Old Poetry for New Prose

I am not a poet. Nor am I an avid reader of poetry, although I like to infer that I am. There are, however, several poets and poems that inspire me. Ted Hughes: The Hawk in the Rain, Gary Snyder: Old Bones, and Galway Kinnell: The Bear, to name but a few.

When I began writing The Ice Star, I intended to pin the story to the 1902-1904 Danish Literary Expedition in Greenland, led by Ludvig Mylius-Erichsen (1872-1907), inspired as I was by Erichsen. He was an author, ethnologist, and an explorer. He died on the 1906-1908 Denmark Expedition, in the barren wastes of Greenland’s high Arctic. He was 35 years old.

In 1904, he published Isblink, a collection of poems inspired by his experience in Greenland. Isblink can be translated as an ice glare or glares – the glare of the ice. You can read it in Danish here, in the public domain. I always wanted The Ice Star to be bigger than me, and I thought Erichsen could help me with that.

Now, whereas my own prose – genre writing to be exact – will never reach such lofty heights as expedition poetry, in using Erichsen’s poem: Isblink, I found the framework upon which I could hang my story. In the same way that a seal skin is stretched upon a rack to dry, I stretched my story, inspired by the words of one of Denmark’s most famous polar explorers.

Of course, in order to fit, I had to first stretch my brain to translate the poem to English. Fortunately, I had help from my brother-in-law, and Author Lab poet in residence: Sarah Acton.

Isblink has three verses, and The Ice Star is the first of three books in The Greenland Trilogy. Even my mathematically challenged brain could see the potential. So, The Ice Star opens with the first verse of Erichsen’s poem:

Solen har svigtet mig,

Lyset er stængt,

Polarnattens Mørke

paa Jorden sænkt.

Which I translated to:

Sun has failed me,

Light has bolted,

Polar Night’s Darkness,

on Earth folded.

My main character, Konstabel Fenna Brongaard, finds herself in a very dark place in Greenland. Erichsen’s words fit. And so did verse two which I translated for In the Shadow of the Mountain, book two in the trilogy.

Fjernt, hvor jeg dølger mig,

ISBLINK ombølger mig,

Minder forfølger mig,

— dem maa jeg dyrk,

And in translation:

Far off, where I lie low,

ICE-GLARES envelop me,

Memories hound me,

— them I must tend,

In book two, Fenna is plagued by disturbing memories linked to her experiences and actions in book one. Again, Isblink worked as a framework for Fenna’s story and character arc. Danish speakers (or Google Translators) among you might be able to figure out the story for book three: The Shaman’s House, when reading the third and final verse of Isblink:

de dømmer mig strængt

men giver mig Styrke;

o, de har trængt

til at faa sigtet sig …

Se: jeg har digtet dig

alt, jeg har tænkt.

But, for those of you lost in translation, you’ll have to wait until the end of the year, as I work on translating the poem, and finishing the first draft of book three.

As an exercise in writing, the act of translating forced me to consider the meaning of the words, and how direct translation dilutes that same meaning. For example, the Danish word sænkt should mean sank, but folded fit the rhyme and theme of the poem, and I chose that. Choice, then, is critical, and choosing the right word is all part of the writing game. Dabbling with translation when writing genre fiction gives me the feeling of a great literary work in progress, while the reality of secret agents and car chases across the sea ice satisfies my sense of adventure.

Would Erichsen turn in his polar grave at the thought of his poem inspiring an action-adventure story? I don’t know. But his words live on, and, the more books I sell, the greater his reach. That must be my contribution to his polar and literary legacy.

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3 thoughts on “Old Poetry for New Prose

  1. Chris – it’s wonderful to see how Erichsen’s poetry has played out in your stories and I can’t wait to discover how the final book in the trilogy will bring everything to a conclusion. Enjoy playing with the words, as your characters dice with danger! x

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love the influence of these sparse atmospheric lines of poetry on both your writing and planning of the trilogy. Erichsen captures an entire ice landscape with all of its felt emotion and intensity with the sharp cold thrust of these beautiful phrases. The care and attention required to translate the poem also seemed to offer you a pause for reflection in the midst of the action taking place in the novels themselves, as well as interesting decisions. There is a great contrast between the poetry of the landscape and the dangers that such a harsh environment also presents. I remember reading an article about Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf, and how he consciously lent his natural cadences to the translation, aware of each bend of the Anglo-Saxon language to strike meaning and energy in ours…x

      Liked by 2 people

  2. This is brilliant Chris and I especially like how poetry influences and conditions events that unfold in your prose. I am particularly impressed by the depths and levels of research which explores the intricacies and nuances of Erichsen’s poetry. Nice one sir and thanks for sharing !

    Like

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