Review of Reading Emily Dickinson in Icelandic by Eva Heisler

Eva Heisler. Reading Emily Dickinson in Icelandic. Tucson, AZ: Kore Press, 2012. 114 pp. $15.95, paper.

Reading Emily Dickinson in Icelandic houses poems written by Heisler during a nine-year stay in Iceland after having received a Fulbright grant in 1997. Within the collection, prose poems slowly expand and condense, as Heisler attempts to apply structure to her experience yet fails innumerable times in a struggle to understand the trills of the Icelandic language, the faces and attitudes of its inhabitants, and her own self so displaced she is nearly disembodied. Compact lines of prose give way to lines more dispersed and scattered across the page, forms flickering over the harsh, mysterious, and sublime landscape of Iceland, embodied in the flat faces of its inhabitants, particularly in the poet’s lover Steinunn. I found myself startled by breaks in prose and increased abstractions, then brought back to level ground when prose returns in the final poem. There is a movement from the physicality of Iceland to hazy mindscapes of ghosts and lost women like Persephone and Eurydice. The poet speaks to “Persephone in the Winter Palace” in couplets whose simple and predictable line breaks reflect the straightforwardness of the story that is also her own:

     You fell in love with your husband
     because he knew a lost language;

     because his incantations and promises
     resembled your dreams of God.

     But you have been in this winter palace
     for eleven winters,

     and you have acquired neither the language
     nor a shape.

     You are inside the palace
     but outside the door.

Such a love is paralleled in the speaker’s love for Steinunn, whose palace—Iceland—is also the place where the speaker resides but does not fully reside. Just as the poet fails to fully understand and keep Steinunn, she fails to ever fully integrate herself into Iceland’s landscape, halted by mistranslations or, at other times, an inability to even begin to translate.

There is a sense that Steinunn is one with the foreign landscape in “Map and Hand,” and the poet’s attempts at understanding or mapping the two result in confusion: the land is “an emptiness that I cannot read—like you. You map the / emptiness because I cannot tell the difference between / my feelings for the view and my feelings for you.”

The foreigner’s inability to separate the person from the place further emphasizes how travel disorients the traveler, allowing even once familiar things to take on new meanings. Heisler examines flea market finds like aromatherapy “Fizz Balls” in “Something to Finish”: “Encountering these in the States, I would have folded / into myself. But in Iceland, the kitsch doesn’t claim me. / I finger the gaudy beads; they don’t take the shape of coffins—I am here and some place else.” This strange sense of being present but absent, here but not-here, becomes a consistent and ironically grounding element in the collection. Heisler’s relationship with this displacement is ambivalent but perhaps ultimately soothing; Heisler, at the end of the four-sectioned collection’s first section, sighs, “At last, elsewhere.”

While Heisler technically has the ability to translate Icelandic to English, this ability cannot transcend cultural differences, just as a word cannot perfectly embody the actual thing or experience. Her lover can only speak and write so much English, and she as the poet fails to evoke foreignness through the necessary use of recognizable words: “I know that you write not what you want but what you can. / I have the words; you, the place.” There’s despair, and loneliness, in the inability to translate, yet once the thing has been translated, there is perhaps a deeper despair at having simplified something ineffable: “Today you look at me and the look is like a bruise / on wallpaper. I am exhausted by the looking. I blame you, / the stranger, for no longer being strange.”

Steinunn marks an ambivalence Heisler has for Iceland: while she wants to find ways to connect and really understand the place and its people, she also yearns to maintain a distance in order to admire it. Once again, this calls to mind our human relationship with poetry: we long to translate our feelings, but sometimes in decoding such feelings, we can ruin them. At the same time, Heisler enjoys a sort of limbo with Steinunn in that Steinunn embodies Iceland but also speaks English. When Steinunn is fully Icelandic in “Accent,” the bridge to Heisler falls: “Speaking Icelandic, Steinunn no longer charms: wooly / syllables exclude me; our private architecture disappears / and in its place stands a stall roofed with shields.”

Heisler’s strained relationship with Steinunn extends to her relationship with all Icelanders, a mix of attractive strangeness but troublesome distance and aloofness. Early on, Iceland’s people are idealized pastoralists in their boot-wearing and harvest feasts but also gruff critics of the materialist North American lifestyle riddled with wasted leftovers and aluminum foil. The color red there is not of Coca-Cola, but of red cabbage. In response to such coldness and difference, Heisler expresses a constant need for sweetness and sugar cubes throughout the collection, amidst the spit balls, rotten shark, and singed sheep heads of Iceland and the crumpled receipts, endless to-do lists, and tangled extension cords of the U.S. This continues to encapsulate a greater trope of yearning for human connection despite issues of translation. There are moments, though, when the poet triumphs simultaneously within and despite such list-heavy poems of objects riddled with strained meanings, as in “Imagining the Last on the First”:

     … This isn’t about letting you
     know me. It is about persuading you that where it is not
     blue, it is gold. I do not speak of crumpled receipts and
     the tangle of extension cords. “You’re awake!” you
     remarked in the autumn, as if this were sleight of hand.
     This isn’t about letting you know me. This is about keeping you
     from sleep.

There is gold, and beauty, to be found in between objects and in moments shared with others. Whereas Steinunn seems to lose her mystery and allure, Iceland remains different from the United States, but also the same in that it is not the physical objects that matter, but the human impressions left on them. In “What I Remember,” Heisler further emphasizes what she finds to be most important:

     What I remember is neither the words nor the light in
     the kitchen but the press of a hand against my forehead.
     What I remember is not the color of eyes but what it felt
     like to be seen. What I remember is not the overstuffed
     luggage but the door, and you leaning against it. What I
     remember is not computing sums in the margins of my
     notebook, but three words and a grove of birch that I
     mistook for a herd of ghost horses. What I remember is
     not the new wardrobe but a fling of red and white.

Lauren Krouse holds a BA in English and creative writing from the College of Charleston. Presently, she is teaching English in Poland.