''The Window of Brimnes: An American in Iceland'' by Bill Holm; Milkweed Editions; 217 pages; $22.
First it was Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky. Then it was Bjork. Now Bill Holm is trying to blow Iceland's cover for me.
I began my fascination with Iceland many years ago when I stumbled into the Prose Edda, tales of Norse mythology written by one Snorri Sturluson in the 13th century. That led me to Iceland's Nobel Prize-winning novelist Halldor Laxness, then to Icelandic info in general: literacy rate approaching 99% a century ago, year-round geothermally heated pools, no mosquitoes. I could go on.
And I will, for a moment. The very best story, among many, in Lawrence Millman's 1990 book "Last Places: A Journey in the North," in which the author followed a 10-century-old route of the Vikings, took place in Reykjavik. Millman found himself in a heated literary discussion in a bar on a Saturday night. As I remember it, one argumentative patron, who was either a fan of or was disparaging Ernest Hemingway, excused himself to go to the men's room. Another man sidled up to Millman and said, "I see you've met our murderer."
Seems the guy had indeed killed someone, and was serving a prison sentence. Millman, understandably confused, pointed out that the murderer was right here, in the bar, right now.
The man explained that of course they let prisoners out on weekends. And the reason the murderer was in a bad mood was that he'd lost the key to the jail and would have to pay to spend the night in a hotel.
But as a very young man, long before I read that tale, I determined to go to Iceland and live and work for a while. I'd been traveling around for a couple of years, and, as they say, it seemed like a good idea at the time. I had my backpack ready and a cheap ride to the East Coast all set up when sanity blindsided me and I realized it probably wouldn't be a good idea to show up in a foreign country, knowing no one and not speaking the language, flat broke.
So I keep planning to make it there someday, hoping not too many beans are spilled about what a fascinating place it is. And now yet another writer has done just that. In "The Window of Brimnes: An American in Iceland," the poet Bill Holm tells of his life, several months a year, in a semi-isolated cabin on a fiord in northern Iceland. He describes a sere, crystalline landscape that would seem otherworldly if not for the humanity somehow radiating from his prose, an oblique infusion that is the work of an artist.
Although Holm sadly decries what he sees as Iceland's sale of its "only real patrimony - the emptiness and wisdom of nature" to aluminum companies, he is in bitter despair about the state of our union. The near-circumpolar retreat provides emptiness, all right, but it is Holm himself who comes up with the wisdom.
"So I come here to this spare place in the summer, and sometimes in the winter when its spareness is magnified by snow and darkness," he writes. "After a while, the United States is just too much: too much religion and not enough gods, too much news and not enough wisdom, too many weapons of mass destruction - or for that matter, private destruction (why search so far away when they live right under our noses?), too much entertainment and not enough beauty, too much electricity and not enough light ... too many books and not enough readers. ... And the worst excess of all: too many wars, too much misery and brutality - reflected as much in our eyes as in those of our enemies. So I come here to this spare place. A little thinning and pruning is a good anodyne for the soul. We see more clearly when the noise is less, the objects fewer."
Holm writes prose that seems to have honed the font: Words on the page actually seem more sharply etched. The clarity is bracing, shocking, a jolt of literary frisson. Much like contemplating an Icelandic fiord for hours, days, weeks on end, I (so far have to) imagine.
- Arthur Salm