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The Ambassador

by Bragi Ólafsson translated by Lytton Smith

THE RAIN SEEN THROUGH A MAN’S FINGERS by Sturla Jón Jónsson “To yoke poetry to science or morality is nothing less than to ask for death or banishment; the object of Poetry is not Truth but rather Poetry itself.”—Charles Baudelaire “When the poet is just five minutes from his time at the lectern he recalls the rain that he looked at through his fingers earlier that day. He thinks about Vitezslav Nezval’s words about his hometown, Prague, which he looked at through fingers of rain, and it occurs to the poet that understanding Nezval’s images will mean turning them on their head. A poet who travels from his country to another place in order to give a reading of his poems has important work at hand. No less important than the poet Egill Skallagrímsson, who saved himself from being decapitated by the axe of king Eiríkur Bloodaxe when he composed his poem ‘Head’s Ransom,’ twenty stanzas praising the king. But today there are no Norwegian kings in the hall. Still, when the poet stands at the pulpit the audience facing him will have just as much power as Eiríkur Bloodaxe. And this audience has probably never before heard poems from the poet’s country. So he waits nervously. He is present in the hall to hear some new things and to discover some things he didn’t know before. This particular audience is perhaps Estonian. And in all likelihood many of them have come to recite poems they themselves have composed. But there are many people in the hall who have either come to recite their poems or to listen, or maybe even to do both. They’ve come from Denmark. Or Russia. From England. And Argentina. They’ve come from neighboring Poland. And over the Atlantic Ocean from the United States of North America. And Italy. One of the audience members is from Afghanistan, another from Iran. A third from Norway, a fourth from Sweden. Two came from Latvia. Only one from Germany. And from Holland likewise. One audience member in the hall is Belarusian. Another, the same gender as the Belarusian—a woman—comes from Finland. One traveled from Switzerland, another came from the Ukraine, but most of those present haven’t had to travel further than from within Lithuania to get to the lecture hall in Druskininkai. For it is in Druskininkai, a spa town in the southern part of Lithuania, that people from many countries have gathered together to let each other hear their poems. And at the moment there are only four minutes left until the delegate from Iceland takes the lectern. In three and half minutes he must get up from his chair in the front row of seats by the stage, giving himself half a minute to go to the pulpit and compose himself behind it. The feeling the poet carries inside him is nothing less than pride at having been invited. Someone has paid for all of the three thousand kilometers that led to the pulpit and taken care of his hotel bill; he has been fed and even been encouraged to drink alcoholic drinks. At the same time, the poet is quaking inside, out of fear that he won’t be able to stand up to the expectations that go hand in hand with the invitation. In his last moments he wonders again whether the poems he is planning to recite have been carefully chosen, whether he’s decided on the order with good reason. And the poet scolds himself for choosing reason as his guiding light. The poet has other guides than reason. But suddenly a new sensation is aroused in the Icelander’s heart when the preceding poet, from the United States of North America, more specifically from Kansas City, introduces her last poem and offers a kind of preface: this poem was composed on the occasion of some unforgivable actions by her powerful and great nation on foreign soil. A murmur goes around the packed hall as the first words of the poem conjure the image of a prosperous nation in fancy dress, a nation which doesn’t bother to look around itself before she squats down and “goes to the toilet” in her neighbor’s yard. And the murmuring, which the Icelandic poet knows signifies enthusiasm, accompanies the reading of this female poet from Kansas through the final minutes which she has at her disposal, and for two or three minutes more, because the meaning hidden behind the poem’s words is now plainly boiling over. And when the American poet sends a metal dragon rattling from her lips over the sun-baked cradle of civilization, and drops bombs on apartment blocks full of life, she reaps genuine admiration and congratulatory applause, which follows her all the way back through the hall of spectators and continues while the poet from Iceland, crippled by his own inferiority complex, slides out of his seat and walks on unsteady feet up to the execution platform, holding his white sheets. And given the implicit debate which has undeniably been thrust onto the agenda in the hall, the poet from Iceland has nothing to add, nothing except an impenetrable description of the architecture of his own lodgings in Reykjavík; joy at seeing a mountain from a peaceful valley; the shadows which stretch over quiet streets and sidewalks; and the occasional images which touch no one and nothing but the paper they are written on. And the poet’s mouth has gone dry. The silence that faces him in the room is much the same as the silence that obscures the destruction of Christian and Jewish invading armies. And as the poet gets close to the end of the poem which has a theme addressing the slipshod material the self is made from, how that material doesn’t last a lifetime and he feels the noose of international opinion in the hall tightening around his neck. And the poet still has four or five more poems to read, poems which make no mention of the atrocity of young and healthy men killing children and old people, so long as it’s done in God’s name, and he knows that the poetic silence which his poems are trying to describe is nowhere near as profound as the silence which they will receive. And the noose is waiting to snag the neck on which it rests. But what happens in someone’s last moments when they are hung? Perhaps he dances a few steps in the air or sticks out his tongue at the onlookers. If the person in question is lucky enough, and the drop from the gallows is sufficiently fast enough, he might only have to live until his neck breaks at the exact moment the noose snags him, and so meet his end without delay. But just as the fingernails continue to grow after the body has died, the inevitable conclusion of the hanged man’s time on earth is this: he “goes to the toilet” even though there isn’t a toilet nearby. And that is something no one wants to be remembered for, neither the poet nor the audience. And that is why the Icelandic poet flees his fate. He leaves it to others to compose their own Head’s Ransoms. After all, you can’t hang a headless man. He slips out of the lecture hall and loiters a while under the heavy rain on the sidewalk outside. And before killing his sodden cigarette and vanishing, he looks at the rain through his fingers and finds that it runs down the back of his hands and into his jacket sleeves. And the waxy texture of the poet’s overcoat, which is meant to repel the rain, offers about as much protection as a dust jacket offers against criticism.”