi París, in search of kaffi og kleinur) where a similar gutter cuts the pavement.

That the key to my memory of that southern city should have been drainage strikes me as sadly appropriate today. And it is not Reykjavík or Paris or the original Orleans that comes to mind, but Ys (or Is). There is a poem; here is its first verse:

In the weird old days of the long agone
Rose a city by the sea;
But the fishermen woke, one startled dawn,
On the coast of Brittany,
To hear the white waves on the shingle hiss,
And roll out over the city of Is,
And play with its sad débris.

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