1276 In any other country

Landings: Poems from Iceland
by Harold Rhenisch

Regina: Burton House, 2021
$20.00 / 9780994866967

Reviewed by Luanne Armstrong

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I love Harold Rhenisch’s writing. I think it deserves far more attention than it gets. Harold and I have a connection, in a sense, because we both write from and about our beloved places in the BC interior, about land and a sense of place. We also share a love of farming and a deep interest in the complexities of growing healthy peach trees.

I have also always wanted to visit Iceland. To me, it seems to be a magic land of trolls, volcanoes, hot springs, sagas and poetry. So I loved making my slow way through Harold’s new book of poetry which tells the stories of his connection with various places in Iceland and the stories embedded in such places.

Harold thoughtfully provides a glossary of the place names and brief descriptions of the places from which he writes each poem. Images are generated by glaciers, farms, bays, beaches, troll rocks, sheep, the wind, in this book and threaded through is a shining love of story and place.

Harold Rhenisch

The Icelandic names themselves are poetry, even if I have no idea how to pronounce them. The great Canadian poet, Al Purdy, wrote of my favourites poems of all time, called “Say The Names.” It begins like this:

 say the names say the names
 and listen to yourself
 an echo in the mountains
 Tulameen Tulameen
 say them like your soul
 was listening and overhearing
 and you dreamed you dreamed
 you were a river
 and you were a river

I have spent long periods of my life weaving through the names of Highway Three, from Crowsnest, through the Similkameen, the long stretches of treacherous five mountain passes between my home on Kootenay Lake and Vancouver, the many names of the rivers, the mountains, the small towns and the valleys beside the highway so I love these names as well.

“Taking a moment with one of the horses from the churchyard beside the elf hill in Eiðar. Church yards and elf hills often go together. Eiðar means ‘Fate’ or ‘Oath.’ Both positive and negative meanings are implied! The farmstead is the site of a former agricultural residential school in the North East.” — Harold Rhenisch

Where I live, in the Kootenays, I am always tracing the names of places. many of which began as Ktunaxa names, and were twisted by settler people into approximations of Ktunaxa. Even the name of the place I live should ideally be called Ktunaxa Amakis, “the people’s land,” but David Thompson and others named it the Kootenays and so it remains.

In 2017, Harold won second place in the CBC poetry prize for poetry based on this Al Purdy poem. Harold’s poem begins:

It was Al who said it, to stick out the thumb’s knuckle and nail, crook’d,
to say with a gesture where you want to get along to

and see who is going there too, with her hands on the wheel’s leather
and the rubber taking the curves of the Crowsnest,

crossing the line from black tar’s unwinding ribbon
into the riddle of headlights weaving between Similkameen deer and Arcturus.

As Harold writes: “My poem ‘Saying the Names Shanty’ is part of a book-length manuscript of songs for being at home in the west beyond the West, and especially in the grasslands between the mountains, and of following the road across the mountains and prairies to the east.”

“The Foss (waterfall) at Siðu, on an old sea cliff in South Iceland. This farmhouse water source pours right over a troll’s face. If you’re going to send the kids out to get water here, they have to face their dreams, head on. Note the stone skulls lying around the troll’s mouth!” — Harold Rhenisch
“Here’s the farmyard gate at Siðu, too, leading to the pastures (and more trolls).” — Harold Rhenisch

To know the true name of somewhere is to know something of the history and culture of that place, because every name is a story. In Landings, Harold weaves Icelandic folklore, images, stories and the land together into mirrored images. He used the poems to decipher the meaning of these places and their stories. He writes:

Just as a poem sets tracks
down in a notebook 

without knowing yet
the pace of speech, I once said

and saying, believed,
it needs to decipher the world through words

So Harold deciphers the images that anchor these poems into multi-layered poems; many of them repetitive, always the sea, the land, wind, the birds, the spirit but always different ways to see such beauty. He compares himself to a monk who prays for understanding:

When the rain falls on wind-scoured earth.
 I am a monk, on his knees, in his cell.

 There is so little light left in our world.
 Give me clear water in a grey pottery mug

 And a slice of dark bread, simple things,
 to concentrate my mind on the elements

 that have made the earth in the swells of Ocean
 before it is awash.

The poems are all in couplets with minimal punctuation and often surprising line endings that turn the meaning of the two lines into accented memory and surprising twists on language. The poems require attentive reading to glean the layers of images that are built into each couplet and how it connects to the next couplet as well as the larger overall images embedded in the whole of the poem.

“Mid November. Gale lifting the cloud, sun coming in horizontally, lighting the glacier like a lightbulb, which is then lighting the clouds from below, after putting a right angle in the sun.” — Harold Rhenisch
Landing’s frontispiece is a map showing the whole country as the book. Map by Trista Bassett and Harold Rhenisch

Harold is above all, a poet of land and place and understanding the deep connections that need to be made with a place and its stories, before someone can approach understanding the non-human world and their own history within it.

So far, Harold has been primarily a poet and a story-teller of the BC Interior, a place with still so many untold stories, but in this book, he changes landscapes. As he writes about Landings, this book is about a “decade-long love affair with Iceland that fills my new book with poems and prayers that are lifted by place and magic.”

These poems are quiet and deeply moving and yet, they also contain images of the great contradictions of the natural world, which is both creator and destroyer. Harold writes:

In any other country
the sky’s tatters would

be declared a hurricane
Here it is called day.

Anything that could have
blown off the farm’s cliff into the sea

has flashed or flapped
off long before. For a week,

the volcano has been clasping
cloud to her ice, drawing

the sun in, hiding it,
and stayed dark, showing

only the deep cuts of meltwater in ash
as half her ice went to sea

Magic and mystery move like water and light through these poems; they illuminate both the words and the places that transcend meaning and serve as the basis for the poetry and its inspirational connection to place.

These poems were a quiet pleasure to read and contemplate and I highly recommend them.

“Horses showing off at Hófstaðir Church in the North. The only water is in the ditch. They have to dig for it through the drifts. They are happy enough with the arrangement.” — Harold Rhenisch

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Luanne Armstrong

Luanne Armstrong has written 21 books including  young adult, fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. She has contributed to many anthologies and edited Slice Me Some Truth (Wolsak and Wynn, 2011), an anthology of Canadian non-fiction. She has been nominated or won many awards, including the Moonbeam Award the Chocolate Lily Award, the Hubert Evans nonfiction Book award; the Red Cedar Award, Surrey Schools Book of the Year Award, the Sheila Egoff Book Prize, and the Silver Birch Prize. Luanne lives on her hundred year-old family farm on Kootenay Lake. She mentors emerging writers all over the world on a long-term basis, and in the last three years has edited eight books through to publication. Her most recent books are Sand (Ronsdale Press, 2016), and A Bright and Steady Flame: The Story of an Enduring Friendship (Caitlin Press, 2018; reviewed by Lee Reid). Armstrong has recently published a book of essays, Going to Ground (Caitlin Press, 2021), as well as a new book of poetry, When We Are Broken (Maa Press, 2020). Editor’s note: Luanne Armstrong has also reviewed books here by Suzanne Simard, Peter WohllebenWayne SawchukKatie MitzelTom LymberyRichard Vission, and Deni Béchard, among others.

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The Ormsby Review. More Books. More Reviews. More Often.

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

The Ormsby Review is a journal service for in-depth coverage of BC books and authors. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

“A mare at Reykjanesvíti (Reeking Peninsula Lighthouse), south of Reykavík (Stinky Harbour). These are the kind of places you can find even in the dark.” — Harold Rhenisch
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