The Letters Page, Vol 5, #9: Bless, Bless

This month’s letter comes to you after many months of silence, during which we have been as preoccupied as – I suspect – you have. We hope you have found ways to get through these months, and will continue to do so. Here we are at the turn of the year – the darkest and shortest days, for those of us in the northern hemisphere, and for those of us watching the news – and somehow this Icelandic letter from the poet, writer, artist and bookmaker, Nancy Campbell seemed the perfect way to mark the longest nights. (Despite the fact that it was written in the summer, and talks of the long days of the Icelandic spring and summer.) We hope that this letter will mark the return to a regular dispatch from our office, but who can tell what truly lies ahead?
Nancy Campbell’s last book was the wonderful The Library of Ice, and you can find other examples of her work and writing at her website. As thanks for her letter, Nancy will receive a year’s subscription to the very fine books published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.(The photos below are ©Nancy Campbell and ©Mark Walton, respectively.)

Oxford, 21 August 2020

Dear Sigrún—

I should be with you in Reykjavík, where tonight there’s an opening party for an exhibition at the National Library of Iceland. What an irony that JAÐARLÖND (“Borderlands”) is about cross-border communication. Instead I’m locked down in Oxford. It’s gone past midnight here while I’ve been scrolling through images of the event on Facebook. Curators are always debating how to display artists’ books—objects designed to be read, pages to be turned, yet they’re considered too precious for the public to touch. White gloves are recommended, or the books are placed in vitrines, as here—open, showing only one part of the story—& now my phone adds another screen to theirs. Social media: a lens that brings things close only to tantalise us with distance. Still, I’m glad to see photos of Àslaug and Swanborg and Helga, and my work beside theirs. I type brief comments: hello—beautiful [heart emoji]—thank you!—missing you.

I miss you. One of the first things I discovered in Iceland was that to say goodbye you say bless or even bless bless—unless you consider someone a true friend, in which case there’s a special phrase, which I now forget. This may sound ungracious—but I heard it only once, moments before catching a coach in a snowstorm at a gas station. Smiling, Guðny Ró explained why she was not saying bless—why she was saying it this way for the first time, after all we’d known each other for a few years now, and I didn’t catch the words because she spoke them so softly, as was her way, an intake of air where another person would have exhaled. Greetings, not goodbyes, are the time to ask people to repeat themselves. Partings are so much more memorable than meetings. We already know their weight.

It took me longer to learn the rules of getting to know someone. It is such a subtle business: if we were hunters, the equivalent would be tracking, not the chase. Or perhaps in that small town of fishermen on the cusp of the Arctic Circle a better metaphor would be laying down the nets, and waiting for the catch to shimmer in? Only by the time I’d met everyone in Sigló—at suppers of plokkfiskur after previews in Atla’s studio, and concerts given by travelling musicians in the harbour café, or in the queue at the little library—only when there would be no more meetings, did I understand at last how to behave. I discovered your national reserve demands that when meeting someone for the first time, you ask about remote family members and shared acquaintances rather than pose a direct question. Not who are you? but who are the people who mean most to you? where do your people become my people? Any other truths you need to know will emerge in time.

Sometimes loving you has been like being in a foreign country where people speak in archaic words that sound like those from my own language but mean something different. Or a series of meetings with strangers, for which I had to relearn the rules of encounter each time. It was easy not to ask questions: what could be more welcome for a poet than wide margins—pauses—erasure—silence? It was harder to learn how to say goodbye. There were times when I’d see you before you saw me—watching as you looked around for me in Kaffibarinn, or stepping down to the tarmac from a plane at Reykjavík airport—yet wasn’t it almost impossible to judge who caught sight of the other first? A matter of seconds, or less, as brief as a syllable. Bless. As quick as a heartbeat. Bless. Bless.

For a few years, I came back to Iceland every spring. I never experienced the dark winters, the liberating summer light. I knew the landscape only at a time of change. The giant icicles which form as snow thaws and drips from the eaves and freezes again at night—the grey scree emerging on the slopes above the fjord—the first golden plover announced on the news. I developed my own spring ritual. On my last morning in Sigló I would walk down to the harbour and watch the arctic terns wheeling over the water. The grace of these migrant birds reassured me that a departure could hold the promise of return, as well as the caution that not all would survive the journey. I told myself that even lovers who see each other every day must come and go continually, with many infinitesimal acts of leaving to negotiate—taking care to remember the greeting as they walk in the door, the kiss goodnight.

Some nights I listened as the wind buffeted the ironclad buildings and echoed round the mounds of snow at the corners of the road. Wind must be contained before you can hear it; down the valleys it blows with soundless force. The noise of the wind is stolen out of the silent valleys from which it has come.

Have you noticed how many postmen feature in Icelandic novels, often crossing perilous terrain in winter, risking their lives to deliver a letter? Sometimes they stop overnight in farmsteads, where they’re fed lamb stew and given a warm bed; rarely do they lose their way. In lockdown, weary of the false fix of social media, I yearn for what I will call “letter time”. I googled the term just now to see if it already existed—I was so sure it did. But all the results were related to speed: When do I need to post a First Class letter for it to arrive next day? Special Delivery: Refund if your item isn’t there On Time! How To Figure Out When Your Letter Will Arrive? None of these were what I had in mind.

You know how slowly I like to take things. The books I make are set one sort at a time, backwards and upside-down, then hand-inked and printed by hand, on sheets of paper which have been dampened the better to take the impression of the type and rested overnight before they are pulled through the press. My poems hibernate—for years. Of course I prefer letters to Facebook feeds. But letters need an ending, and what phrase is ever sufficient to say goodbye when I turn away from you—as I always must—to express my hope that you will fare well in my absence—or my delight that you are here on earth still drawing a breath—bless—at the same time as me, the hope that our feet will bring us together, that we will listen to the same winds in the night again—but bless—bless—