The clamour of elves and the magic of birds - On the writings of Þorsteinn frá Hamri.
"The clamour of elves and the magic of birds followed him wherever he went" is a quotation from the first poem in the first book of poems written by Þorsteinn frá Hamri. These words can refer to all poetry written by Þorsteinn as Njörður P. Njarðvík points out in his introduction "Orð séu von mín og vald" [Words be my hope and power] to Ritsafn Þorsteins frá Hamri [Collected Works of Þorsteinn frá Hamri] published a few years ago by the publishing house Iðunn. The Collected Works contain all his previous books of poetry which are published along with his three novels and the Söguþáttur um Hallgrím smala og húsfreyjuna á Bjargi [The chronicle of the sheepherder Hallgrímur and the housewife at Bjarg (Söguþáttur is a traditional historical chronicle from a certain town or district based on oral or written accounts)]. "The clamour of elves and the magic of birds..."; Folk beliefs and traditional folk culture are a rich vein in the poetry of Þorsteinn frá Hamri. The subject matter in his poems comes from Icelandic folk culture done in Icelandic metre. In his poetry Þorsteinn frá Hamri also makes use of the innovations of modernism: fragmented modern man is the subject matter and the present with its "nuclear dread" as Þorsteinn frá Hamri calls it in Stríð og söngur [War and song] a book made up of an interview with the poet by Matthías Viðar Sæmundsson. "I have always been inhabited by foreboding as can be seen in my poems", Þorsteinn frá Hamri claims in the book.
Í svörtum kufli [In a black cassock] is the first book of poetry by Þorsteinn frá Hamri; it was published in 1958 and takes its name from one of the poems, "Að haustnóttum" ["In the autumn nights"], where the narrator travels in a black cassock "um sali haustsins bleika, friðlaus andi" ["along the autumn''s pink halls, a restless spirit"]. The author''s main characteristics are apparent in the book, vividly so in the poem "Sigurður Breiðfjörð" but Breiðfjörð an author of Icelandic ballads has always been much revered by Þorsteinn frá Hamri: "Þú sem varst tákn hins tíu alda ljóðs" [You who where the symbol of the ten century poem].
His next book, Tannfé handa nýjum heimi [Tooth fee for a New World], was published in 1960. The tone has become more highly polished: it is more solid, focused, sharper. The title refers to the poem "Eign" [Property]: it says "ómettuð höfuð liðinna tíða" ["unsaturated heads of the past] and it is tempting to see the tooth fee as being not only the poems themselves but the cultural heritage, the past and tradition. Tannfé [tooth fee] is a gift presented to children when they get their first teeth and that tradition is used here in a symbolic sense.
Viking voices blend in with the street noise of the present in the poem "Gestir" ["Guests"]:
Týndir dagar hafa vitjað mín
í hús núverunnar
komið til móts við daga sem bíða mín
Raddir Jómsvíkinga og ys götunnar
Sjálfur hlusta ég
og stari í reyktákn
The criticism is sharpened in Lifandi manna land [Land of living men] published in 1962. "Mörg og hávær eru ósannindin/þar sem þau hrannast upp á leitinu" [Many and noisy are the untruths/as they pile up on the hillock] it says in the second part of the magnificent series of poems called "Birta" [Light]. In the poem "Lofsöngur" [Song of praise] an ideal appears: "Á hendur fel þú honum!" ["Entrust yourself to it/him!"] these are the final words of the poem. The reference to the hymn is clear, but in this instance it refers to a day [not God], and on that day one faces "meinsemdir orðanna" [the evil of the words] and the responsibility of the crimes of history. Lifandi manna land is, however, in many ways more introspective than its predecessors, even in poems like "Gesturinn" [The Guest] which is almost colloquial in its tone: "Ég hnippi í þig kunningi" [I''ll let you know mate]. A guest is awaited, who the reader does not know who is, and the narrator says: "hann gerir aðeins einfaldar og sanngjarnar kröfur" [he only makes simple and fair demands]. The reader suspects that the guest might be death.
Langnætti á Kaldadal [A long night in Kaldidalur (cold valley)] is a continuation of the same development, possibly more open, as in the poem "Í teignum" [In the grassland] where the subject matter are the hollow banks of a river which will soon collapse into the stream. The narrator recommends that "we" the farmers do something about it because "ánni má brjóta nýjan farveg..." [a new path can be cut for the river]. Time and again there are small everyday scenes in the poetry of Þorsteinn frá Hamri: parties, people getting into cars, conversations; there is always something beneath the surface. The title poem of Jórvík, [York] the following book is typical of the overall atmosphere of the book. "Oss frændum" [We cousins] are "varnað höfuðlausnar" [kept from writing lifesaving poetry (see Egill Skallagrímsson, viking poet who saved his head from being chopped off by offering a long and excellent poem to the king)] and when the cousins are asked about poetry their answer is: "að ekki er ort" [no poetry is written]. "Vermalandsferðir vorar/eru að sönnu heldur rislitlar" [Our viking trips have been rather poor], they have been "friðmenn hér á götunum"[men of peace pacing the streets]. However, the subject matter of this poem is not Egill Skallagrímsson but modern man. The words "við" [we] and "vér" [we in formal form] is often seen in the poetry of Þorsteinn frá Hamri when his criticism of society and modern man is at its most potent, as stated by Njörður P. Njarðvík in the aforementioned essay. The cousins are poets, they practice "marklítið drykkjuraus" [pointless drunken jabbering] until "blóðöx" [blood axe] puts an end to it. This axe seems to be made of poems and reads as follows: "Hið bezta var kvæðið flutt" [The best of poetry was performed]: like an encouragement to the reader who is content with poetry which "ekki er ort" [is not written] or a life which is hardly lived. Lethargy, hypocrisy, coldness, comfortable and cowardly comfort are the subject matters of "Jórvík"; "svo við rífum úr okkur hjörtun,/ hengjum þau utan á okkur/ eins og heiðursmerki" ["and so we rip our hearts out,/ hang them around our neck/ like medals"] are lines from the poem "Liðsinni" ["Re-enforcement"]. The series of poems "Til fundar við skýlausan trúnað" ["An appointment with unconditional trust"] revolves around these cowardly comforts, in the first part it is stated that "Tvímælalaust ætla þeir á aukin þægindi" ["They intend without a doubt to increase their comfort"] and "they" risk nothing for the truth which seems to them to be "ófrýnilegri en svo" ["more horrendous than that"], do not even risk a "óheppilega nafngift" [an unfortunate name]. Although, the moment comes when we scream, as it says in the poem "Dul" ["Hidden"].
Svo lýkur samdrykkjum -
fólk reikar heim misviturt og glatt.
Viðhöfum dansaðmeð -
hví skyldum við hafna samfylgdinni heim?
Þó kjósum við oft að dvelja eftir
þegjandi eða með uppgerðarhlátrum -
hver sönn kennd okkar föst í fjötrum.
Við drögum dul
á sárustu reiði okkar ástir og óskir
en sú stund kemur að við öskrum þetta upp.
Þorsteinn frá Hamri started early on to use the most Icelandic of all literary formats: sagnaþættir [sg. sagnaþáttur or þættir, traditional historical chronicles from a certain town or discrict based on oral or written accounts], both Þorsteinn frá Hamri and Hannes Pétursson have used and cultivated this format. The collection of chronicles Skuldaskil [The Reckoning] was published in 1963 and the Ætternisstapi og átján vermenn [The ancestral home and eighteen sailors] is from 1987, both of these are an integral part of the works of Þorsteinn frá Hamri.
The novels of Þorsteinn frá Hamri have recently been resurfacing and undergoing a re-evaluation. The first one, Himnabjargarsaga eða Skógardraumur [The story of Himnabjörg or The Forest Dream] was published in 1969 and of his three novels it is the most chaotic and experimental as regards format and narrative style, let us just say it is the whackiest.
On the one hand it is a fairy tale, although it sports a narrator, a self-conscious narrator who makes the story up, writes his own suggestions in place of the missing bits in the picture story of a grecian urn. The story takes place on several levels. In the foreground is the fairy tale of Sigurð (who is more a concept than a name), who intends to save Himinbjörg who has been kidnapped by a passing Earl. There are many things in the world of this fairy tale that are similar to a sociological allegory but Himinbjargarsaga has a lot in common with contemporary writing, especially in its form. And that might explain why these three novels were passed over: is it possible that they were simply ahead of their time? Although they do contain oldfashioned atmosphere and unless I am very much mistaken, the first one has a thread of influence from Benedikt Gröndal, which has not been paid much attention to in Icelandic literature. One of the main characteristics of the stories is the mixing of past and present and the language is crisp and to the point and the Icelandic used is especially clear and beautiful. The novel Möttull konungur eða Caterpillar [King Möttull or Caterpillar] is a more concise work compared to the first one, although the author claims in the interview mentioned above to have "heaped" togeather in Möttull all kinds of fragmented memories, ancient stories and all sorts of fantasies. The book is a monologue of an ancient ghost, told to the ditch-digging operator of an excavator. The ghost''s audience is somewhat less than captivated. The ghost enriches the surroundings with history and life, as if he is not only preaching to the operator of the excavator but also to the progress-oriented present and its apathy.
Many consider this book Þorsteinn frá Hamri''s best novel.
The uniquely Icelandic sly sence of humour or even pessemism in the best sense of the word characterise Haust í Skírisskógi [Autumn in Sherwood Forrest]. "This story is not a realistic image of Reykjavík in any given period in researched documentation or on a memorial plaque" is what the novel states of itself. However Haust í Skírisskógi does not take place in the famous forrest of outlaws but in its paralell and absolute opposite contemporary Iceland. The idol of the main characters can be found in the brand name of Robin Hood flour and even in the children and youth literature on the famous heroes of freedom fighting. The characters have the same names and nicknames as the Sherwood heroes and often meet in a café called "The Oak". These are not society''s most prized members. Their sympathy with Robin Hood and his merry men is a "Hamsúnsk flækingarómatík" [Hamsunian vagabond romanticism], the reason being "sambandslaust sveitamannaþunglyndi" [alienated peasant depression] as it says in the work in ironic tone. Haust í Skírisskógi is possibly the most accessable Þorsteinn frá Hamri''s novels and a good choice for those who want to start reading him.
Hallgrímur smali og húsfreyjan á bjargi, [Hallgrímur the sheaphearder and the houskeeper at Bjarg] subtitled Söguþáttur úr Borgarfirði [A chronicle from Borgarfjörður] is by no means a lesser starting point. This is a traditional chronicle [þáttur], the best of the genre; here we have the elfin trials and tribulations of Hallgrímur the heardsman and also the magnimanity of Kristrún Hallgrímsdóttir who lived an empoverished life on the farm named Bjarg in Borgarfjörður. Her dealings with a dastardly adminastritive officer of the district are mentioned. This work cannot be compared with the novels; it is in many ways more accessible and is truly a must read for all fans of this genre.
In between the three novels two books of poetry were published. Veðrahjálmur [Weather helmet] and Fiðrið úr sæng daladrottningar [The feathers from the valley queen''s duvet]. These books are very good and draw togeather many of the best aspects of the previous ones. Irony has become a strong element in the poems but also ideals, as can be seen in the poem "Mannsblóð" ["Human blood"] from the first mentioned book.
Um alkyrr svæfandi dægur
býður oss annað veifið í grun
að um æðar vorar renni blóð
og af þessum fáum vér bakþanka:
En til allrar lukku
er blóði einungis úthellt í fréttum -
og aðeins í svefnrofunum
vaknar hugboð um að gildin séu tvö:
maður og maður
I am not alone in my admiration for Fiðrið úr sæng Daladrottnigar. It is as if something opens up in that book and flows forward in a powerful flow which is unparalelled in the poetry of Þorsteinn frá Hamri; or maybe it is only the feeling given by the first poem of the book, the poem "Ísland" ["Iceland"]:
Ég vil líkjast þér, land
en sætti mig samt
við mannsgervið og mannshugann
og víst kvíslast blóðrás mín og kenndir
í líkingu lækja þinna.
Hvað um vor þín
með vatnagangi og skriðuföllum:
hitti þá einher á æð eða kviku?
Spjótalög á spegil [Spearthrusted mirror] was published in 1982 and the cover of the first printrun was powerful: a photograph of a broken mirror on the front, the poets face in the shards on the back. The title is from a very short poem called "Samviska" ["Consciense"]: "Samviska -/sál mín herðir/spjótalög á spegil." ["Consciense - /my soul thrusts/spears at a mirror"]. A great inner battle takes place in this book, "Vér lifum og nögum/ljóðkjúkuna" [We live and gnaw/the knuckelbone of poetry] it says in the first poem of the book, "Rúnarista" [Writing in runes]. And we crucify one another; the subject matter of the poem "Golgata" is in my mind, "the two values": man and man.
Þú kaupir þér ekki nagla
til að krossfesta sálir -
þú þarft einungis
að hnykkja rétt á orðunum.
Hafðu ekk áhuyggjur
af handvömm á ytra borði.
Það er jarðveginum að kenna
ef krossarnir hallast,
og ekki nema mátulegt
á þögul vitni.
The recent works of Þorsteinn frá Hamri have taken a new direction, they are more personal, with intimacy and look back to childhood. This can be seen in Ný ljóð [New Poems] but in particular in Urðargaldur [The magic of fate] published in 1987; that book is the beginning of a new period. Next came Vatns götur og blóðs [Streets of Water and Blood] in 1989. It has the same intent only stronger. Although I do not want to exaggerate the change, many things are familiar, for instance the theme (or scene) in the poem "Heiðursgestir" ["Guests of honour"]: "Umburðarlyndir,/nánast utangátta/ hlýddu þeir á þakkarávörpin/ lofið/ um ljósbera andans" ["Patiently,/almost absent minded/they listened to the speaches/the praise/of the spirit of eternal light"].
"Hilling" ["Mirage"] is not quite a typical poem for Vatns götur og blóðs, a surprising image of a lion on the sands of Mýrdalur. There is a realistic hue to the image, as if a yawning lion was a natural occurance in Icelandic nature. The lion is still lying there at the end of the first paragraph even if the narrator has moved on to Klaustur and the past tense is used. What is this lion doing there? Where did it escape from? To which world does it belong? And who ownes it? Your guess is as good as mine;
Á mýrdalssandi liggur ljón við veginn
og lætur sem það hafi gleymt hver á það
ensefur þarna satt og eitt og fagurt!
Vonandi ratar eigandinn aldrei þangað.
Óskaplega fannst mér gaman að sjá það
blunda í grjótinu, gult, sloppið úr helsi!
Það geispaði, vakið til hálfs, móti sól í austri
líkt og það vildi mæla við mann og annan:
Heimur minn sé háttvirtri sál yðar nægur...
ég hugsaði um það dögum saman á Klaustri.
Sæfarinn sofandi [The sleeping sailor] is a book of poetry that will never be too highly praised. The next one after that is Það talar í trjánum [Speaking in the trees]. They are equally powerful books, among the best, and there is a natural tendency to group them together. The main traits are mysticism and naturalism, things that cannot be said, things hanging on "álagaþræðinum, svo veikum/að hann hrekkur í tvennt/ef talað er um hann" [the thread of destiny, so weak/that it will break in two/if spoken of] to quote from an earlier work. "Mér er í mun að setja heiminn saman" [I am anxious to put the world together] he writes in Sæfarandinn sofandi. The title poem goes like this:
Ég lá í vari
lengur en minnið nær.
Vopn færðu mér karlar,
Allt fór að reglu.
Sandur. Sól. Blær.
Hver hjó á festar í myrkrinu
meðan ég svaf?
hver er ég
og hvar er mín gjöfula fjara?
Nær sem utar óreiða.
Tóm til að spyrja.
Um seinan að svara.
To listen to a compact disk where Þorsteinn frá Hamri reads his own poetry, it is possible to borrow this at the City Library, clarifies many things, not surprisingly since his poetry stems from an oral tradition; I remind you of Sigurður Breiðfjörð. A small but important accentuated pause comes before the word "bað" to make it resound with the titel of the poem "Skógaraltarið" [The forest altar] which is the first poem in Það talar í trjánum:
Ég bað að mér yrði gefið að hugsa af gnægð,
án tvíveðrungs, án látaláta,
að allar sífellur og samfellur
í tilhaldssemi orðs og æðis
léttu sér upp af lund minni -
já, jafnt hin ábúðarfulla launung
sem allilr sýndarhimnarnir...
Ó, taktbundna yfirskin!
Og tunglið óð í skýjum,
ungan náttfara næddi
undir ofur véfréttalegu
tré allra tíða
við ys frá gestum í grennd
þar sem öllum setningum
virtist saman skipað af guðum...
It is tempting to call this prayer the aesthetic of Þorsteinn frá Hamri in a nutshell, at least of his later works.
His latest book, Vetrarmyndin [Winter image], continues in the same direction as the two before it, but does perhaps not add very much new to the discussion. Vetrarmyndin has not made as strong an impression on his readers as many of his other books have. Although there are many poems which are eaqual to many of his best work, for instance "Rökkurhelgin" [The twilight weekend]:
ekkert hefur gerzt
dagaskipti við drottin
án þess að vera sérstaklega
litlar, ljóðkynja hátíðir...
Og mistök verða.
En fyrir margt er bætt
af svo yfirlætislausri auðlegt
að fyrir ber að við flýjum
á náðir álfa og engla
þegar hugsanir okkar og orð
fyrir ögn af því
sem vitranir okkar eiga skást skilið.
Hermann Stefánsson, 2002.
Translated by Dagur Gunnarsson.Back