The Use of Beauty
- árni Ibsen (Author)
A Different Silence: Selected Poems. Harwood-Gordon and Beach (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Wilhelm Emilsson
This book is part of an international series featuring collections by significant poets whose work has so far not been available in English. The first thing the reader will note is the lavishness of the publisher. A Different Silence is a dual-language edition, with English translations of Ârni Ibsen’s original Icelandic on the facing pages, a preface by the author’s co-translator, a scholarly introduction, and a CD featuring the author reading in both Icelandic and English.
Ibsen’s work deserves the lavish packaging. Dante Gabriel Rossetti once said that a sonnet is a moment’s monument. Unfortunately, most poems are monuments to poets’ desire to write poetry, the kind of competent but uninspired work that lives for a few moments and then dies on the page. This, however, is not the case with Ibsen’s poems. These pieces record the confrontations, the clashes, and the brief unions between a sensitive, sophisticated mind and the world. In spite of a dash of postmodernist poetics, his work ultimately springs from the same gloomy yet powerful sensibility that characterizes the works of the great Nordic modernists Ibsen, Strindberg, Hamsun, and Munch.
Some of the best poems in A Different Silence are created from the interaction between the author’s fine-tuned postmodern consciousness and something darker, older, more primeval. The poem "Earth" is an example of this. The setting is a graveyard. The speaker is among the men carrying his grandmother’s coffin. The coffin is light, but the road is long:
we halt by the lychgate
to rest an old pall-bearer
a childhood friend of the deceased
quite out of the question hot and snorting with energy highly offended
The scene is watched from a distance by two gravediggers, idling "on full pay." The contrast between rest and energy is effective, but the key here is the old man’s violent reaction to his fellow pall-bearers’ pausing out of consideration for his age This is a subtle moment that crystallizes the ancient Viking code of believing in nothing but your own power, the ethos of honour and endurance that has sustained Icelandic culture and society through its pretty bleak history. The incident is given extra poignancy by its apparent triviality, as well as the speaker’s awareness that this tough code maybe dying. (In times of trouble, the modern Viking descendant is more likely to reach for the Prozac than grit his teeth.) What is left, however, is the hard beauty of the event.
The feeling that in the end all that will be left is the stark elegance of existence is reflected in poems such as "Wisdom Comes Whispering." Wisdom comes with old age, but never early, and never before it is bereft of everything "except the oh so useful / beautiful lilt of the words" ("utan notadrju-gri / fegurri or3anna hljo3an"). The line, incidentally, is much more impressive in the original. Generally the translation is good, although at times it cannot quite match the resonance and understated power of the original.
Ibsen’s poems invite the reader to reflect on the quiet beauty of life’s moments as they flicker between the ellipses of the world’s silence. In a post-everything era, a thing of beauty may no longer be a joy forever—but while it lasts, it is enough.
- À tire-d'aile by Emmanuel Bouchard
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- Things Made Beautiful by Renée Hulan
Books reviewed: green girl dreams Mountains by Marilyn Dumont and Rainbow Dancer by Heather Harris
- the void looks back by Anne F. Walker
Books reviewed: Beautiful Sadness by Lesley Choyce, Necessary Crimes by Catherine Hunter, Asphodel by Michael Redhill, Swimming Among the Ruins by Susan Gillis, and Burning Bush by Elizabeth Brewster
- Black and Bruised Blues by Katherine Verhagen
Books reviewed: The True Blue of Islands by Pamela Mordecai, Calling Cards: New Poetry from Caribbean/Canadian Women by Pamela Mordecai, and Back Talk: Plays of Black Experience by Louise Delisle
- A Great Achievement by Mervyn Nicholson
Books reviewed: The Collected Works of Pat Lowther by Christine Wiesenthal
MLA: Emilsson, Wilhelm. The Use of Beauty. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 25 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #176 (Spring 2003), Anne Carson. (pg. 159 - 160)
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