World Book History #4: Inside Voices, Outside Light

Image credit: Jen Flickr

Iceland is often perceived as one of the world’s most mysterious countries. Exposed in the far north, miles from any mainland, it’s sometimes depicted as a lonely, cut-off place, with harsh winters but one of the planet’s most breath-taking landscapes.

Yet, just like its fellow Scandinavian countries, it has an incredibly rich and historic literary culture. Sigurdur Palsson, whose repertoire includes plays, poetry and prose is one of Iceland’s most renowned exports. Inside Voices, Outside Light was translated by long-time collaborator Martin S. Regal and published in 2014 and features poems from almost 40 years of Palsson’s work.

There are a number of ways in which Palsson’s poetry can both reflect and educate humanity. Just like much Icelandic poetry, Palsson constantly references Icelanders’ deep relationship with land and the power of nature. It takes all of Iceland’s previously discussed idiosyncrasies – particularly its landscape and geographical nuance – and turns them into a beautiful component of national pride, one which is shared by pretty much all Icelanders.

As Regal writes in his forward for Inside Voices, Outside Light: ‘Even the most complex of Palsson’s images or meditations are outward looking, not products of a dramatized or analysed self; they are offerings to the reader rather than insights into the writer’s mind’. Palsson’s vivid and gorgeous vision works in tandem with the wider implications of global warming. The systematic protection and upkeep we, as humans, need to devote to the planet is absolutely our responsibility – and we’ve been neglecting it.  

This has been part of the very fibre of his work right from the earliest collections. In ‘Nocturne for Saturn’ (1980) the title planet is depicted as a ghostly, wraith-like presence full of ‘blonde tears’ and silence; not worlds away from the potential future of Earth in 2019. By contrast, the final contribution, ‘By River and Ocean’ (2012), draws on Greek mythology and tracks the beauty and growth of Earth through the millenia, indulging in mankind’s consistent misunderstanding of nature.

But there are also lessons in how to emphasise the power of natural beauty in writing. ‘Plywood’ (one of the poems Palsson specifically asked Regal to translate) references the ‘nature vs industrialism’ debate that has been engulfing Iceland for decades. Ultimately though, it asserts that Iceland owes all its beauty, pliability and growth to both the elements and mankind working in conjunction.

Image credit: Chris Yunker flickr

In ‘The Art of Poetry’ he suggests that his writing is entirely dictated by the actions and patterns of snow blizzards, and in ‘The Black Land’ he asserts that without its freezing backdrops and icy/snowy measures Iceland feels like a paralysed, alien world. The dense winter snows make vast swathes of the country impassable, but in Palsson’s view they open up the potential for real, raw beauty.

Inside Voices, Outside Light doesn’t preach – in fact, it seems as though social consciousness was never at the top of Palsson’s writing agenda. But his connection with nature, so clearly persistent here, should be a point of inspiration.

In Part three of ‘Poem Energy Need’ (2009), he writes that we are ‘throwing stones from glass houses, or glass from stone houses, depends on the mood’. We, as humans, have a duty to save the planet. In 2019, it is only us that can do so, and only us that can condemn it to death. Inside Voices, Outside Light presents the message we should have been aware of all along.

If you want to explore more of Palsson’s intoxicating relationship with nature, then pick up a copy of Inside Voices, Outside Light today.

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