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Exquisite Corpse
Issue 8A Journal of Letters and Life

Icelandic Poems
by Bragi Ólafsson, translated by Bernard Scudder
Author's Links

Blue Hawaii
Itąs on the corner of Bayswater Road and Lækjargata
that two bearded men
have trouble finding words
in tune with the times,
but "Dear Susan,
now Charlie Mingus
has broken a string in my heart,"
says a sensitive sergeant
in the fourth battalion of the magnanimous.
"Now I can never again
embrace you with any
circular conviction."
The sweat of lovers in a Zurich suburb
breaks forth from a craftswoman in Laos,
a brass player in a seedy North Norwegian basement
dies a bitter death into his pipe,
and from the palm leaves, from the eyes of wailing women,
dirty tears run into
tins marked cat liver.
But itąs on the corner of Bayswater Rd. and Lækjargata,
behind every sprig that they peep out;
the shy lost maidens,
as fresh as the peaches that
roll of the fruitsellerąs shelves
faster than you can buy them.

She brings a scent onto the bus with her
(read as: the bookish existence: fragrance).
Behind her she leaves a whole district.
The driver is the first to sense
which balm she has anointed herself with.
He does not recognise the brand but who I might ask
can fathom such immeasurable depths as that girl!
She moves along the bus and the journey has started
and the scent takes a seat beside each and everyone.

The Netherlands had beaten Romania at televised football and the bar went wild, as this took place in Amsterdam. Beer was flowing like water, toasts were being drunk in general and, in all probability by accident, I was handed one by a complete stranger. Intending to decline, I decided to accept it for earlier that day I felt I had scored a small but undeniably personal triumph.
I enter a restaurant and say: I donąt like anchovies, waiter. I am absolutely unable to order anchovies. We donąt have any anchovies, says the waiter. And he continues: I recognise you, sir. Before I started working in this place I saw you dine here. I was sitting at that table over there and I watched you. Because the music was turned down so low that evening I could hear you when you ordered your meal and again when it was being served. I am not going to repeat your order that particular evening - fresh as it may be in my mind - but when it was served to you, you remarked: How many times do I have to repeat that I do not want anchovies! They are one of the worst foods I can possibly imagine. And being as I agreed with you entirely and felt a hint of admiration at your sincerity, I watched you until you left the place. And once again you have awoken my curiosity and delight with your unequivocal refusal of something which you absolutely do not want.

For the simple reason

"Naciste para vivir en una isla."
      -Octavio Paz
Whether it was my relatives whom I saw through the binoculars that bright day out at Mßrar I could not be certain when I was there; I was standing by the open car door, by Stóratjörn on Langanes, looking through the binoculars towards Knarrarnes. So small were those people and so distant they seemed in time that I cursed myself for sneaking like that into their lives. I saw them moving from one place to another but could not discern what they were doing, for the simple reason that I know nothing about their work. Had I asked my mother, who knew these movements from her childhood, her answer would have been of foreign provenance and would not have shed light on the nights that followed in its wake.
Setting sail
And when the razor-sharp exclamation mark
flashes down from the sky
into the crowd on the afternoon square, and the poet Lozano
from a Madrid suburb
decides to substitute !ay! for !oh!
that young shiver runs through me
which I feel when relatives
praise me unexpectedly.
And when my aunt leaves her shoe
behind on the beach face,
without stating where she is going,
it is as if something within me dies
the final death. Whether it was
a countess of foreign blood
or not, hanging on her wall,
is a mystery to me now, and it has vanished
that picture
which watched every
footstep of my childhood.
The crew of the ship
that I travel on at night
have all gathered in the cabin of one of the deckhands
and no one is left in the bridge.
When I chance to walk
into town around the time
that business has been lulled to sleep,
I feel I shall achieve something;
when the shareholder with his tight cravat
has entered into the computer
his most fateful error,
I feel I am really of all places
in Phoenix at the breakfast table.
And when I glance momentarily away from my host
I look in a direction I have never looked before.
You are rewarded
with death. When the down from the blanket of cloud
sketches a picture of my tracks
on the pavement, and the bare lot
in the centre of town
has vanished beneath an imported marquee,
I feel as if this evening will prove a useful resourse for me;
that the future will hold an unexpected phone call

From the World Congress of Esperantists
Donąt be surprised
at me sending you these lines from
the Twelfth Congress of the Esperanto
Federation. Everything is flourishing here, nature
literally buzzing with glee, and I caught
myself oddly unawares
the morning after the inauguration
of the congress; I squashed a tiny fly
between my index-finger and thumb
and the notion struck me
of partaking of its
carcass. You doubtless imagine that
a state of war reigns here, no one agreeing
about anything whatsoever, and that
the flood of paper in the meeting rooms is such
that no sooner do I put down my spectacles than
they are covered
by a brand-new regulation changing the adjec-
tival declension.
In fact you are right, such is the
state of things at the twelfth congress, but it is not from there
that I am sending you these lines.
All that about nature and its buzzing is
pure fiction of course; I am
situated virtually next
door to you, you know:
in the end we shall both die, and all
that seperates us
is the printshop on the western side of my house,
the childrenąs playground,
Klapparstígur road,
the city centre in extenso,
the drive out to Seltjarnarnes, and
the Atlantic Ocean. The Atlantic with its treacherous
currents and pangs of conscience
at having swallowed so many healthy
and promising young men
like me. I cannot be sure that
this greeting will reach you
at the stage of your life which I
would prefer, but when it arrives
through your letterbox - I know it will
get crumpled in the narrow hole - then
place it on your kitchen table and smooth
it out. Like the mariner smoothing out the sail
having chosen his destination.


"How peculiarly you perceive your environment," says the Estonian traveller to whom I have been trying to explain for more than a quarter of an hour the route from Ingólfsstræti to Nönnugata. "Even though I shall never find my way along this complex route," he says, "you have done your best to assist me, there is no question of that."
Our encounter takes place on amicable terms. I tell him about my stay in his home country several years previously, and he rewards me for my helpfulness and conversation by describing to me the shortest route from the Town Hall Square in Tallinn down to the ferry wharf in the Bay of Finland.

Within the frame of the house
A new lodger is expected at the house,
replacing the family.
I have already decided to make friends with him:
first we greet each other with a handshake,
then I tell him about an amusing incident
which happened in the house.
And then he invites me in
although the floor is all covered with books
and no curtains over the windows.
Then I sit in the only chair I can see
and notice framed portraits of faces
some of which resemble him.
He starts apologizing for the mess
and then I have another idea which I mention to him:
that it would be fun to swap pictures,
he could have pictures of my family,
I could have some of his.
He apologizes for the mess once again.
He is expected shortly.


Job training in Lisbon

      for Dagur Sigurarson
On account of his lack of adjectives, a certain bartender in Brasileira enrolled in a course in his own language. After three weeks, when he returned to work, everything had changed; the elderly woman who had sat at the same table for as long as living memory, reading a thick book, was dead, and instead of the portraits on the walls there was a mirror so deep that the price of the drinks had risen. The bartender was unable to find a single word to describe what he saw! For an instant he felt that the course had been a waste of time and money, but with the help of his colleagues he accepted that adjectives were no longer necessary; his training was over and he would grow accustomed to the changes before he knew it.

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