The Vertical

Watershed

Rachel Britton

with the poem of the same title by Magnús Sigurðsson, as translated by Meg Matich

At the base of the mountain, I captured words in a waterproof, yellow notebook. Our geology professor, Nick, was providing context on the location for his students and, over the course of the trip, I’d realized that a geological, as well as a physical, vocabulary for the land was vital to experiencing Iceland. The words were finding themselves in my poetry, interdisciplinarity a natural bilingualism, and they stuck on my lips. They couched in empty, green calderas and basaltic fissures. Discovered mother in mountain streams.

Often, I still think of the morning we hiked Mount Esja. It was early and  clouds obscured the summit. It was intended to be an introductory hike, so we could  get our bearings and prepare for more strenuous endeavors. As we began our ascent, 

“A flood of thoughts / has washed me” “Hugarfljótið / hefur skolað mér”

I wondered why I had only trained in writing, and not physically, for this trip. It was  steep. It was beautiful. I thought, as I lagged toward the back of the group, that I  could not make it to the top. My legs would give out first. The higher we climbed,  the more of the landscape vanished into cloud. Grass became rock. Sun turned to  water. My supposedly waterproof hiking pants soaked through to skin. Somehow,  though, Esja reminded me that my body was just as important as the words I used to  describe it. 

“ashore. // Out of earshot.” “á þurrt. // Úr kallfæri.”

As we moved eastward across the island, I noticed the tread of my  bootprints, so small in mountainous canyons, incredulous at how long it took to get  from one side to the other. A vocabulary threaded in the lupine guided my pen on  paper, revealing in the native language an identity no longer observer but participant.  The key, of course, was to weave all the vocabularies together into one language. 

Smaller towns provided more interactions with native Icelanders and their  language. At Berunes, we met the family who owned the hostel, a two-hundred-year old family farm, who welcomed us into their home. We learned their names and they  shared with us local foods. Síld straight from the bay at breakfast. A few of us tried the husband’s, Steinn’s, fish soup and everyone loved his rhubarb pie. This immersion into the community was exactly the kind of experiential learning that  cannot come from books. It is the development of a physical vocabulary. 

“Beneath a new / sky.” “Undir nýjum / himni.”

We were standing at the edge of the Sólhemiajökull glacier tongue when Nick  pointed out how far back the glacier had moved in just two years. The government  had placed a signpost. That the glaciers are receding at a rate of forty square  kilometers each year and the island nation’s inhabitants are witnessing their  landscape changing firsthand. 

Our language for climate change is different here. At times, I feel so removed  from the land that I neglect to notice my effect on it. Before leaving Reykjavík, I  purchased a book of Icelandic poetry, written by an Icelander returning home after living in the United States for thirty years, which gave me insight into the  attentiveness of Icelanders to their environment and society. I wondered, though, if  there were a boundary, a crevasse, between languages, which presented the issue: what is lost, and what is gained, in literary translation. Could the urgency, the  perspective, be somehow stripped away without us even knowing it? 

“And now I plant” “Og ég sái”

By tossing my body down on the moss, by ordering at the kaffihús in my  struggling Icelandic, by listening to geologists and farm-owners, my understanding  expanded not only of another language, but of the world beyond my own. At a recent short film festival, an Icelandic student from Columbia University said that we  “create our own villages.” That we make of our routines a small community. I began  to wonder, though, if this could prove troublesome. What if we get stuck there? 

“in an untouched / field.” “í nýjan / akur.”

Interdisciplinarity, it now seems to me, is a key component of understanding  our world. Devoting a month to travel, study, and experiencing another country  quickly filled up my little, yellow notebook and revealed that physical experience is a  vocabulary with no substitute. That combining my literary vocabulary with the  geological, the Icelandic, would permanently transform my writing and perspective.  The more we incorporate into our dictionaries, the more expansive our village.


Rachel Britton is an emerging writer and translator from New York. She holds a BA in English and creative writing from the State University of New York at Geneseo, which sent her to Iceland for the first time with the Writing and Knowing the Land study abroad program in 2018. She has received support from the Fulbright Commission and Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies and her work appears or is forthcoming in Gandy Dancer, Glass, and Salt Hill. She lives in Reykjavík. The poem by Magnús Sigurðsson, as translated by Meg Matich, appears in the book, Cold Moons. Photo credit: Sean Gunner

    Rachel Britton is an emerging writer and translator from New York. She holds a BA in English and creative writing from the State University of New York at Geneseo, which sent her to Iceland for the first time with the Writing and Knowing the Land study abroad program in 2018. She has received support from the Fulbright Commission and Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies and her work appears or is forthcoming in Gandy Dancer, Glass, and Salt Hill. She lives in Reykjavík. The poem by Magnús Sigurðsson, as translated by Meg Matich, appears in the book, Cold Moons. Photo credit: Sean Gunner