Fragments of Unquotable Literature


In 1891 the Icelandic-Canadian poet Stephan Stephansson concluded his poem The Exilewith the following stanza:


Still on spring nights green fields

Are warmed by light sun,

Still creeks coil around

The breast of domed hills,

The wavelet chants as before

Out by the coastal sand –

But I have acquired somehow

No fatherland.


This poem serves as inspiration for Birna Bjarnadóttir’s enigmatic collection of poetic fragments, simply titled A Book of Fragments.


She writes about Stephansson’s travels – who anyway had left the impoverished island in 1873 for the new world – with a singular twist of the notion of “travelling:”


“I have acquired somehow no fatherland, wrote Stephan G. Stephansson, Emerson’s disciple in the ranks of North American poets and philosophers, the farmer who had emigrated from Iceland to Canada at the end of the nineteenth century and taught himself to travel in world literature and philosophy of man and nature.”


The obsession of Bjarnadóttir with traveling Icelanders is at the core of the book with the idea of being “away” – and the book is written in the third person.


First there’s the reference to the traveling Icelanders: Not only Stephansson but also the poets Benedikt Gröndal and Jónas Hallgrímsson.


Bjarnadóttir writes about the house at Vesturgata 16 in Reykjavik that Benedikt Gröndal had bought:  “One fall night in Reykjavik at the beginning of the 20th century, college students went marching with torches to a house at Vesturgata 16… If one wants to understand why one of the most profound aestheticians of the 19th century in Europe is still a blank paper in the world, there is no need to look abroad for any explanation.”


Here is the travel: “He sailed back to Iceland penniless and without a degree, only to leave again after a few years, torn by sorrow and misery.”


The final lines of a poem by Gröndal come to mind:


“From whence it came, and where ‘twill go.

We here on Earth can never know.”


Then there’re the travels of Jónas Hallgrímsson: “On October 27, 1842, Jónas sailed to Copenhagen, never to return to Iceland.”


Bjarnadóttir brings up the seventh stanza of Hallgrímsson’s poem “The Journey’s End” (Ferðalok) written in 1844 or 1845, when he was already in Denmark:

The wise flower-elves wept in the hollows, they knew we would need to part. We thought it was drops of dew, and kissed cold tears from the crossgrass.

Grétu þá í lautu góðir blómálfar, skilnað okkarn skildu; dögg það við hugðum, og dropa kalda kysstum úr krossgrasi.

There’re other kinds of traveling. Fragments, images, disciplines.

Fragments: Hannah Arendt instructs us that “thought fragments” (in Benjamin) were born out of despair with the present and the desire to destroy and tear apart its continuous flow. In the introduction to A Book of Fragments George Toles writes: “As the Romantics well knew, the fragment suggests the constancy and magical stamina of ancient ruins.” The book is a roadmap through the history of Iceland – from Saga to Romanticism to Icelandic-Canadian writing – and the inroads of European thought. As it was the case with Benjamin, fragments are fraught with tragedy. But there’s more.


Images:  The enigmatic fragments are surrounded by artwork of Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin, Icelandic artist Haraldur Jónssonand it contains visual references to Steingrimur Eyfjörd’s exhibit from 2007 The Golden Plover Has Arrived, in which Bjarnadóttir participates as an “aesthete:” “Should we blame the experts? Aesthetics, the former beauty queen has been discharged from the prolific and profitable scene of theory-making. However, unnoticed by the anti-aesthetic theory-makers, this shattered, yet curiously vital term may not have been abandoned by literature itself.”


Disciplines: Why would a scholar of Icelandic literature in Canada write a book like A Book of Fragments? It reads like Kafka’s “Blue Octavo Notebooks.” It can be picked up and left at any time, it doesn’t have any moral lessons or offers points of view; it is a meditation on art, a travel book, a book of philosophy and a manual of Icelandic literature.

It stands as a unique curiosity in Icelandic letters – although it is written in English – and while there have been similar works, for example Gunnar Harðarson’s work on Walter Benjamin, Haukur Ingvarsson’s work on Laxness and Halldór Guðmundsson’s recent work Writer’s Lives, those fine works of literature do not match the simplicity but enormous endeavor of Bjarnadóttir. Her littlebook unknowingly rescues the ideas behind Fjölnir, the journal of Icelandic letters published by Hallgrímsson in Denmark between 1835 and 1847 and that died after him with much of the Romantic movement in Iceland.


George Toles put it simply – and infinitely difficult – in the introduction: “She proposes a religion without walls that finds its animating force in love. This love requires an acceptance of the imperfection of all human arrangements.” It is like a small Icelandic Bible, the book of art, the book of life, the book of love.


Birna Bjarnadóttir’s new book Recesses of the Mind: Aesthetics in the Work of Guðbergur Bergssonwas published in January 2012.


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Birna Bjarnadóttir, Iceland, Poetry