Clouds to Forget (Ský til að gleyma)

Arngunnur Árnadóttir

“It’s important to look at the funny sides.” This was the headline of an interview with Sigursteinn Másson, an Icelandic journalist who had recently written about his fight with mental illness and somebody I know got irritated because of the fact that yet again mental problems were turned into comedy, nobody talked about the bottomless darkness it was really about.

I wanted to tell him that’s simply how we function, this was a part of the process – not just towards mental illness but towards most difficult experiences; it often tends to end up as a funny story later. Or at least a story. Otherwise we’re not ready to talk about it, make sense of it. Then of course we must go back and re-enter the moment, in order to truly represent the feeling, which may very well be something Sigursteinn managed – I’ve yet to read his book.

I never told my friend this, his Facebook status had disappeared when I’d thought it through – but it was still on my mind as I read Clouds to Forget (Ský til að gleyma) by Arngunnur Árnadóttir that same evening. Not because it’s about mental illness, but because the first chapter has that distance – after a cryptic opening we see a picture of the Reykjavík of our early University years, like in the following lines:

The Friday traffic din
students in their parents’ cars
going to the liquor store in the mall

This is a vivid portrait of early adulthood, people who can drive and buy liquor, but still have to borrow everything from their elders. Inside of this memory of the 20s is a memory of the teens, where a street corner by the traffic brings a memory:

we once stood
being awkward

The book cover supports this interpretation, the cover is ambiguous, I think I see the feet of a young girl, turning into an adult woman – and then there is a man walking on the woman, shadow, memories. This is a collage, cuttings, possibly of several selves, many chapters of a life, many themes. On the back cover there are lines from one of the poems, lines that frame the book better then most:

Around thirty everybody disappears
into houses
(AKA real estate)

You don’t really know if the poet is talking about herself or her generation, but it neatly summarizes the main theme – to harvest memories and pondering getting older as early as thirty.

Within those real estates there are memories, in another life they are:

forever young
inside this shady pub

As the book progresses an ambiguous longing becomes more pronounces – not necessarily for “you” – but rather for everything to do with “you.”

If I miss anything
it is not you
but the colour and feel of things

Memories take over, the poet ponders this island she inhabits, tries to decipher those clouds. There’s also a nice joke on our behalf, where books are described as:

(that thing you put on shelves
to say: I’m that kind
of intellectual)

Two of the best poems however have little to do with the aforementioned themes however, even if they are connected to those lines on the back cover about people disappearing into houses. They are side by side, number VI and VII (in total there are 25 numbered poems in the book – or XXV) and they are less about a house as property, more about it as the scene of ghosts and dreams.

The former follows a dream about buildings in foreign yet familiar cities:

familiar cities
with mutated neighbourhoods
that I get lost in

I told my friend recently that I had dreamt my old room that night, a room in the same flat, I had just changed rooms. We came to the conclusion that it takes you about two months to dream of places you’ve left behind, no matter how far you went. But when there’s a whole city you leave behind the geography tends to be more complicated, more prone to mutations of the mind.

Yes, I’ve often dreamt something like the dream described in poem VI – and it seems common, since me, my friend and the poet are all familiar with it. Reminding you the best poems are often those you can catch your reflection in, things you didn’t manage to put into words before you read them in other people’s words.

This also applies to the next poem, an idea that came to me when I walked past distant housing blocks, got a strange chill and realised that houses are always haunted, regardless of the supernatural, the haunting is simply a part of the architecture and our impact on it. In the poem the cliché “a house with soul” is said to be another way of calling it haunted.

behavioural patterns
at one with the wallpaper

Other people’s memories at one with ours and in the end all books are about us all, if only because we live in this world where those behavioural patterns have become one with the clouds.

Text: Ásgeir H Ingólfsson