Sunday, 17 February 2013

Harold Rhenisch's place

Harold Rhenisch's place

Harold Rhenisch in Iceland
If you look up "prolific" in the dictionary, you'll find Harold Rhenisch's picture there. Or you should. He's written four books of creative non-fiction, fourteen collections of poetry, a novel, and numerous chapbooks. He's written short stories and plays and acted as a translator and editor. Harold's The Wolves at Evelyn: Journeys through a Dark Century (Brindle and Glass, 2007) won the George Ryga Award for Social Responsibility in British Columbia Literature. His love of the land, especially the BC interior, resonates in his writing. You can read more about Harold here. 

Klaustrid Artist’s Residency

The residence is in the upper right corner of the building. 
The Skriðuklaustur Cultural Centre puts out a call every year for artistic, literary or scholarly projects that will be created and presented onsite in North East Iceland, 35 kilometres outside of the nearest town, Egilsstaðir. It is an old monastery site, at the head of the old mountain pass to the south. There is all the isolation one could wish for, plus a comfortable one bedroom studio in the corner of a sprawling house and museum with a complex historical past. 

From March 25 to April 21, I will be working there, on a project about the builder of the site, the Icelandic writer Gunnar Gunnarsson, but, really, it’s about a lot more than that. It’s about being indigenous and about forms of writing and word-wrighting that preceded literature by thousands of years and do not take part in its projects. In 1940, Gunnarsson toured Germany on a reading tour, as part of the Nazi puppet organization, The Nordic League, as the culmination of decades of work advocating for a Unified Scandinavian State as a counterbalance for what he saw as the growing, and dangerous, dominance of German and French affairs in Europe. At the end of the tour, he had a personal audience with Hitler, a fact which likely cost him the Nobel Prize, three times. The house was built by Fritz Höger, the architect who Speer beat out in the competition for chief architect of the Third Reich. That’s complicated. Or, really, it’s very simple.

In his 1940s tour, Gunnarsson read a prepared, poetic speech about the landscape of

Iceland. More than anything, it appears to have been an attempt to use his great literary fame to keep Germany out of Iceland. The house was built for his return to Iceland after almost thirty years in Denmark. He intended it to be a model farm, in the German manner, to teach modern farming methods to the Icelanders, so that they could gain financial independence from their Danish overlords. The high wages that the British and American Navies were paying for labourers put an end to this somewhat out-dated dream, and Iceland entered the modern world without him. This is my story, too. I was raised in that dream, although in Canada, not Iceland. That is my country, though.

Of all the writers in the world, there can’t be more than a few of us who grew up in the

German Nordic and agricultural dream that was swallowed up by the increasing brutalization of Nazism and the horrors of the Second World War, and of all of those, perhaps only one who is both a poet, who can read between the lines of Gunnarsson’s speech, and an experimental, cross-genre nonfiction writer, who can write about the innovation that was Gunnarsson’s fiction, that wasn't really fiction but a skillful form of political agitation eighty and even a hundred years ahead of its time. What poet couldn't love this country? 

I visited Gunnarsson’s house, and thought at first that with my past there is no way I could write there. Other people could, but for me, with my complex and troubled German past, the pain would be too deep. I knew too much about what I was looking at. Then I realized that I need only confront it head on, to heal it. That’s my project. It will be a mix of prose, history, criticism, landscape work, visual poetry built on Icelandic runes, spellcraft and maps, poetry built on Old Norse, and photography. English is a much evolved form of Old Norse, while Icelandic is Old Norse itself, scarcely changed over time. There is magic in those old roots of language, and old technologies, such as the technology of the line, which is a technology of balance and will, that shows up in the rope, the halter, the fence, the thread, the skein, the net, the sweater, the scythe, and soon — a deeply physical magic, at any rate. The Old Norse vocabulary in English, with its ability to move from verb to noun and back again, and the Anglo Saxon that followed it, and those old technologies, will be central to my task. When I first visited Iceland, I knew I had come home. What is one to do with such knowledge? Go to the monastery in the Northeast, perhaps, and make the old ways new.

When I first came to Iceland, I had just finished my second tour of the Northern Camino, the via regia, the old Salt Road between Frankfurt and Leipzig, straight through the darkness of the German forest. The man who set out east the first time became a pilgrim, unintentionally, and then never came back. I went back to find him and bring him home, and did, except, irony of ironies, he was the one, an East German now, who came. Harold, the Canadian writer, who first started out, was left behind in Buchenwald. The book about that is still in the writing, nearly done. It’s in two versions, the completed third part of Faust, and a series of pilgrim’s tales and gardens, of both light and dark magic, still in the writing. Before I publish it, I want to see how the parts talk to each other. Luckily, on my way home I landed in Iceland.

I’m not going to Skriðuklaustur to find a congenial or challenging space in which to write. Writing comes as a gift, and I have learned to be open to it. I’m going there so that my new self, which is the same as the oldest one I bore before literacy tore me away from the world, has a chance to breathe and grow stronger in its own place, among its people in all their complexity — the trolls and elves and the humans who speak its language. The price for this journey has been that I lost Canada. I don’t live there anymore. It’s the strangest thing. I have a renewed and deepened tie to my land, the Okanagan of the Columbia Plateau, and the Plateau itself, but Canada? I lost that in No Man’s Land, when I realized that there is a story, an old story, that I know it intimately, and it is not being told. It has been given to me from the past to tell, and it is vitally important that I tell it. No one else can. And it must be told, to heal a great darkness and to keep something important alive. I’m stepping out into the unknown, and yet, I feel that I know it well. I just have to let the words for it come. I expect Klaustrid to be an experience of my body, and I intend to listen.

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