Jun 15 2023
Poetry Review – THE ARCTIC DIARIES: Louise Warren enjoys a poetic exploration of the remote North by Melissa Davies
Melissa Davies spent six dark months with her partner on the island of Sorvaer in Fleinvaer, an archipelago off the Arctic coast of Norway. Sorvaer is home to a tiny population of one fishing family and a couple of artists. Davies spent the long evenings listening to their stories, and in the tiny hours of daylight she explored a landscape of sea inlets, a few houses on the barren shore and the mountain in the distance. She tells us:
It’s the weight of the mountain forcing them to stay on the edge with their soft flesh and felt clothes houses built from trees for the illusion of being solid.
For this is a fragile community, on the brink of extinction. There are no children. No young people. Who will inherit this place or continue to fish? Who will pass on their myths, their stories?
As a poet and collector Davies has gathered up as much as she could from her experience and honed her findings into a sequence of finely crafted poems. They are exquisitely moving and evocative, further expanded with extensive research and the strength of her imagination. She explains in her introduction:
This is not historical fact. But neither is it entirely a work of fiction. The Arctic Diaries blends the two using my experience of Fleinvaer and the picture I have pieced together from the stories its residents told me. Every word written comes from the pen of an outsider.
The book is divided into three sections: Part One 18th November. We arrive; Part Two 4th January. We listen; Part Three 16th April. We leave.
Clearly Davies is hungry to experience and absorb everything around her. We can feel her curiosity and excitement. The poem titles are like notes hastily scribbled on the top of a page, while listening to a story in the lamplight. It gives the poems an immediate, intimate quality.
Fleinvaer is made up of Three Hundred and Sixty Five islands which I count off with calendar cross tongue flicks on my front teeth to pronounce their suffix for straits. They soften it with a flourish of ink mimic sea flowing smooth around headlands of canvas- inanimate and complete as tombstones, slowly slowly erased islets in their hundreds.
What makes these poems stand out is how they sound. Davies is immersing herself in the language of place and people, training her tongue to speak and her poet’s ear to listen. In her guide to the language of Norsk, she translates words: Tang– seaweed; Torrfisk – air dried cod; Saer Orm– an unidentified sea monster, similar to the selkie or Scottish kelpie; and one of my favourites, Flomalet– the black line, usually bare rock, left by the receding tide between snow and sea.
As well as hearing and seeing these poems, you can smell them, taste them.
Otter belly brushes snow filling wood gaps with warm otter smell. Daylight slips through glass weights caught in plaster, breath makes the orb opaque as she cries on the porch.
Davies interweaves myth and story with the harsh reality of surviving on this desolate outcrop of land.
Eye-cup-mouth-a knife, slipping stories under coffee stains lost fish scales and sea kale whispers of deeper water.
There are tales of children disappearing.
The Fisherman Remembers a Boy Disappeared. After one month it’s assumed he drowned. We are used to this but without a body, a closing, his family cannot return to the sea. Instead they punish it.
Miraculously the boy reappears later on, but it is not the happy ending we hope for.
Deaf to our questions the boy insists again, ‘I’ve been living in there,’ He points to the boulder Smothered by moss. ‘With the lady in the rock.’
She tells us,
Every creature on Sorvaer is a collector. On the island I also find myself compelled to collect and discover that our hoards
have a similar composition.
This may be true of both seaweed and language.
So black against the snow I can taste the summer tang. Roll tiny bubbles with the new shape of my tongue.
Observing from a distance how the Fisherman’s Wife collects books.
I send one. Picture it pressed between wood and paper It won’t travel well. Waves of damp will swell each leaf while it waits out weather in her post box over the sound.
Already we sense that Davies is feeling nostalgia – a yearning for something or somewhere that is already moving into the past.
Preparing to leave the Island You pile rocks against the light hours while I swing buckets of salt over timber to preserve these weeks
But there is anger to at the destruction of the fishing communities. There is an ongoing threat to wild salmon and the fragile and biologically diverse ecosystem. Many activists and campaign groups are calling upon King Harald of Norway to stop the Norwegian-owned salmon farms and tighten environmental standards to protect British Columbia’s wild salmon populations. Davies takes aim at the King in “They Call Him the Salmon King of Norway”:
The salmon king blew a hole in the hill As his island sea filled fishermen came to watch their reflections in the void.
We shall see.
Trees are patient though, the spring moon is waxing. Soon fjords will swell beyond their fill and juniper can soar on silver-tipped wings once more.
It is a testament to Davies and her beautiful book that she has drawn attention to this wondrous and extraordinary place, and that we have the privilege of ‘coming now to Flenivaer’s heart.’