Listening to Iceland

Iceland’s landscape is gorgeous, but its soundscape is striking, too. I expected to hear crashing breakers and waterfalls, but I forgot there would be a million unfamiliar bird calls. I spotted oystercatchers, terns, gulls, fulmers, eider ducks, redwings, and sandpipers, but more often I heard screeches, warbles, clicks, and chattering from birds I couldn’t see, much less identify. There was a sea cave near Hellnar full of gulls and maybe other white-and-grey birds–I couldn’t climb close enough to see them well–but their cacophony carried. From around a bend in the trail, they sounded weirdly like small children in a playground, some cackling, one crying from an injury. We never saw puffins or seals, but from steep field after steep field, the sheep had plenty to say.

What might stay with me most was the voice of ice on the move. The ocean beach near Jökulsárlón, noisy with sea-sounds and high wind, was so visually amazing we kept laughing with surprise at the black volcanic sands littered with glassy iceberg fragments, and just behind them, larger blue chunks of Vatnajökull bobbing on the waves. (The joy gets a lot more muted when you learn that this arm of the largest glacier between the Arctic and Antarctic is melting so fast that it will be a fjord in a few years.) We heard the ice much more clearly at a couple of less-visited glacial lagoons, Breiðárlón and Fjallsárlón, where we could tramp out to the edge of the lake and listen without other people nearby. The nearest floes were slushy; you could see as well as hear them crack then separate. Larger noises came from further away, including a rumble from the edge of the glacier. We froze to listen, wondering if it was calving.

We didn’t visit the volcanic eruption, by the way, which has been slowing. Here‘s a clip, though, with audio. Maybe I should write a poem called “The Geldingadalsgos Eruption as Shown by YouTube.”

This was a sparkly trip with plenty of shadows. It was a treat to ride a half-full plane to a destination that wasn’t choked with tourists–but that ease was a side-effect of a killer pandemic. I booked the flight and lodgings right after my mother died because I wanted something to look forward to, but even as I was stunned by photogenic scenery and clean scents and the freshest seafood flaked with grey salt, I was making mental lists: what really cool trips do I still have time to take in this life, if climate change doesn’t make travel less feasible soon? When will the vehicle of my body sputter and resist travel’s challenges? Already I can’t pack the days with sightseeing like I used to, and I had to dope myself with ibuprofen and lidocaine patches to manage some screaming tendonitis. I felt pretty mortal struggling up those cliffs. Plus a family member back home was having health problems, so we were on the phone a lot, trying to figure out how to help. I didn’t always feel present. The adventure was still amazing, no complaints here (!), but you can’t leave your worries out of the carry-on.

I’ll post again soon about the new issue of Shenandoah, but first I have a lot of other catch-up to do. It’s time to prep an online poetry workshop I’m leading this Tuesday (6 pm eastern until 7:30) called “The State We’re In.” It’s free to members of the Poetry Society of Virginia; check out this <a href="http://<iframe src="https://www.facebook.com/plugins/post.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Fangela.dribben.1%2Fposts%2F320838493088369&show_text=true&width=500&quot; width="500" height="658" style="border:none;overflow:hidden" scrolling="no" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen="true" allow="autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; picture-in-picture; web-share">FB post from Angela Dribben to sign up. In the meantime, here’s a 6-second video clip taken from the cliffs above Vík í Mýrdal. We hiked a very steep trail in hopes the clouds would blow off enough for us to enjoy what are supposed to be spectacular views, but they didn’t. It was eerie being completely alone up there, seeing only the edges of dramatic drops as mist hurried around us. The audio isn’t great on this–my spouse is mumbling something–but you can hear bird cries and wind, too. The human and more-than-human join in messy disharmony.

Snagged in the antlers

I’ve been dreaming of my mother as a younger woman, the way she looked when I was a child and teenager, although in these dreams, she’s also somehow elderly and dying. The night of the summer solstice, she was sick in bed staring at a crack that had just formed on the ceiling. It looked like a man with antlers, and she was afraid of him. The next morning I, of course, went down an internet rabbit hole reading about deer-deities and Horned Gods. Underworld guides and mediators. Huh.

I thought more about the dream as I caught up with fellow poetry bloggers and read Ann Michael’s post “Constricted” about literary blockages related to sorrow. I’m pretty healthy right now, aside from the usual trouble sleeping and some chronic tendonitis (ah, middle age), but I feel the draggy reluctance to work, cook, or take walks that I associate with illness. The heat and humidity, my husband said. Sadness for my daughter, who is going through a rough breakup, is in the mix. But grief for my mother is also moving through my body and mind even when I’m not aware of it. It’s a more complicated, subterranean, barbed process than I would have guessed. I hope she’s okay out there and not frightened by whatever she’s processing. I’m not religious, or even a monotheist, but I do think we continue after death, and I feel an inner orientation to her as I did to my father during the months after he passed. I had the strong sense that he was being called to come to terms with his life and refusing the work. Being angry and avoidant would have been very much in character.

Meanwhile, after my post-Bread Loaf bout of poetry revision and submission, I’m trying to concentrate on near-final edits to the essay collection I’m publishing this fall, Poetry’s Possible Worlds. It’s about reading twenty-first century poetry, but it’s also about my mother catching my 85-year-old father in an affair with a woman forty years younger (it was 2011 and I was 43, pursuing a Fulbright in New Zealand). My mother promptly divorced him, discovering along the way that he’d lost their retirement savings. Within a year, my father remarried, fell ill, had more divorce papers served to his bedside, and died. I had LOTS of dreams about him, although my grief was different because, while I loved him, he was an impossible person to like. My relationship with my mother was full of stresses–a new poem of mine in SWWIM gives a glimpse of that–but still, I loved her wholly.

So, um, maybe that’s another reason I’m struggling to focus. The book is emotionally hard right now. Plus, the previous version ended with my mother’s recovery from lymphoma, the disease that just recurred and killed her. I haven’t revisited the book’s conclusion yet.

In short, I am negotiating my need for mental rest in relation to my work drive, which is probably the overarching theme of this blog (and my life?). My best strategy for sidestepping a sense of obligation has always been travel, which has not been possible for a while, but: I’m going to ICELAND soon! Like, next week! Just with my spouse, for fun! I hope to return to you in two weeks with my Celtic deity nightmares replaced by musings about glaciers, volcanoes, and overpriced Icelandic microbrews–although the revisions will still be waiting.