Dreamliner

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Aircraft. It sounds like something one could learn: how to breathe, how to oxidize. But this craft is the kind that floats, and it is enormous. It takes us the full width of Norway at its widest point to reach cruising altitude.

The Boeing 787 is nicknamed the Dreamliner, and its crowded cabin, though far from silent, is filled with a lovely hush of white noise that makes it difficult to stay awake. The only light left in the sky is a band of red above an oddly low horizon which goes before us like Yahweh leading the Jews out of Egypt, on and on into what my body assures me should be night.

five-hour sunset
a movie plays on the back
of every seat

Our original flight map had shown the plane going farther south, but I wake to find us over northern Iceland. In little over an hour we’ve made the journey that used to take the Norsemen more than a week in their own formidable crafts, part Dreamliner, part F-22. I’m not sure what always makes me favor window seats on the left side of a plane, but this time it pays off: that stream of bright orange in the near distance can only be the lava flow from the volcano Bárðarbunga, which on Google Earth—accessible from my seat-back video screen—shows as a great round hole. Now it is the rest of the island that is black, and the caldera, when it periodically appears, is as livid as a setting sun.

a glowing wound
in the darkness six miles below
Bárðarbunga

Volcano! in half
a dozen languages
we gape through our portholes

A little later, as the lava flow recedes into the distance, I start to see the lights from settlements along the north coast. Pressing my face right up to the glass, I realize there’s still just enough light to distinguish land from the slightly darker sea. I recognize Vatnsfjord from the maps that accompanied translations I’ve read of Vatnsdæla Saga and Grettir’s Saga, and then the fern-frond-like Westfjords from, well, every map of Iceland ever (though I do think of the ill-fated hero Gisli). Then we are back out over the north Atlantic, its waves and storms as remote as a legend from our comfortable, high-tech bubble. The west seems brighter now, but it will have faded to blackness by the time we land in New York. I remember with a smile something someone said about the pilots as we waited to board at the Oslo airport: “If they’re too late, they won’t have time to fly up over the top of Canada as they usually do.”

curve of the horizon
even from this height
it’s hard to believe

Some Facts About the Vikings

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

gleaned from a quick perusal of the Vikings exhibition at the British Museum

The Vikings were here, pillaging and minting coins.

The Vikings expanded in all directions when nobody was looking.

The Vikings were fond of bright colors and the whisper of silk against their hairy skins.

The Vikings steered their longships with special oars shaped like butter churns.

The Vikings filed their teeth for maximum impact when they gnawed on their shields like crazed Norway rats.

The Vikings invented tribal tattoos, gang signs, campfire sing-alongs and theoretical physics.

The Vikings’ chief deity had one eye and walked with a limp.

The Vikings were misunderstood loners who acted out violent fantasies of power.

The Vikings gave names to their swords and their shields, their boots and their favorite underwear.

The Vikings had female shamans whose magic staffs symbolically unwound the threads of fate.

The Vikings drank beer from wooden buckets and water—when they had to—from their pointy little helmets.

The Vikings dated yo’ mama before she got fat.

The Vikings selflessly contributed their DNA to the British gene pool.

The Vikings taught us how to say bleak and anger, glitter, ransack and egg.

The Vikings didn’t call themselves Vikings, but activist shareholders.

The Vikings were vertically integrated, and operated in all areas of the pillaging and slaving industry.

The Vikings exploited penalty charges on credit accounts held by most major northern European rulers.

The Vikings were directly involved in several major environmental and safety incidents, as well as numerous violations of human rights and good taste.

The Vikings were exceedingly fond of bling.

The Vikings employed poets to burnish their images and shape public expectations.

The Vikings disappeared in the 11th century at the height of their power, as the result of a leveraged buyout from Christendom Incorporated.


I wrote this today especially for an open-mike reading at the Poetry Cafe in Covent Garden. It seemed to go over pretty well. It occurred to me later that presenting a freshly minted poem to a roomful of strangers is pretty much what I do here every day (except that some of you aren’t strangers, of course). It was an extremely well-moderated reading, with time limits strictly but humorously enforced and a great diversity of readers — an interesting counterpoint to a much more staid reading by professional, establishment poets I’d attended several days before.

Warrior poets, shape-shifters and other unlikely characters: a year of reading aloud

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Woodrot Padcost 47: books read aloud in 2013 [MP3, 25 MB]
Duration: 27:50

‘Tis the season for literary bloggers to write about the best things they read this year. But in my case, much of my most interesting reading is out loud, in nightly Skype calls with Rachel Rawlins. Usually I’m the reader, but sometimes she is able to get an electronic version of whatever it is we’re reading and we take turns. I thought it might be fun to record us talking about what we liked and didn’t like this year (though Rachel had her doubts that anyone else would care). Here are the main books we talked about:

Other books mentioned in passing:

Berzerkers

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 4 of 12 in the series Bear Medicine

 

Bear Shirts: shock troops of the god. Howls of hot metal plunged into blood baths. Bare of hauberk or byrnie, gnawing on the affront of a linden shield.

It begins with a shiver, a sudden chill. Teeth chattering, the face goes strange, like the map of an unknown country. Not bear, but a bear-shaped terror — the wariness of the perpetually hunted, turning to hyperarousal & an ecstasy of rage. Then steel cannot cut, fire cannot burn, tenderness cannot reach.

And in the aftermath, weak enough to perish in the fair-haired hero’s crushing hug.

Dim-witted gods and the importance of poetry

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God of Wednesday:

I think the brilliant character of the giant Utgard-Loki, with his wry attitude toward that little fellow Thor who “must be bigger than he looks,” is a stand-in for Snorri [Sturluson] himself. They share the same humorous tolerance of the gods. There is very little sense throughout the Edda that these were gods to be feared or worshipped, especially not the childish, naïve, blustering, weak-witted, and fallible Thor who is so easily deluded by Utgard-Loki’s wizardry of words. What god in his right mind would wrestle with a crone named “Old Age”? Or expect his servant-boy to outrun “Thought”?

It also fits with why Snorri wrote the Edda: to teach the 14-year-old king of Norway about Viking poetry. This story has a moral: See how foolish you would look, Snorri is saying to young King Hakon, if you didn’t understand that words can have more than one meaning, or that names can be taken literally? The story of Utgard-loki is, at heart, a story about why poetry matters.

The end of the world as they knew it

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Before this farce of an apocalypse spiritual awakening passes from memory, I’d like to take a little more time to think about what the end of the world means for a civilization. One of the odd things about the New Age obsession with misinterpreted Mayan “prophecies” is the unwillingness to actually learn from the Maya themselves, who are not only still with us but who have managed to preserve an impressive amount of their traditional knowledge, and have not been especially shy about sharing it with curious anthropologists. New Agers like to see themselves as freed from the shackles of Judeo-Christian thinking, and love to pay lip service to indigenous wisdom. But reading books like Time and the Highland Maya, by an anthropologist who apprenticed herself to K’iche’ Maya priests, or the Popol Vuh, translated by her husband with the same priests as consultants, might challenge one’s preconceptions, and definitely requires sustained grappling with a very different worldview.

This unwillingness to learn from other cultures is deeply rooted in Western Christian culture. There’s a good Christian/Greek word for that sort of willfully ignorant pride: hubris. And for at least one outpost of Western civilization, such hubris — along with rigid conservatism, extreme religiosity, environmental degradation and a changing climate — brought about the end of the world as they knew it. I’m talking about the Norse settlements on Greenland.

If you’ve read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel (which I don’t necessarily recommend — it’s full of facile argumentation and poor scholarship), you already know the outlines of this story. But this documentary, produced for the PBS series Secrets of the Dead back in the millennial year, does an excellent job telling the story in the words of the scientists who finally pieced it together. And it was great to hear from the Greenland Inuit, who arrived a little later than the Norse but survived the Little Ice Age just fine. “Apocalypse? What apocalypse?” Which, come to think of it, is probably also what the Mayan peasants were saying when their parasitic city-states were collapsing 1000 years ago.

(By the way, if you’re interested in documentaries about the vikings, there are a number of other good ones collected on the new sagalicious page over at Twisted Rib.)

The Viking Buddha

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 18 of 22 in the series Alternate Histories

 

Ornament from a bucket found in the Oseberg mound grave in the county of Vestfold, Norway.
brass ornament found with the Oseberg ship burial

Four hammers of Thor,
nested just so, form
a Buddhist swastika with feet.
Steering by the sun,
we run in circles.

A gaze trained to focus
on a pitching horizon
turns to an inward shore.
Breathe like a rower,
in time with the waves.

Legs fold into a knot:
braided serpents.
The fierce brow unknits.
Only the scowl still hints
at the strength of his vow.
The truest viking leaves
everything behind.


Image from Saamiblog, via the Wikipedia Commons. Cf. the Helgö Buddha.

Old Norse Family Values

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 25 of 29 in the series Conversari

 

Gísla saga Súrssonar

Son of sour milk
tried to trick fate
by going under a lifted strip of sod,
making a coin with two heads
held together with rivets,
even staging his own death.

The sons & daughter of Sour
soon soured on each other,
& the blood-brother’s blood, which had dried
on the point of an ensorcelled spear,
blended with the blood of the killer
who had earlier refused such a mingling,
refused to swear brotherhood.

They outlawed the killer’s killer
(also his brother-in-law).
He went back under the sod to hide,
& in his dreams, two women
took turns filling his drinking horn,
one with mead, the other with gore,
& all streams flowed down
into the same broad fjord.


See Rachel’s photographic response: “Blood and milk.”

Salt Crystals

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 23 of 34 in the series Small World

 

In my last dream before waking, I was trying to explain why I felt that coherent ideologies, religions and philosophies do more harm than good: somehow, in trying to make the world make sense, they flatten out experience & dull the mind. It’s like salt, I said. Imagine if everything you ate had to be salty, to the point where you couldn’t taste anything else: no sweet, no sour, no bitter, no umami, no thousand subtle flavors.

Yet salt is so easy to worship, its crystals so translucent, such perfect little cubes. Ah, salt! I said, losing sight of my argument & waking up. When I used to watch sumo wrestling, my favorite part was the ritual tossing of salt, little guessing that this show of purification hid a culture of corruption. Meat that is already rotten can’t be cured.

Going to the shower, I thought of Grettir Asmundarson, the strongest man who ever lived in Iceland, done in by sorcery and a gangrenous infection that climbed from his foot to his intestines, decapitated by his enemies & his huge head stored overwinter in salt, the whole story captured in a saga’s unadorned prose. Perfect cubes, inviolable rooms.

The world does mostly taste of salt, because much of the world is ocean, even our bodies, I said to myself as I got dressed. Then I fixed some breakfast — two fried eggs — & found myself reaching first for the pepper.

Reading the Icelandic Sagas

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 21 of 29 in the series Conversari

 

The difficult syllables clash
in my mouth. Your knitting
needles make short
work of the yarn,
like the dream-woman
who gave An Twig-Belly
his nickname, filling
his disemboweled gut
with a tangle of twigs
until his intestines could
be put back where
they belonged, in all
their tortuous windings.
We puzzle through
the genealogies, struggle
to picture the raw land
rising behind the words,
yet somehow these grim stories
bring us closer together.
Young men described
as promising will end up
wallowing in each other’s gore—
we know this.
Beautiful women will goad
their thin-skinned mates
into horrific acts.
A shepherd boy is smashed
against the ground so hard
his spine snaps, & two years
after his miraculous rescue
An Twig-Belly dies
a quick & needless death,
split by an unheroic sword.
You frown at your knitting
& decide it too needs
to be unraveled. I watch
the dark garment which was
to have been mine dissolve
in your expert fingers.
You smile.
I feel light as air.


See Rachel’s photographic response: “Seed.”