The Art of Weaving

Reviewed by Kelly Shepherd

The more time I spend with Harold Rhenisch’s new book, the more I notice. There are layers within layers, and seemingly endless threads, but I can only point out a few of them here.


For one thing, Landings: Poems from Iceland is visually interesting. The poems are all in couplets, and the entire text is in italics. Both are a little distracting at first—do the italics suggest speech? Song? Whispering? Wind?—but the couplets make sense when you read the poems aloud. The pattern is reminiscent of Two Minds, Rhenisch’s dazzling 2015 collection of ghazals. While the poems in Landings are not ghazals (although some of them seem to flirt with that form), their short stanzas encourage a repetitive, chant-like rhythm.


If you’ve read Rhenisch, you know that his poetry is elemental, earthy, and carefully assembled from the oldest linguistic materials: stone, wood, water. He has undertaken a lifelong study of language, both scholarly and embodied, and he brings that to bear on his writing here. A useful reference, and a literary work in its own right, Rhenisch’s ecological etymology blog The Green Earth Dictionary collects and compiles those words in English “that come from a time in which earth knowledge was strong among English speakers and was truly a common, indigenous language in no way separate from a living earth.”


In the introduction to Landings, the poet reminds the reader of these etymological links and their essential connections to the earth: “Old Norse [ . . . ] has scarcely changed here in eleven centuries. English, once virtually identical to Icelandic, has kept many of these roots” (i). Grown from these roots, Rhenisch suggests, these poems are spoken in the Earth’s tongue—in the indigenous language of English. These are big ideas, and outside the scope of a book review; however, I hope to give the reader a glimpse by delving into some of this book’s imagery.


Images and image clusters unify poems, and link them to one another like patterns in a knitted sweater or knots in a fishing net. There are several sets of images that could be discussed here, but I’ll focus on what I think is the book’s most central: textile imagery. The table of contents is entitled “The Threads,” and the poems are arranged into five sections: “Loom,” “Warp,” “Weft,” “Cloth,” and “Shawl.” Furthermore, there are numerous poems about the various textile arts which turn wool into clothing for the Icelandic people, who share their windy hillsides and damp coastlines with their sheep. (The importance of sheep here cannot be overstated: according to the introduction, the sheep in Iceland outnumber human residents ten to one.) These images start with the most basic unit of the textile arts: a single thread. In “The Line,” the book’s first poem, “A thread begins with wind / in grass stalks shedding rain” (3). In the second poem, the speaker proclaims:


I knit this line into a lamb

grazing hills


of black stone and purl

a man who


casts a net into autumn storm. (4)


The thread, the line, is also a line of poetry. And the speaker is knitting the poem, “purling” into existence the figure who is himself using a net: another configuration of lines or cords. Speech, especially poetry, is made up of these lines, which are created from the elements of the earth.


“Each word is a net,” according to another poem, “woven with the click of tongue on tooth” (67). This knitting, weaving process also includes the speech act, which will remind the reader of the etymology, the earth-based roots, of English that Rhenisch is drawing from. This is musical poetry, intended for the tongue and the ear. And according to the poem “Findings,” we ourselves are the products of this weaving: “carrying the earth within us, / we baskets woven by hand” (28). We are the weavers and the knitters; we are also baskets, vessels who come into being through the processes of weaving and knitting. “The Art of Weaving,” one of the book’s longer poems, also exemplifies this image cluster:


There are the arts of making

the world out of a string,


tying it off and cutting it.

Sheep are its greatest artists. (8)


The world is made of string (or thread, or line), and the sheep—who are the source of almost everything in this geopoetic cosmology—seem to be portrayed as the Fates (or the Norns, their Norse incarnation). They shape the course of human destiny. This is not so far-fetched when you consider that sheep are the source of the essential woollen garments, the threads and cloths, that literally kept Iceland’s early human residents alive.


Several more poems describe the mythical yet practical arts of weaving, sewing, darning, and knitting. And the knotting of nets, one knot at a time, “one spell for each fish of the sea” (10). “I wear a sweater a woman knitted here / out of the ways of sheep,” says the speaker of another poem. And “[s]uch winding is the manner // of people who live within words, / bound by spells they cast” (66). This magical textile imagery is prominent throughout the book, but it is just one image cluster among many. A longer essay could be written about the recurring images of stone, ocean, or breath. And the etymological project alone would require many more pages to explore. (I recommend looking up some of these recurring words and images, like “thread” and “line,” in Rhenisch’s Green Earth Dictionary.)


Rhenisch is a prolific writer, and it’s difficult to compare his many and diverse books. But if you’re new to his work, this is a great place to begin. Landings is a mystical and ecological collection, full of truths and transformations. It is a “word hoard that binds human relationships with Earth, Sky and Sea” (i). In these poems, people and places, words and worlds, are woven together. As readers, we just have to follow the threads.


Work Cited


Rhenisch, Harold. “About.” The Green Earth Dictionary, Accessed 26 Sept. 2021.

This review “The Art of Weaving” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 24 Mar. 2022. Web.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.

Canadian Literature is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.