When the provisional government fell
he took to the roads on foot,
traveling only at dawn and at twilight.
When the roads gave out
(too many marauders, too many thieves
for his liking)
he entered the forest
(or what was left of it),
moving through a tangle of brambles and briars,
a maze of ways and means.
Until, on the fifth day, turning a bend
in the river, he glimpsed, toward the horizon,
the promised chapel at the chasm’s edge.
This is, you understand, merely a scene
in which a chiliastic free-lance Parsifal,
seeking wisdom or a kingdom or a grail
(holy or otherwise), would most likely
choose to situate himself, making his tenebrous way
from ruined castle to ruined castle
along the stream’s steep edge;
leaping, at last, footloose and sleepless,
from stone to stone. This is merely
a fiction without music,
a song for no-one’s ears,
the sound of some-one whistling in the dark.
It was all in consequence of a lucky wager
I’d made in California,
the winning question
when I’d won
in the category
“What are Iceland
Flying the Great Circle route, coming in low
under the clouds and the Early Warning radar,
our pilot mistook (somehow) the c for an r,
landed in Iceland instead of Ireland.
My passport misplaced, my baggage sped on
by a different flight to Bangkok
(“The only two countries whose names end in land
whose capitals end with the letter k”),
I’d nothing but the Harris Tweed jacket on my back
(labeled Made in Hungary)
and a pack of traveler’s checks
in small denominations
in dollars, sterling, kronur.
So, alone at Keflavík, without any kin
to vouch for me, I boarded the tram
which bore on its front the un-
pronounceable legend Hvannadalshnúkur.
I boarded with one other passenger;
and, for all the stops
that seemed interminable, no one got on or off
except at Reykjavík, the capital, the Bay of Smokes.
After traveling for what seemed five hours
at five miles an hour
(you know how the New York buses are)
we came to the end of the line:
the edge of Vatnajökull, where again
(she’s in another poem!)
I met the Patroness of Ice.
Greeting me at the unmarked stop, accentless,
she gestured without touching me
and led me up the slope to the upper village
where a dozen brand-new condominiums
made of Lego blocks
and numbered 1A, 1B,
(you get the picture)
clung to the mountain’s edge, waiting out the winter,
warmed by no sun, sung to by some gulls
off course from Ingólfshöfði,
but otherwise (evidently) uninhabited,
music-less and vacant.
“You’re in 5B,” she
said, passing me the key
glancing around to make sure no one saw.
(Though who would see?)
I admired her discretion and was intrigued.
“I’m in 1A,” she stated bluntly.
“You can stop by tomorrow to borrow some sugar and tea.”
She told me also
the July temperature here was warmer than in Oslo;
the January temperature in Reykjavík
exactly the same, on average, as that of New York,
“which is twenty-three degrees latitude farther south.”
She told me I’d be warmer in the north
though we were farther north
than Leningrad, Sverdlovsk,
the Sea of Okhotsk,
Ottawa, Thunder Bay, and Banff,
and only a day’s trek
(by Shetland pony) from the Arctic
Some time later, under a bearskin blanket
(imported, so she told me, from the Blaskets),
she confided she’d traced her bloodline back
to that alleged twenty percent
who were the first Irish émigrés:
Celtic to the core, dispossessed as always
even then: emboldened by what promise,
what Viking lure or fear
from their first shores
like Saint Brendan,
the first European
known to write of icebergs
(“floating crystal castles,
first to set foot in an unknown
western land and not return.
She said the myths said he’d reached Vineland
before Ericsson, but she
knew better: he
established court in Iceland
far earlier than Arnarson.
And that she was his heiress —
and proved it (to my satisfaction)
by her likeness
and her name (by these same legendary writings),
Later, wrapped in that same bearskin,
she showed me waterfalls, cirques, fjords,
the aurora borealis.
When I inquired about flights out, she turned evasive.
“All one’s guilts and losses,” she replied,
“hug one for life
as the villages of Iceland hug their thermal springs.”
That was on the winter solstice,
when the sun shone twenty minutes
and the clouds swirled in, all purple,
like the gasses of volcanoes.
The next day, she promised, we’d look for seals
someplace called the Bay of Whales.
But when I woke I was in a rather different place, like Naples.
I have never forgotten the Awacs
Field, nor the moonlike frozen lava flows
that stretch from Vík to Hof;
nor have I forgotten her promises
to take me to the peak of Kverkfjöll,
to teach me that purest, most unchanged of tongues.
And all these years later, under other northern lights,
I am so driven by insomnia that I spend
never two consecutive nights
under the same roof, in the same bed.
John Drexel’s work has appeared in numerous magazines in the United States and Britain, including Hudson Review, Paris Review, Salmagundi, and Verse, as well as in anthologies (such as A Fine Excess, Sarabande, 2001, and For New Orleans and Other Poems, Beaux Arts, 2007). The past recipient of an Amy Lowell Poetry Travelling Scholarship, a Hawthornden Fellowship, and a Pushcart Prize nomination, he also writes for Contemporary Poetry Review, and served as a judge for the Constance Saltonstall Foundation’s 2009 poetry fellowships program.