Sometimes the plainest of books sparkle the most.
Six Days in Iceland containing poems by Alyson Hallett and geological descriptions by Professor Chris Caseldine, complemented with a small selection of nature photographs by a group of students turned out to be such a find.
The book, which is fundamentally a poetry book about Icelandic landscapes and geology, is the product of a fieldtrip to Iceland by second year undergraduate geography students from the University of Exeter led by Caseldine.
Hallet joined the trip as the first poet in residence in a UK geography department, appointed to the university from September 2010 to May 2011.
During her residency, Hallet was keen to explore the exchanges between a poet and a scientist and to challenge her understanding of nature, as it says in the book’s foreword.
The poems were inspired by Hallet’s observations during the trip and her conversations with Caseldine and his students. Albeit not wordy, they convey the author’s intimate account with Iceland, her knowledge and appreciation of nature.
The poems are a light read yet leave much delight behind and feel a bit like spring thaw: a dripping icicle, a ray of sunshine, a migrating bird’s cheerful song, a bright yellow dandelion.
Some of them are a tad humorous, others a tinge gloomy. There is a serious undertone of loneliness, a love lost. Towards the end the subtexts become headlines, turning glaciers and birds into emotions, outwards to inwards and gradually the poems become more personal.
I preferred the first poems, such as the ones describing April in Iceland, bathing in a swimming pool in cold weather and watching the first signs of spring: “snow scripts the hills; a language hewn out of ice; the sun’s handwriting; spill of white” (from “April in Iceland”, p. 15).
I like it how natural phenomena are considered to be writers of landscapes in Hallet’s poems.
Hallet also refers to the professor’s lectures in her writing: “Chris counsels us to think of Iceland as flat” (from “Thinking of Iceland”, p. 18), something which Caseldine elaborates on in his interesting “scientific prose” at the end of the book, as it is referred to in the foreword.
A student’s concerns also inspire a poem: “Francesca says; What if Katla explodes while we’re here; What if a flood comes down the mountain; What if we can’t escape”, to which Hallet replies: “No brake strong enough; to stop the flood –; […] we learn that we are able to die – (from “Atlas of Iceland in Nineteen Pages”, p. 22-27).
As does a dramatic story mentioned in the same poem, of the lost members of a 1953 University of Nottingham glacial expedition whose equipment resurfaced at Skaftafellsjökull, a sub-glacier of Vatnajökull, in 2006.
That story is also elaborated on in Caseldine’s prose where he explains the nature of glaciers, that everything the glacier engulfs, it will eventually give back (which was actually also the theme of the novel in my last review).
Caseldine’s text concerns volcanoes and glaciers as well as including some general information about the country’s geography, geology and birdlife. It is short and concise and despite being scientific, is accessible to all.
Overall, this little book does Iceland much justice and should prove an interesting and enjoyable read to all Icelandophiles.
Published by Dropstone Press in 2011, Six Days in Iceland is available on amazon.co.uk.
Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir