Windows of Brimnes: An American in Iceland
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Windows of Brimnes: An American in Iceland

by Bill Holm

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In his most ambitious book to date, poet, musician, wit, and polemicist Bill Holm repairs to his Icelandic cottage to reflect on the United States and what it might learn from the land of his ancestral roots. The book begins with a description of the extraordinary setting of Brimnes, a small fishing village on the Arctic Circle. From his house, Holm captures


In his most ambitious book to date, poet, musician, wit, and polemicist Bill Holm repairs to his Icelandic cottage to reflect on the United States and what it might learn from the land of his ancestral roots. The book begins with a description of the extraordinary setting of Brimnes, a small fishing village on the Arctic Circle. From his house, Holm captures Iceland’s warmth and genuine community, its secularism, pacifism, and love of nature, poetry, and music. Writing of the America to which his ancestors fled only two generations before, he wonders whether the compelling dream of liberty, freedom, and inquiry still animates his native country. For the legions of Bill Holm fans as well as for those yearning for some straight if often comical reflection on the state of America today, this book provides a memorable experience.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal

Poet and essayist Holm (English, Southwest St. Univ., MN; Eccentric Islands: Travels Real and Imaginary) has written an insightful, often humorous, and occasionally melancholy follow-up to The Heart Can Be Filled Anywhere on Earth, his book on growing up in an Icelandic community in Minneota, MN. Here he explores the country of his ancestors, its rich literary heritage, and the hardscrabble history that drove many Icelanders to the New World. At the same time, he casts a critical eye on life, politics, and religion in the United States. Brimnes, his tiny, isolated cottage only yards from the sea, with no phone or computer, provides a haven in the tradition of Thoreau's Walden Pond and a vantage point from which to view the modern world, which has begun to encroach on his beloved Iceland. Holm's wonderfully clear prose brings to life the dramatic landscape of Iceland and its friendly and independent people. Poems by him and others, including translations of works by Icelandic poets, are sprinkled throughout the text. Holm has produced an enjoyable book that belongs in all public and academic library collections.
—Linda M. Kaufmann

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Milkweed Editions
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5.80(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.90(d)

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Copyright © 2007 Bill Holm
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-57131-302-7

Chapter One


In the summer of 200?, a journalist from St. Paul, Minnesota, a young woman with a sense of adventure, decided to spend a week touring Iceland. I invited her to stop by and see me in Hofsós. There's no address, I said. There are only a few hundred people, and they will all know how to find the crazy American. Just ask for Brimnes. I'm next to the sea. And if you can't find the sea, you're out of luck.

She landed at Keflavík International Airport at 6:00 A.M., rented a car, and decided to drive straight north. She found Highway 1, Esja, the tunnel, the pass, even the country music station, and finally the turn off Highway 1 to Hofsós. The sun shone grandly. Wildflowers bloomed dependably in the ditches, the motor purred, and the sight of the sea and the mountains helped stave off the jet lag.

She drove north with open windows and a glad heart. Soon a drink, lunch, a nap, a friendly and familiar American face. Suddenly she hit the brakes and stopped, ten miles south of Hofsós. By the side of the road was a blue metal sign: <- Brimnes. It pointed toward the fjord to the east. He hadn't said whether he lived right in town. This must be it. She turned westdown a long gravel driveway, passed through a gate which she responsibly closed behind her, and arrived at a farmstead with a real barn, a corral of horses, a stack of hay bales wrapped in plastic, a tractor, but an empty yard. So he's bought a farm, she thought, and got out to stretch her legs. Out from the barn came a young farmer in black rubber boots and a blood-soaked slicker. Behind him trotted his five- or six-year-old daughter, same rubber boots, same slicker, but smaller, carrying a bleeding sheep's head.

"Is this Brimnes?" asked a now-confused Amy.

"Brimnes? Já. Petta er Brimnes," said the farmer, clearly astonished at the sound of English, a language he probably neither speaks nor understands and also not the lingua franca of the neighborhood. The little girl with the sheep's head examined the pretty young foreigner in the shiny rental car. "Go to the house and fetch your mother," said the farmer in Icelandic to his daughter. "She understands a little English."

Soon the mother emerged, wiping floury hands on her apron. Amy explained again that she was looking for Bill Holm, an American living at Brimnes. "Oh, not this Brimnes," said the mother in halting English. "Kannski hann býr in town Hofsós, fifteen kilometers north. Brimnes there too, I think."

Amy thanked the family in her best English, apologizing, with her sweetest American smile, for interrupting the sheep butchering, and drove back down the way she came, carefully closing the gate behind her. Fifteen minutes later she found me, not in Brimnes but rather at the end of a telephone line. She'd stopped at the little general store (the only store in Hofsós), and when she inquired after Bill Holm, Dagný, the blond clerk and postmistress's daughter, told her I was probably having coffee down at the Icelandic Emigration Center, but that she'd ring there and track me down. All this, much to Amy's relief, in fluent English. I was summoned to the phone. "Did you have a good trip up? You must be half-dead of jet lag."

"I had a little adventure," said Amy.

"Such is life in Iceland. One of its great pleasures, in fact."

This had been Amy's first experience with the Icelanders' habit of naming every farm, every house, and of course every rock, rise, gully, and bay in this mostly empty landscape. Brim means waves or surf breaking on the beach, nes means cape, promontory, or headland, thus Brimnes-a miniature peninsula. Most of the country lives within spitting distance of salt water, which means there must be at least fifty Brimneses scattered over all districts of Iceland. Names repeat themselves endlessly: a hundred Hrauns (lava); farms called Vatn (lake or water), Bær (farmstead), Brú (bridge), and Ós (river's mouth). The local trolls worship at many churches: the mountain Tröllakirkja. Or perhaps they dine at the west fjord rocks called Trollasamlokur-"troll sandwiches." And as with places, so with humans. I was once kissed by eight Guðrúns in one night, and shook hands with a dozen Björns. Are Americans short of Johns and Marys?

Without a name, does a place exist? And what is the right name? And who is the right giver of names? Iceland is, if not the last, one of the few countries in the world to use a system of patronymics, in which the first name is the real identifier and the last only a temporary convenience used to establish connections between generations. If you wish to find a Guðrún or a Björn in Iceland, you must consult the telephone directory by first name. You may find twenty Guðrún Björnsdóttirs in Reykjavík alone. Start ringing at the top of the list. Good luck. Eventually one of the Guðrúns will know the one you are looking for and provide you with the right number. With 300,000-odd Icelanders, anonymity may be completely impossible. An American can disappear and invent a new name, a new identity, but don't try it in Iceland. Someone will know....

Houses in country villages have names as well. Many farms have had the same name for a thousand years, even if the existing turf house has actually been built upon the remains of another. After all, it has been the same old Höfði (headland) since 974.

"Ah, Friðrik from Höfði-just north of Vatn and south of Lónkot."

"Ah, you have bought Brimnes. Björn Björnsson, the doctor, was born there. Eight children grew up in that tiny house. Their father was a fisherman-so handy to the harbor."

"You know Sölvi Helgason lived at Skálá the last few years of his life. Died in-what?-?895. Never could get along with the sheriff's daughter who owned the farm. Friðrik Pór owns it now."

"You know a great poet once lived at Sléttuhlíð. When? The eighteenth century."

These names comprise a sveit-a word, according to my friend Elva Friðriksdóttir, untranslatable into English. The dictionary mumbles about "country, neighborhood, rural district, municipality, community, parish ...," but when she talks about her sveit, Elva does not slap her forehead or stomp her foot. She strikes her heart. Sveit is what connects you to the earth, to history, to nature, to humanity.

Elva's sveit begins at her father's farm, Höfði, where Guðríður Pórbjarnardóttir settled in about AD 1000 with her husband, Pórfinnur Karlsefni, and their son Snorri-the first European conceived and born in the New World, Vinland. The farmhouse at Höfði was built, not of turf but rather of timber, about 1900 (a long life for an Icelandic farmhouse). Elva's father, Friðrik, keeps it intact, though he's built a comfortable and modern house a few hundred feet away. Intact old farmhouses are so rare in Iceland these days that his nephew Friðrik Pór, one of Iceland's best film directors, has used the old house as a movie set three or four times. Just across the road, the narrow gravel spit leads a half mile into the sea to connect the seven-hundred-foot cliff of Pórðarhöfði to the mainland. That thin spit is a good metaphor for what connects the many Elvas and Friðriks of Iceland to their sveit-it's invisible from even five miles away, from where Pórðarhöfði looks like an island, but always visible to those who know it's there.

Is sveit an impossible notion for Americans, with our tiny history, our broken connections to any past, our indifference to nature (if money is to be made), our internal itchiness to keep moving and reinvent ourselves? An old friend of mine in Minnesota who used to live on a lake miles from any village now lives not at the old Peterson place, or at RR #2, Hawk Lake, but at 15631 469th Ave. SE in the nearest market town of over ten thousand. No use giving his house a name, since the post only arrives with a minimum of twenty anonymous numbers. There are too many of us, and we are too hard to keep track of. We like to put things in numerical order, in case the authorities should need us suddenly.

After the horrors of September 11, Americans became obsessed with security-internal security, or, to use the sentimental euphemism, homeland security. Yet if we examine our true perceptions without fear of hysteria, almost everyone knows that thumbprints, hidden cameras, scanners, national ID's, armed national guards, wiretaps, X-rayed shoes, and other draconian invasions of personal privacy cannot make us safe. Handing over vast power to a secret police apparatus will not allow us to sleep more soundly in our personal beds or to attend to our daily business without fear. True civilization, true security, depends on a level of trust between neighbors that Americans seem willing to barter away at the summons of any skillful sloganeer.

Neighbors know each other's names. They know not only the houses but also the history of the houses in their sveit: "The Van Keulens moved out to the old Josephson farm-not J.A.'s-it was S. Frank's dad, Árni, who built that house." They know one another's children and welcome them into their houses, not to protect them from dangerous strangers but to feed them, pat them on the head, or keep them out of the tomatoes. Does this seem cockamamie foolishness to you-some sentimental voice from a long-lost golden age? If so, then our sense of civility has fallen into such disrepair that not even fifty trillion dollars' worth of electronic guard gizmos and internal security forces can save us.

Not only are we too many, we make our vast numbers worse by clumping. Even worse, we swear fealty to our companies, our employers, rather than to our neighbors. The hand that signs your check (or the electronic substitute for that hand) is not your friend nor your neighbor, no matter how many cheerful greetings or "nice days" it wishes you. On the other hand, your neighbor Bob, who dislikes you, probably wishes that a truck would back into your Chevy or that you'd sprain your ankle in the unfilled pothole in the sidewalk. That, though, is a far friendlier and safer gesture than any anonymous institution will ever give you. At least Bob does not mean to murder you anonymously with some sort of newly invented bomb. Anonymous murder is the vilest of all assaults on civilization. Kill Bob if you please; that's human. Just be sure to take the trouble to find out his shoe size and his mother's maiden name before you do it. Otherwise, leave him alone to stew in his own life.

So, having now been properly harangued on the subjects of anonymity and neighborliness, you should begin to discern not only the physical but the psychological virtue of living in a properly named house. Having arrived, like Amy, at the right Brimnes, you should know something of the house, its history, its architecture, its neighbors, its location on the planet, and what can be seen out its windows.

I first saw Hofsós because a choir-mate of an old friend was working there as Director of the Vesturfarasetrið (the Icelandic Emigration Center). A carload of friends arrived on a sunny June midafternoon, the season of endless light. We met Dísa (Vigdís Esradóttir, soprano and Director of the Center). We met Valgeir Porvaldsson, the impresario of Hofsós who had conceived the notion of a museum and genealogy center in his collapsing though beautiful hometown-his sveit. Farming and fishing no longer keep the district children from disappearing into Reykjavík, or abroad. It is the same, endless story of small, out-of-the-way places. It is the same in America, in Canada, in Europe, and all over the planet: who wants to live in the boondocks, even beautiful boondocks? Even if those boondocks are your sveit? Valgeir, a carpenter by training and inclination, had worked for the county on a couple of historical projects and had now begun buying old, half-collapsed fisherman's cottages set helter-skelter on a lumpy hillside above the mouth of the Hof River. At the top of the steep little hill, a newer, more modern concrete town had grown up. A few businesses: bank, post office, garage, cooperative store, church, school, community hall, soccer field, and muffler factory. Just another dying small place, thirty miles off the main road.

The original village at the bottom of the hill consisted of fifteen or twenty unmatched houses in various states of repair. Some had been moved there from another site a half mile south, where yet another noisy glacial river, the Grafará, had made a little, sheltered nest of grass at its mouth-now only a few ruined lumps and cavities carpeted with wildflowers. The two sites were thousand-year-old Viking trading posts for the north fjords, and had been a single named village since the sixteenth century. The Viking longboats would bring their goods to anchor at the river's mouth and trade with the local farmers for dried fish, hides, wool, and smoked meat. Books must have been traded, too, and then carried to the rest of Iceland by water. The first printing press in the country was ten miles away in the prosperous Hólar Valley, site of the northern episcopate of Iceland.

The little fishing harbor on the north side of the river's mouth has been much improved over the centuries, with the addition of a stone breakwater, regular dredging, and a clearly marked channel. Still, at the outset of the twenty-first century, just four fishing boats called it home-and only one of them was large enough (or in possession of enough valuable fish quotas) to provide a true living. Yet the fjord itself has long been chockablock with cod, along with a nice scattering of haddock, halibut, catfish, and sea trout. At the top of the gravel road going up the hill to the north of the harbor sat a fish-salting station, barrels of cod on their way to becoming twenty-five-dollar-a-plate bacalao served with a coulis of tomatoes and peppers a la Español.

The sveit still kept intact its old economic resources-the sea harvest; the rich, grassy meadows that nourished the sheep and dairy cattle; the cream of Icelandic horse stocks; the cliffs abundant with eggs and tasty seabirds. The neighbors were literate and kindly, and there were overstuffed bookshelves in almost every house. There were local singers of high repute and skill, and even local writers who published small volumes of well-made, old-fashioned verse. One of them, an unschooled carpenter who wrote well in three languages-Icelandic, English, and Danish-had won literary prizes in Reykjavík newspapers.

All this and the majesty out every window: huge mountains, the multicolored sea, the glaciers, noisy rivers surging fjord-ward over a bed of symmetrical columnar basalt, the cliffs, the decorator islands, the wildflowers and sweet grass in season, not to mention the three-month-long daylight. If you had to choose a sveit, this would be a tempting possibility. But usually a sveit chooses you, and so it had chosen Valgeir-thus he carpentered away on the old houses, then put on his necktie to go raise funds from government, business, immigrant groups from North America, anybody who might stock Skagafjörður with cash enough to keep this sveit alive and flourishing.

My wife, Marcy, and I slept in Brimnes on our first night in Hofsós. At the time it was a small guest house with four Lilliputian bedrooms. We chose one with a big window open to the sea a few yards from the bed. We drew back the pink curtains, opened the window a crack, and the swish of fjord and roar of river filled the little bedroom. There is no such sleep, no such music to calm the interior frenzy, to lullaby your demons into drooling irrelevance. Someday you are going to die. So what? The human race is endlessly foolish. So what? You are broke and almost old. So what? God may or may not exist in some form. So what? It's up to him. Or her. Or neither. Or both. So what? Still light. Always light.

Someone once asked me about the size of the lots for the old houses at the bottom of the hill in Hofsós. Who knows? So what? These fifteen houses-Ás, Garður, Krossafell, Síða, Sæberg, Sólvík, Braut, Gilsbakki, Brattahlíð, Sólvangur, Brimnes, et al.-are a wonderful jumble, like a child's spilled Lego blocks. None are large, but none are the same size, shape, or color. Some are stuccoed, some timber covered with iron, one pure painted timber. All the roofs are multicolored: red, green, black, silver, gold, orange.


Excerpted from THE WINDOWS OF BRIMNES by BILL HOLM Copyright © 2007 by Bill Holm. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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