September 28, 2022

Jóhann Hjálmarsson (Iceland) 1939-2020

Jóhann Hjálmarsson (Iceland)



Jóhann Hjálmarsson is the author of 22 books of poetry, three chapbooks, six books of translations, and two volumes of critical essays on Icelandic literature.

     Hjálmarsson published his first book of poems when he 17 years old and working as a printer’s apprentice. Critics recognized the talent of this young poet, and he was encouraged by Jón úr Vör, one of Iceland’s foremost Modernist poets, to go abroad to study. Hjalmarsson applied and was accepted at the University of Barcelona, where he studied Romance languages. At this time he also began to translate Federico Garcia Lorca into Icelandic. His reading led him subsequently to translate the French and Latin American surrealists and the French Symbolists. 

     By his third, and seminal, book, Malbikud hjortu (Heart of Asphalt), he was recognized as being one of the leading avant-garde writers in Iceland. At this time he was also hired by Iceland’s largest newspaper, Morgunblaðið, as a literary and art reviewer as well as a travel writer. In this job, he traveled around the world—more than any other poet of his generation in Iceland. Wherever he traveled he sought out the leading poets of the country and translated their work into Icelandic. This discipline honed Hjálmarsson’s own poetry, while also introducing new literary influences to young Icelandic writers.

     In the early 1970s, Hjálmarsson turned his attention toward reading and translating contemporary American poetry. Hjálmarsson was looking to mine the stories of his family, and by doing so exploring the socialist/communist influences in Icelandic culture from pre-World War II through to Iceland as a modern society, and many American poets inspired him. Here, Hjálmarsson did what no Icelandic poet had done before—use a “confessional” voice to speak directly of the privacies of mind—something no other poet within Icelandic literature had ever expressed through prosody. This American influence led Hjálmarsson to write two book-length poems: Myndinn af langafa (Portrait of Great Grandfather) and Fra Umsvolum (Daybook from Umsvali). No other Icelandic poet had ever written such ambitious and controversial works.

     Hjálmarsson has received numerous awards for his work. He was awarded the 2000 Nordic Literary Prize for his third book of a trilogy of poems, Hljóðleikar (Sound Play), based on Eyrbyggja Saga, whose events take place in the region of Iceland where his ancestors settled. He was presented with the 2003 Icelandic Parliament Award in recognition of his outstanding contributions to Icelandic literature as a poet and translator. Now semi-retired, Hjálmarsson lives with his wife in a townhouse overlooking the Smoky Bay.

     Hjálmarsson died in 2020.


--Christopher Burawa





Aungull í tímanum (1956); Undarlegir fiskar (Heimskringla 1958); Malbikuð hjörtu (Bókaverslun Sigfúsar Eymundssonar, 1961); Fljúgandi næturlest (Reykjavík: Birtingur, 1961); Mig hefur dreymt þetta áður (Reykjavík: Almenna bókafélagið, 1965); Ný lauf, nýtt myrkur (Reykjavík: Almenna bókafélagið, 1967); Athvarf í himingeimnum (Reykjavík: Almenna bókafélagið, 1973); Myndin af langafa (Reykjavík: Hörpuútgáfan, 1975); Dagbók borgaralegs skálds (Reykjavík: Hörpuútgáfan, 1976); Frá Umsvölum (Reykjavík: Hörpuútgáfan, 1977); Lífið er skáldlegt (Reykjavík: Iðunn, 1978); Sjö skáld í mynd (Reykjavík: Svart á hvítu, 1983); Ákvörðunarstaður myrkrið (Reykjavík: Almenna bókafélagið, 1985); Gluggar hafsins (Kópavogi: Örlagið, 1989); Blá mjólk (1990); Skuggar (Kópavogi: Örlagið, 1992); Rödd í speglunum (Reykjavík: Hörpuútgáfan, 1994); Marlíðendur (Reykjavík: Hörpuútgáfan, 1998); Anímónur til Ragnheiðar (Kópavogi: Örlagið, 1999); Hljóðleikar (Reykjavík: Hörpuútgáfan, 2000); Með sverð í gegnum varir: úrval ljóða 1956-2000 (Reykjavík: JPV, 2001); Vetrarmegin (Reykjavík: JPV, 2003)




Of the Same Mind, trans. by C. M. Burawa (Claremont, California: Toad Press, 2005)



Forest Wind


The wind drops

like a green sail on a skiff

crossing the smiles of women—

who can summon the sea?

It always returns

out of each tree, brake

and out of itself

from a great height.


The men threaten it with hammered knives.

The women shelter it,

shutting it away

in the idle cloud.

These women drink of its physics

and await the result,

which fills them with currants and flame—

enough to ignite a forest.


The men can only look at the ground

and say:

I believe it is gathering into a fresh storm.

The women groan

or become silent

out of anger and stroke

the wind’s brow

as if it was an old lover.


The men stand.

The forest wind drops the sail,

changes to dew

so the squirrel in the mast

can, at last, spell out its name.


Translated from the Icelandic by Chris Burawa


The Forest


The forest avoids my certainty

gives me assurances

The forest shuns my quiet mind

gives me the wakefulness of trees

I fill the forest with my breath

I fill the forest with song and heartbeat

The birds jubilantly sing like the sky does

The forest’s sky that intrudes into my dreams



Translated from the Icelandic by Chris Burawa




On the Death of a Poet


The summer sunsets only give off red and here I extend

my hands that cannot even lift a bayonet


It would be better if I had some power over them

like a daring soldier over his metal snap-together weapons


But I’ve inherited an inadequate vocabulary

and most of the words I’ve lost

on my walks around the block


The sunsets are red and my sorrow and joy

are laid up in them


Blue is the color of distances

that the sunsets rust along the way


Translated from the Icelandic by Chris Burawa



Evening in Barcelona


Here come the shadows

with their truth of green trees

Antonio reflects on their sadness

while in his refuge of palm trees


Wheat bread on the table

and red wine in the bottle

are flesh and blood

of Antonio of Granada


The ants set off

communicating a thousand messages

that are found deep in Spanish earth

the genius of expectation


In the city square, Plaza de Cataluña

I rejoice at the complaints of the pigeons

and refuse to think in this late light

about your sad shadows


Translated from the Icelandic by Chris Burawa





We are fishermen of death. We’ve never imagined ourselves hauling up polished cod on cold mornings or in the small dimensions of night, bringing our catch back to land. We never make land. But we won’t give up. Catch yourself a man. The warm-blooded fish. Newly laid out. We want the hands to poke out of the sleeves. We trawl for death. No one gives us a thought until it’s too late. The cheeky moon drawing men to its light. Little Agna is willing, out of hate and love. She sings all the songs she dances to, in hopes of changing the situation. The music that creates the fullness of this moment, it worries that she knows the source. A tremble on the hook. So we drink purple wine. Set a table on the sea’s bottom. There are more of us than barbs on all the snow crabs. Let the crabs live in the carcasses, help themselves to a bloodless body. Leopard seals look into the eyes of the drowned, weep at the calm. The buoyed seaweed is a good, proposes play. We are the fishermen of death. We arrive on the scene just as you seize.



The blessings of life turn into two rounded stones. They visit the sea with the same joy as you engage breasts and their blooms. Your hand gropes for God’s hand, and finds God. The breath finds the hand of God. But God is smaller than you can account for. He is a period to which all lines attach. Shout, illuminating your sorrow or joy. You tremble as you touch each new emotion with your fingertips. How you love. I know that love is lonely. A beggar who patiently waits, collects sugar cubes knocked to the floor. I’ve overheard conversations about the blessings of life. I can only understand this concept as something interpreted by the self. I cannot perceive of God, because I am a reflection of God’s imagination. The blessings of life become two worn stones. Some day a mob may bash your skull in with them. You will lie in your own blood. Maybe then you will find the blessings of life.



The dead call on us. Death is everywhere. On the coffee table. In the green eyes that I love. Death is like the bay I now row over. The years go by without my noticing them. I aim for a spit of land. The dead have lined up like torches along the pebbled shoreline. There hands direct me. I see no face. The front door of the house is open. Fingers strum a dusty guitar. The blue moon acts as a lookout? Life is like the song of the red flounder, found only at great depths. The dead come to us saved through the eye of a needle.



All at once the universe has new stars. The darkness crowded out, comes back. The lights were simply embers from the crematorium. In town there are more tombstones than villagers. The carpenters don’t have it in them to build coffins anymore. The priests asphyxiate on the flat bed of eulogy. You say that the world is suddenly alive. But then a heavy darkness collapses at the window. The optimists lead their old dogs around the cemetery. These house pets lift their left back legs and strain. Mankind’s fall is no longer pure madness. It’s nature’s work. We are thirsty, brother. The cocktails almost always change. Again, the universe fills with the lawns swallowing their tongues.



Poison collects along the curbs, runoff of our anger that includes our children. The cafés, the troughs of the city, document it. The women and men expect it to glow from fingertips. Life could be more charming. We have forgotten about the nobility of scarred mountains and the innocence of flat lakes, say the minor poets. But the poison has come to our aid. We cannot decide among ourselves why happiness has turned in on itself and now cares more about contentment than about childhood. We wait around with sunglasses in the rain. Really, life should be a captivating drama.



Certainty makes up only a small fraction of our lives. Clown-like fedoras strewn about. The coliseum is reserved for something more enticing. What’s true must be a component of laughter. Distort this, and you discover a brute. And the brute won’t have sex with the simpletons. He sits on the cat and tries to groom its tail. Truth won’t talk about trips it’s taken abroad. You might as well set up a playpen, cram it full of toys and gewgaws. It’s comforting to be able to glimpse it as you emerge from the tub. Be sure you dry your back. Have you lost your own scent? Certainty doesn’t answer disagreeable questions. You and delusion skip through the house. Go ahead, you can watch the acrobat, the man in the ape costume, spinning around a rope. To this day your wife still hangs the keys from black sewing thread. You’d better scoot down to the basement. The rats at their folk dances dance across the floor. You chase after them with a twig. You shoot straight for a place by the least likely means of transportation available. Truth lifts you up as a monument, erects you in the town square. The people are in favor of you. Certainty drowns in your tub. You love it so tightly you can’t perceive of it in yourself. You take a bath in the bath. Then, something tragic happens.



Why I was a witness to their fall, I cannot say. They set off at once. A fire burned through their eyes. Stones creased at their steps. A rainbow aureoled in support of their courage. Mountains were in agreement, but had been before this. So they hoofed it to the seashore. Why they wanted to walk into the sea I still don’t know. Ships stood idly in the bay. They didn’t know this place. Went directly ahead. The water was calm after the rain, and the shore smelled of seaweed. I watched them high-step through the shallows. All at once they changed color. I was watching myself. You hesitated. I saw nothing more. The sea swallowed then. I couldn’t do anything but laugh. Their look of dread reminded me of something very funny. Later, I pursued the algae dream of shrimp. It was wonderful to find them climbing up an arm, clustering around a left breast. That night, I lied down in the marooned seaweed, watched the bodies drifting one by one out to sea, enjoying myself.



Through the dead silence, the nights observe the domestic lives of birds. Earthworm songs cut the air. Shred at the feet of lovers. Their blood-driven hopes drift in the storm. The gallows is plumb. Your ships neatly in a row. Where is the executioner? He’s always the first to cheer up the vultures. There on the gibbet floor he speaks of the victory of humanity. Two ancient boulders can no longer keep their peace. They trick themselves into a promenade around the corpse. The river began grieving when blood streamed down the inside of the window and door. Through the dead silence, you witness the nights of the birds’ domesticity.



Cats lay fearlessly by your feet. The blade that terrorizes the autumn hay relishes their blood. What really frightens them is a freelance demon. But they can’t be subdued, and instead smoke their pipes out of resignation. My pen disappears there where I know two doves have taken cover under a rock, just like children who dive for flasks at the bottom of a lake. They make their grandparents ill with this water. These patients remember their own children whenever they drink from the flat bottles. Resigned, we recall our own children because what we choose to keep is long and tiring. Darning needles knit our lips together so that we cannot speak or kiss, let alone find out what’s wonderful about each other’s lips. As the smoke from our brave pipes sketch the likeness of heaven.



The morning light plays a monotonous sonata about the merits of suicide. The world’s cowl must be night. You see something in the silence that drinks from the wakes of ships. A poem dies suddenly of doubt. A bus continues on its way without knowing any of this. The quiet retracts at the hawking of the newspaper boy. The wine has altered. Doesn’t trust you to provide a proper memory of God. Perceives of your suffering, and believes in this memory. I don’t believe in you. You should find another ear. The answer is nowhere to be found, yet you insist on frying an egg in the same pan. Eyes like slugs climbing a ladder. Absolve me of manifold truths so that I may join the abandon of the squall. My nights linger there. A knife slicing songs of praise in half. An eel thrashes about in a puddle. The fishermen of death sail into the bay.


Translated from the Icelandic by Chris Burawa




English language copyright ©2009 by Christopher Burawa. Reprinted by permission of the translator.

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