Sunday, January 12, 2014

Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl

Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl [DV]

from Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl's essay "Mind the Sound" in Booby Be Quiet:

Now in those years God was not the forgiving fellow we’ve come to admire in later years, and he did not at all enjoy having to receive the all-too early travellers (perhaps he wanted time to work on his poetry). And poetry was not seen to be a mere talent, but a veritable gift from God. So God smote Þorbjörn with a curse: He bereaved him of the “gift of poetry”. But Þorbjörn, being of stubborn stock, wouldn’t take no-poetry for an answer, and kept at it, poesying like a mad-man, quite literally: no matter how he toiled away at his quatrains and tercets, they all turned out nonsensical, full of words that weren’t words, sentences that alluded meaning, leaning on nothing but the verse-framework:

Loppu hroppu lyppu ver
lastra klastra styður,
Hoppu goppu hippu ver.
hann datt þarna niður.

Some of the words in the first three lines can be seen as having “meaning”, while some are “meaningless” — the context is complete nonsense, beautiful nonsense, soundbouts in rounds galore — he is less literati than alliterati, or even illiterati — and yet it sounds like something a fisherman-blacksmith would write, it sounds like a fisherman-blacksmith’s vocabulary, nevermindyou that the words don’t mean anything — they SOUND.

The final line was all Þorbjörn had left of more traditional poetry, word-by-word: he fell there down. From the moment his curse became reality, more often than not, only Þorbjörn’s last lines would be readable. As his poetic career continued, Þorbjörn got to be known as Æri-Tobbi, Tobbi being a nickname for Þorbjörn and æri meaning crazy or insane — and so he’s known today.

Little did God know, on the day he smote his curse on Þorbjörn, that he’d be giving birth to Iceland’s first avant-garde poet — a sound poet, no less, whose control of zaum is first-class, putting him in a category with such 20th century greats as F. T. Marinetti and Hugo Ball. . . .

While Æri-Tobbi was far from making any common-sense with his poetry, while he had totally lost his grip on words, sentences and their meanings, the verse-form remains, fully equipped with rhyme and the old Nordic rules of alliteration: props & mainstaffs — the anchors of poetry that even some modern Icelandic readers would openly claim was an unconditional requirement for any poem (worthy of the name). For a quatrain the most common form these rules take (there are variations) goes something like this: A pair of alliterations in the first and third line (props), and one at the beginning of the second and fourth line (mainstaffs). It’s to be noted that all words in Icelandic have the stress on the first syllable, so that’s where the alliteration goes (moreorless) without exception:

Ambarar vambarar skrumburum sker
skrambra þumburinn dýri.
Vigra gigra vambra hver
vagaði hann suður í mýri.

The rules of props & mainstaffs are so intrinsic to the Icelanders’ idea of poetry that when foreign verse-forms, like the sonnet, are imported they get a permanent injection of props and mainstaffs: A sonnet in Icelandic without props & mainstaffs is a rare exception — to the point where it would be considered no mere fault, but an outright mistake . . .

One of the aspects of Æri-Tobbi’s sound-poetry is that it intersects its zaum with perfectly dictionariable words, and I’m told other words can be traced somewhere (go, etymology, go!) — but in any basic non-researching reading (let alone incanting) of his poetry you’re not gonna be sure what is a word and what is zaum. It’s not intentionally written as nonsense, at least that is not how the myth goes — it’s an attempt at writing poetry by a poet bereaved of his gift. This, I interject, seems to imply that God is firmly on one side of the content vs. form debate — as he did not choose to bereave Æri-Tobbi of the gift of form, but only his meaning-content (again, in the dictionary sense of meaning (no, not ‘meaning’ as the word’s described in the dictionary, but the way a dictionary conveys meaning)).

And so, once in a while, a sunbeam gets through, a single word or even sentence:

Imbrum bimbrum ambrum bambrum apin dæla
skaufra raufra skapin skæla
skrattinn má þeim dönsku hæla.

The tercet's closing line means something like: The devil can praise the Danish. What of the rest of it? ‘Dæla’ is pump, ‘skæla’ is whine — but without the help of a dictionary the rest of it eludes me, and the endings (conjugations?) are unusual, in the sense that they are repetitive, which in Indo-European languages is more an exception than a rule — especially a 4X repetition, as in “Imbrum bimbrum ambrum bambrum”.

Portions of other words can be “translated”. Thus ‘imbrum’ might refer to ‘imbra’, the fast that begins every quarter of the Catholic church year; the only word starting with ‘bimb’ I can find is ‘bimbult’, nauseous; ‘ambrum’ might refer to ‘ambra’ which is (amongst other things) the wailing of a child. ‘Bambrum’ could be from ‘bambra’, to drink fast or swig. ‘Apin’ migth be a form of ‘api’, or monkey, or ‘opin’, that is to say: open. ‘Skaufra’ might be ‘skauf’ — the foreskin of a horse’s penis. “Raufra’ might be ‘rauf’, an opening. ‘Skapin’ might be ‘skapaður’ or ‘sköp’ — created or female reproductive system (more commonly: her genitalia) or even destiny.

Most of these words that I’ve linked to the word-forms in the poem through etymological guesswork are very uncommon.

An attempt at a translation (sans form, plus more guesswork) might look like this:

During the catholic fast,
we felt nauseous
from the wailing of children
and swigging from the open pump.

The foreskin of a horse's penis
made the cunt's opening whine.

The Devil can praise the Danish.

Now, we might have different opinions on whether this makes any more sense than the original, but at least these are sentences — not even the most arid critic would disagree with that. But those looking for more finality of meaning, might want to distance themselves even further from Æri-Tobbi’s sound-poem, interpreting the interpretation — The poem discusses sins of the flesh and juxtaposes animal(istic) intercourse, crying infants and barbaric drinking habits with the strict medieval Catholic church (abandoned in Iceland, for Lutheranism, in 1550). The final line could be read as an indictment of the Danish colonial-lords of Iceland, either saying that they’re on the devil’s side (literally) or more colloquially saying something along the lines of “who cares about the Danish”. To be noted: When the protestant reformation occurred all the property of the Catholic church was appropriated by the Danish king, and he replaced the pope as head of the church, becoming more influential and eventually subjecting Icelanders to a commerce-monopoly where all imports had to be from (or through) Denmark.

We would not dare to propose such an interpretation, would not bother (the devil can praise these interpretations!) for we are only interested in sounds. And then again, while phonemes sound more than they mean, the sounds tend to inadvertently mean while sounding.

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