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The Icelandic Language -- Bill Holm

(Poem #1349) The Icelandic Language
 In this language, no industrial revolution;
 no pasteurized milk; no oxygen, no telephone;
 only sheep, fish, horses, water falling.
 The middle class can hardly speak it.

 In this language, no flush toilet; you stumble
 through dark and rain with a handful of rags.
 The door groans; the old smell comes
 up from under the earth to meet you.

 But this language believes in ghosts;
 chairs rock by themselves under the lamp; horses
 neigh inside an empty gully, nothing
 at the bottom but moonlight and black rocks.

 The woman with marble hands whispers
 this language to you in your sleep; faces
 come to the window and sing rhymes; old ladies
 wind long hair, hum, tat, fold jam inside pancakes.

 In this language, you can't chit-chat
 holding a highball in your hand, can't
 even be polite. Once the sentence starts its course,
 all your grief and failure come clear at last.

 Old inflections move from case to case,
 gender to gender, softening consonants, darkening
 vowels, till they sound like the sea moving
 icebergs back and forth in its mouth.
-- Bill Holm
Icelanders are very protective of their culture: of their literature and
language in particular. It used to be (and possibly still is) the law in
Iceland that babies have to be given traditional Icelandic names;
immigrants, likewise, are required to change their names to Icelandic
ones [1]. New concepts and imports are not described using modified
forms of foreign words (the way Japanese, for instance, has 'terebi' for
television and 'hochikisu' for stapler [2]).

No wonder, then, that speaking (or reading) Icelandic can seem like
stepping back in time. This is what Bill Holm is talking about in
today's poem, and a marvellous job he does of it, too. I especially like
the last stanza, wherein the progression of what is and isn't possible
in the Icelandic language comes to a magnificent and stirring climax.


[1] an exception - the only one - was made for Vladimir Ashkenazy.

[2] from the name of Connecticut manufacturer E. H. Hotchkiss, who
invented the modern stapler.

[Links and stuff]

Here's a nice oveview of the Icelandic language:

Pico Iyer's "Falling Off The Map" captures the beauty and mystery of
Iceland very, ermm, evocatively. Also strongly recommended is his "Video
Night in Kathmandu" (not about Iceland).

The Icelandic sagas are masterpieces of world literature. Penguin
recently published a compulsively readable edition of the entire corpus
(edited by Ornolfur Thorsson, with a preface by Jane Smiley). Various
translations of the Elder Edda and the Prose Edda are also available.

Bill Holm has written a travel book, "Eccentric Islands", in which he
describes his journeys to and through five islands. Iceland is one of
them. Mr Holm, though born in Minnesota, is of Icelandic ancestry; the
name "Holm" actually means 'island' in Icelandic. I haven't read the
book itself, but online reviews seem mostly positive.

Incidentally, "The Icelandic Language" forms an interesting companion
piece to my previous post to the list, David Huddle's "Ooly Pop a Cow".
The former depicts the majesty and power (and yes, occasional
impracticality) of a language that has refused to be swept along in the
current of modernity; the latter captures the joy and energy (and yes,
occasional shallow vulgarity) of a language that's constantly changing,
mutating, evolving. A lovely contrast, and a though-provoking one.

54 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Mike Christie said...

On a suspicion I checked the web and it seems the last word of this poem
might be "mouth", not "month".


Soques Kimbol said...

> icebergs back and forth in its month.

It is rather glaring, isn't it? Tho so far you're the only poster ... otoh
- let's hope the Minstrels-list avoids "me too"ism.

(Maybe it's a transposition error ... if you turn the 'n' over it *becomes*
a 'u' ... >;)

athan.dimitriou said...

i am greek. i find the poem very meaningful and splendidly versed.
more info for sagas and language would be appreciated.
my e-mail is

Roger Bullard said...

On p. 157 of Eric Weiner's new book The Geography of Bliss he quotes a poem
on the Icelandic language by Bill Holm, but it isn't this one exactly. It
uses some of the same imagery, but it's a different piece. He cites no
source, not even on the reverse of the title page.

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