Today's book of poetry:
The Crooning Wind - Three Greenlandic Poets.
Torkilk Morch, Gerda Hvisterdahl, Innunquaq Larsen. Translated by Nive Gronkjaer and David R. Slavitt. New American Press. Milwaukee, Wisconsin-Urbana, Illinois. 2012.
This all too short collection, compiled and translated by Nive Gronkjaer and David R. Slavitt leads this reader to believe that the poetry being written in Greenland is an all too secret joy. Although all three of these poets, Torkilk Morch, Gerda Hvisterdahl and Innunquag Larsen are no longer with us, are in fact, long dead, these thoroughly modern poems read as contemporary as wet ink.
Torkilk Morch - Greenland Sharks
They are slow, they swim very deep, and catch what they can
by ambush more likely than not. The meat of this shark
is poison. Of course it is. But then what desperate
fisherman or his wife decided, despite
what they had learned, or seen with their own eyes
of their neighbors' deaths, that maybe if you boiled it,
not once, but several times, or if you dried it
and ate it then, it wouldn't kill you. It's true:
both methods work, but what grim necessity drove them
to such an experiment as to win this knowledge?
Torkilk Morch - Slush
The ice softens
as the earth comes into her season.
The reindeer revive and the caribou,
the bears in their lairs wake,
and we give thanks to them and for them,
whose helplessness we share.
But only we bear the burden
of knowing our lives are short.
Morch says more with less, and with great clarity. The concerns he has are universal, the helplessness of being human, the perilous certainty that human warmth is our greatest gift.
Gerda Hvisterdahl - Where
The herds are there somewhere. They have to be.
But they know that I'm coming and run away to hide.
Where can they go? Where could they have gone?
In all this glare and metaphysical whiteness,
how can they not be seen?
But the answer is
that they can see me, a hopeless hungry man
trudging slowing across the landscape. They move
a little further on. If they could, they'd laugh.
Gerda Hvisterdahl - Wake
A good lover gives way as the water gives way
to the boat's prow, but also, like the water,
cradles, supports, caresses the length of the keel,
and then gives thanks in the celebrating wake
that lets the rest of the sea see what it was.
Gerda Hvisterdahl - Insult Poem
There are sled dogs, hard working but not so bright,
but still brighter than you.
There are also guard dogs, testy, hostile, but useful.
You are like them, except that you are not useful.
And then there are dogs that roam the village for scraps
and seem to be good only for leaving shit
wherever people walk.
You are just like them.
Gerda Hvisterdahl, in these three short poems, simply dazzles with humour, wit, and humanity. These timeless poems are laser focused and casually clever, old time lore and eternal longing.
Innunquaq Larsen - Senses
The five we agree on, but what of the other subtle
information systems the brain relies on?
Balance is surely a sense. And kinesthetics,
the knowledge of where the parts of the body are
and how much an object weighs upon the muscles
that lift it to learn how heavy it is. Distention
is also a sense, the need to shit or pee
or fart. At the other end, the vagus nerve
announces nausea, doesn't merely report
but predicts, which is what our senses are for. And fear?
Is that an emotion? Or, when our hair stands up,
a part of the sensorium? Sleepiness?
Vertigo? The meat and bone rely
on the nerves' news for survival, and we should acknowledge
how, on a certain street, in a certain room,
where it doesn't feel right, something dismal impends,
and if we are smart we'll try to get away.
Innunquaq Larsen - Breath
You can see them in winter,
each breath making a cloud as it hits the cold
so that it is visible, seems alive,
and you watch a poem form and disappear,
or is it a prayer?
In the summer you also breathe.
You cannot see your breath,
but you know it is there,
can remember what it looked like
enough to believe.
All three of these poets amazed me in the most pleasurable ways. The concise, clean line all three employ suggest it might be part of the Greenlandic fabric - no nonsense, straight ahead wisdom. I don't pretend to know anything about Greenland and to my shame, even less about it's literature. But if this sampling of Greenlandic poetry is in any way indicative of what is on offer - zounds!
Nive Gronkjaer and David R. Slavitt have done an amazing job translating these works so that they feel right in English, feel like they were written in English. Makes me wish I spoke Greenlandic.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
TORKILK MORCH (1894-1940) a native of Nuuk (formerly Godthab), was a pioneer in Greenlandic poetry, combining the archaic rhythms of native culture with the sophistication of cosmopolitan modernism that opened the doors of literature to the generations that followed him. He was educated in Copenhagen, Paris, and Bucharest. His three slender volumes are Aurora Borealis (1916), The Herring Elegies (1927), and The Beckoning Foghorns (1934). Inger Christensen said that Morch "understood the world and the universe as a continuum of correspondences." He disappeared into a crevasse in 1940, reportedly with a nearly complete book of poems that he carried with him in a small sealskin notebook.
GERDA HVISTERDAHL (1916-1994) was born and raised in Qaqortoq. She was an autodidact, a mystic, and well-known stone carver. Rebelling against Vangardist formulas, she wrote traditional poems about the complexities of man-in-nature. Her Signs of Habitation (1952) was awarded the Thule Prize of the Greenlandic Academy of Arts and Letters. Musk Ox Meat (1961), which broods about the island's traditional hunter-gatherer culture and the impact upon it of the money economy, was included in the Arctic Cultural Counsel's list of 50 Great Greenlandic books.
INNUNQUAQ LARSEN (1935-2002) was born in Qeqertarsuatsiaat on the southwestern coast. His long narrative poem about the seeress porkell is widely studied in Greenlandic secondary schools and esteemed among literary critics for its keen understanding of the pagan culture and the celebration of objects that were a part of the island's spiritual history. He was fluent in both Greenlandic and Danish, but his poetry was entirely in Greenlandic. Aside from his Porkell's Knife (1960) his work appeared in a series of eleven Fascicles that were published in letter-press pamphlet form from 1971 until the onset of his deep depression in 1978, during which he was hospitalized and from which he never recovered.
ABOUT THE TRANSLATORS
NIVE GRONKJAER is professor of Inuit Studies at the University of Baffin Island and director of the Knut Rasmussen Kalaalit Nunaat Institute.
DAVID R. SLAVITT is an established translator of Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Italian, Portuguese and Sanskrit.