Tag Archives: Gunnar Gunnarson

A Forest in the Hills: The Icelandic Version


The hills are famous as being too many to count. The forests, well, that is another matter. And the sheep, whew. They were out the other day, waiting to be taken to the high country. Sheep everywhere!

Gunnar Gunnarson’s dream was to transform his novels about Icelandic country people into a farm employing Icelandic country people, and run it like a novel. Unfortunately, Gunnar got the idea from living for thirty years in Denmark, where he picked up this well-meaning but colonial idea. The contemporary. and up-dated version of the best of Gunnar’s idea of translating a book into life is the Icelandic love of building a forest and then holidaying within it, to return to an Iceland renewed from the degradations and desperations of its poverty, back to the beautiful, forested land in the mid-Atlantic. In other words, Gunnar was on the right track, except he forget to plant the trees!

Haunting Iceland

This image from North Iceland haunts me. This was once a prosperous farm, as the driftwood fence shows. In a country without wood, to have rights to pick up Siberian wood from the beach was enough to make a farm pay. Now they’re inexpensive  replacements  for more expensive metal posts, and not a cash item.

Speaking of economy, look at the tun, or house field in the centre of the image. It would have been manured with the manure from the winter sheep barn… just as far as a man could carry it with his strength. The point is, that was economy: this concentration of the energy of the land in such a way that it gave forth more richness in the year to come. This principle was applied after the Second World War, when the country embraced foreign modernity to maintain the old economy. In this case, the fuel tank, and a tractor that went with it, looked like a path to a bright future. Maybe it was for Reykjavik, but after 1,000 years no one lives here anymore. It’s still farmed, as a hayfield. The main field, the tun so to speak, is up against the ridge on the upper right of the image, bright green and fertilized with nitrogen fertilizer: an industrial product, that must be paid for with cash the land can barely spare. That’s where the edge of maintaining Iceland by bringing in foreign technology has lead now. Without it, there’d be no economy, yet if it had always been this way, there’d be no Iceland. This has always been Iceland’s bind. Gunnar Gunnarsons’s attempt to solve it by bringing modern German farming to the Fljótsdalur in 1939 lasted only a couple years, before he had to give it up. In fact, this might just be a universal human bind: one looks for permanency and must accept transience, yet the dream of permanency continues to exert its pull.

What it says is that we are haunted by the world as much as we haunt it.

Skjald, Poet and Dichter: the Three Smiths

Poet: A smith who works with words and the spirit that attaches to them and flows through them between humans and the world. Often, poets approach this work from a book tradition. When they do, their real audience is either the book they write for and which readers read to see how the completion of this book is getting along or the readers who approach the intersection of the book and its society with the same reverence. Within such cultures, a poet is often seen romantically, as a worker with one of the decorative arts.

p1390640A Poetic Interpretation of Egil Writing His First Verses at Age Three

Borgarnes, Iceland

By book, I mean the book that duplicates the world. Some cultures call that the Bible. Some the Koran. Others the Periodic Table of the Elements. Some might call it a Doppelgänger, a mysterious double. It is so powerful, it can even look like these birch twigs. In this manner of thinking, they are considered to be natural and living in a state called “nature”. This state is the book.

p1390739Yes, You Too Can Read These Twigs

Dichter: a smith who works with Dicht, the thickening of the world into densities of intelligence, distinct from poet by a desire to create unified points of power rather than large tapestries. This is an art form in the German-speaking world, and represents the grammatical structure of the German language, which looks for unity where English looks for precise difference. Where a poet, in service of the Book, might look for a world of nature, that came before the book, and called it a (primary) world, with the emphasis on an abstract category, a dichter would look for an Urwelt, a root-world, which is distinct from a world but contains the time that opened up into a world. This slight difference is profound, and leads to the image below being seen complete in all the time in the world, and before language. It is a thickening, a dicht, out of which language evolves, right now, in all of its time:

p1390754Skjald: a smith who works with social relationships within the world that contains both poets and dichters, and for whom the world is one of the social players. This is a northern concept, from the old iron age cultures of Scandinavia. Typically, a skjald (as the name suggests) is a shield, a scold, a scalder (the contemporary expression is a roast-er, one who sends up a revered figure in an honouring ceremony that doesn’t hold its punches), a kind of Nordic court jester who praised a god, king or chieftain in rhymed, witty verses several layers deep in riddles or riddle-like tricks of language as ornate as the intertwined patterns of serpents on a viking shield or the infolded edges of language in a viking curse. The result: a scolded, or scalded, king, chieftain or god, as red in the face as a lobster or a berserker about to do battle — except with anger deflected by wit and turned instead to social good. The contemporary translation for skjald is “poet.”  I think it’s better to keep the triad of terms alive: poet, dichter, and skjald. They do similar but different work, and it’s useful to keep them clear. Neither the work of the poet or the dichter precisely describes the work of a skjald. The image below, however, is close. The image shows the spirits of a small waterfall in Iceland.

p1390972This is skjald work, because it is deeply layered, in ways which combine the world and the acts of men and gods into a tapestry of the mind, which can’t be unravelled, nor should be. Instead, the connections, especially the complexity, duplication and patterning of the connections, and the challenge it proposes to the human ego, is exactly the point: connections rather than distinctions. Is that a red demon in the centre?  Is it the god Oðin, with his missing eye wandering off to his left? Is the red figure behind the ice to the left of the image man or beast? Or the white ones in the ice? They are all imaginary, of course, but this imaginary projection, woven with history, society, science, the earth, psychology and spirit, and the challenge it proposes to dominant world views, is exactly the work of a skjald. Now, let me show you something a little closer to poetry, to help draw this discussion closer to its centre. In the first image below, the trinity is represented in some contemporary norse knotwork. Note the interwined, yet closed nature of the flowering of the pattern as it moves through the world. A skjald wrote verses as interlocked as this.

new-triquetra-trinity-a-knot-pagan-norse-viking-silver-pewter-pendant-amuletIn my second example (in the image below) a contemporary Icelandic charm or curse, based on a medieval model displays interwining ropes, knots and lines of energy tied to the world with many different lines of approach, all of which are closed off to entry from outside spirits by crosses, or curses. This is the other side of a skjald’s work: a skjald helped to direct the king’s policy, but he had to be sly about it.

norse-viking-nautical-compass-talisman-fine-silver-esprit-mystiqueTraditionally, a skjald could say things that would lead to the death of anyone else, and so guide a king, when he was not in the mood for counsel, or deflect the build-up of violence in a court disagreement by leading it into laughter or finding layers of pride within layers of shame, or any other complex, interwoven knot. All in all, a skjald was a shield for the king, and so had the rights of a shield: to be first in battle and to always be at the king’s side, with an honour matched only by the sword or the hammer, the weapons of the king’s other hand. Gunnar Gunnarsson, who wrote two early books of poems and many novels, made it clear that he was a skjald. Note his clenched lips. He’s not talking.

P1530057It would be a mistake to read him as an epic poet, or even a novelist, even though he wrote few poems and many novels. Those novels are strange, though, and that’s the thing: they are deeply layered, deeply entangled with history, and challenged standard ways of thinking about identity and politics by talking in the code we recognize today as poetry. What’s more, most of these novels were published in huge editions by the Propaganda Ministry of the Third Reich. Many, with their tales of idealized, heroic farmers in Iceland were sent to the Russian Front to stiffen up the resolve of young men to fight the Russians and to prepare them to bring Scandinavia into the Reich. As the war progressed and the Scandinavian program and victory became impossible, dissidents working in the Propaganda Ministry continued to publish these novels, to show young men how to come back home after violence. Those are pretty amazingly contradictory roles for any set of novels, or for any writer. Only a skjald could pull that off. Unfortunately, this story has largely been missed in Gunnar Gunnarsson’s work, because the literary culture that received these books read them as literary works. They’re not. Put it this way: in the spirit of Gunnar, the following image is neither art nor nature:

p1390934What it is, exactly, apart from grass, moss and birch twigs in the spray from a waterfall, is the question we must all answer as we work towards coming home. There is, however, one clue in the world:

p1370751The world has pattern, it is physical, and it contains pairs of males and females, who come together to form something else: a family, as with the swans above, or, what this family expresses, a coming together that forms a centre to the world. When those young swans leave this birth family to form families of their own, it’s not the leaving that is central to them, but the reforming. In a culture with its roots in the iron age, this reforming is done in fire, heat and violence, beaten into linked shape by the skjald’s word-forge. In skjald work, that dynamism, and the relationship between its parts, is what it is to be human. Poetry and dicht come later to a skjald, just as dicht and skjald work come later to a poet and poetry and skjalding come later to a dichter. All three together, however, provide a full picture of the vital work they can do. Confusing the terms just muddies the waters.


A Vision for Writers from a Sculptor

There is a line that makes a story. It’s the path any person can walk along to get from one place to another, or the one my dog used to always find in the weeds, because the edges of the gravel are where everything happens, or maybe it’s just because it’s just where someone has passed by. This is a problem that doesn’t even bother sheep.


Sheep Tracks, Hengifossá Canyon

If you leave enough tracks they don’t make a trail. They make a net. A net’s a great thing, but if you catch the world with one, what then? Where are you going to drag your catch? 

Maybe it’s not so hard. Maybe sometimes writers just need to be dragged out of their words and given a new pasture to run in.


Icelandic Writer Staying Close to Home at Feeding Time

Or maybe not. Maybe it depends. A couple days ago the sculptor Ken Blackburn asked me to go out and make a line in Iceland. Everything in the world, he said, starts with a line. So, I made a line. I liked this idea. I could feel what the very beginning of something looked like, and not a story already made which I stub my toe against, which is usually the case. Gunnar’s story (whose house I haunt here) is certainly like that. And would you just look at what found me in its first moment, as I set it into the world …

littlelinecloserA Line of Volcanic Stones

In this case, the edge is in the midst of the ice. It leads from itself to itself, and quivers there, while the ice could just as well extend to the edges of the universe. Maybe it does. Maybe it’s only humans who say, “Look! There’s an edge to this stuff.”

Imagine what a story would look like if it were written like that. The beginning and end would lie side to side, cuddling up close in the centre, and all the rest of the story would stretch out in folds of sheets and kicked off blankets to the sides. You might have to pick up the book, and read it any way you wanted. The edge would always find you. Maybe I didn’t stub my toe against Gunnar’s story. Maybe, as a man largely of the 20th century (so far), I was always in it and by walking far enough stubbed into the line that was always there — maybe at the centre, maybe way off to the side … who’s to know in a spherical world? But you see, that’s a writer thinking. What did Ken say? Make a circle, he said. A sculpture, he said, is just a line, too. A circle! Aha!

P1430091Well, Sort of a Circle

And, this right on the sight of that original line, too, which looked like this when I showed up today …



A most unwriterly art form. Writers are always thinking about making a mark that stays. This one, though, is gone … it’s finished. 

Still, a circle, eh. A story that was a circle and not a line, that might have a swan feather in its belly, that might at any time be blown off by the wind … what a book that would make: a book that would mean anything at all, depending on who you are. But wait… I know some books like that. They were the books that Gunnar wrote in the 1930s, especially his “Advent in the Highlands.”


Advent in the Highlands

The Approved by the 1936 German Propaganda Ministry Version

Don’t jump to straight lines. That book, that Gunnar wrote to promote peace, was used to send German boys to Czechoslovakia, but 4 years later it was used to generate an American desire to go to war, in this edition:


Advent for Americans

A message of peace for both sides — that circle was Gunnar’s intention. That it was used for other purposes was not. 

So, circles. I thought, well, what if a circle is not alone? What then? So I tried to find out …


Two Circles

 Well, that felt good, you know. Look how they turn the space between them into a … well, not a line exactly, but a space that could be a line, or anything… a space of possibility. Not a No-Man’s Land, but an All-Man’s Land. So, I wanted to see how far this would go…

P1430114Three Circles!

Now there’s a line and no line, and the middle circle is within the position of possibility.

What would a story put together like that look like? It wouldn’t be a story, for one thing, so much as a bunch of stones and ice on a beach that the writer and readers could all walk around in together and stub their toes against … but would that be a bad thing? Is that what Gunnar was missing? A third circle? I mean, his stories were all about this…

iceringThe Shore of Life

It separates the island from the sea, or the colony from the colonizer, in Iceland’s case, and is deadly and life giving at the same time. Death and life are inseparable in Gunnar’s world. He does not means this as an easy sentiment.

But what if in all his haste to tell a story, to try to save Iceland from colonization and other invasion, through the admittedly ridiculous medium of words, he missed this?

P1430151They Float on Light!

Maybe novels and their traditional structures were the net that caught Gunnar. Maybe that’s an important lesson in literary form, learned from sculpture. I think it is.

Home in Skriðuklaustur

The residency begins. Gunnar Gunnarson was there to greet me. The tree growing out of his head, that’s my wish for growth and spirit here. gunnarGunnar Gunnarson at Skriðuklaustur

Gunnar came here when there was nowhere else to go but to go back home. It was 1939. The war he had dreaded was on the horizon, and some of its shadow stuck to him. He resolved to go back farming.


Skriðuklaustur Chicken Coop

The farming didn’t pan out all that well. My father and grandfather came to Canada from Germany with the same dream, and under very similar pressures, one after the first half of the Twentieth Century War and one after the second half of it. I am the dream they made, and so when I see things like this …

rustMy Father’s and Grandfather’s Tools at the Top of the World

The remains of Gunnar’s dream, Skriðuklaustur

… I know it is time to roll up my sleeves and get back farming. Tomorrow my work at Skriðuklaustur begins. I intend to farm here, but in words, and at a very deep level. Look for my discussion of the life in rock, as the first words from this new and old ground. It feels great here. I am here to honour Gunnar and my own ancestors, and to bring their stories together in the living ground of words. As I came close to the Klaustur, this is who saw me first …

horsesHorses in Fljotsdalur

What a great welcome!