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Artwork by Wanda Orme

Björk Guest-Edit: A Journey Through the Icelandic Landscape

Björk chooses an extract from Land of Love and Ruins, her collaborator Oddný Eir's literary memoir and a sensual return to the earth

Lead ImageArtwork by Wanda Orme

For the latest issue of AnOther Magazine, we asked Björk to compile an anthology of texts that have inspired her. Drawing on the research undertaken for her upcoming show at The Shed, Björk’s Cornucopia, which premiers this month, the Icelandic artist gathers together the work of some of the most important post-feminist thinkers of the age and puts her own determinedly maverick and truthful stamp on the anthology. Björk has compiled an agenda for hope and reconnection, accompanied here by a dedicated series of imagery created by artist Wanda Orme

Weaving intimate diary entries with philosophy, history and hikes through the Icelandic landscape, Oddný Eir’s beguiling literary memoir Land of Love and Ruins opens with the early skirmishes of a new relationship, and unfolds through full moons, feast days, autumnal equinox and winter solstice, meditating on subjects as diverse as Icelandic sagas, Greek mythology and Snoop Dogg’s lyrics. The poet and author has collaborated with Björk on environmental activism, as well as words for her albums Biophilia and Vulnicura.

Reykjavík, Feast of St Lucy (whose eyes were gouged out and put on display. She’s the patron saint of the blind.)

It’s strange being home. I’m relieved, though I still feel a bit homesick. I’ve got to try to create a home of my own. Probably alone. Could maybe get a dog. Shame how much trouble it is to travel overseas with dogs. Are they put in the baggage compartment?

Love is blind, and it’s not the only one. I feel like I’m blindfolded. I’m going to untie the blindfold, write on it in the gleam of dawn. The sun is being reborn. 

Reykjavík, Winter Solstice

Mom and I went for a drive this afternoon, took a look at houses.

Drove past one that she said was probably good for nurturing your spirit. It reminded me of the countless drives in and around the city in search of a house when we felt it was getting too crowded in our own, which Mom called a dirt hut at bad moments. Then we went home, where my dad and brother were hanging up ptarmigans. It might not be under the best of circumstances, but we’ll spend Christmas together, the old family, my brother and me both in our late thirties and newly single, seeking refuge in our childhood nest. Nowadays, it’s quite festive when the four of us get together, despite our various wounds, or maybe because of them. It gives me grounding, strength.

A tree that’s been struck by lightning but still has its needles. Poisonous red berries can be medicinal if they’re handled properly and distilled.

Reykjavík, in an attic, Feast of the Epiphany

He came up to the attic last night, wearing black, tightly woven woollen clothes, fragrant with green cologne. I caught a whiff of his sweet sweat, and sensed straightaway that his ballsack had blossomed. The ornithologist whom I met at the clinic last year has come to town, even more beautiful than when I saw him when he was ill; now he simply shines. 

Do you live here? His clear, blue eyes awaited a reply. No, this is my workspace, I said, finding it funny that he thought I lived in such a cubbyhole. He glanced around, and I got the feeling it was to see if we could make love in this lair. The place was far from soundproof, I pointed out, and surrounded by scholars trying to concentrate. I offered him a seat on my little cot. I asked him where he lived and he described a small basement apartment: right nearby, beautiful patterns in the cement, he said, but full of ghosts, even rats; he wanted to find another place as soon as possible, was in a kind of limbo.

I lent him a walkie-talkie; the channel is open so we have to develop our own code. Before he left, he took an ivy leaf from a book that was in his pocket and handed it to me, with greetings from Pentagonia, the kingdom of dark green pentangles. Should we get ourselves a place there? I said of course.

He left just before midnight. I wanted to keep working for a while and challenge my fear of the dark to a duel. But he called me on the walkie-talkie as soon as he got home and I ran over to his place and stayed until morning. I didn’t smell any rats, but had bad dreams. You can’t enter another person’s world too quickly; you’ve got to sift through. I’ve often set out rather carelessly, say no more, over and out.

When I saw him, I found him so grown-up and mature that I imagined he’d cleaned out all his old junk and rubbish. Disappointing to discover the infantile fluff still in his navel. But you never fully cleanse yourself of primordial shame and dirt. As soon as your heart opens, its waste pours out along with the love. But then it’s a good idea to keep pumping and pumping, replace your septic tanks and your connection with the sea, so that you can enjoy peace and quiet in your own house, your own privy place.

Privy is certainly a peculiar word. Where’s my etymological dictionary? Is it a corruption? “A privy place to rest and think”, like a chapel, quiet and peaceful, perfect for contemplation – can chapels and toilets have so much in common? Is it a place where a real connection is made between the lowest chakra, the anus, and the highest, the divinity in our head? Or is it a place of quietude for the watchful eye of high heaven, just as you ground your waste in a radical transformation? In the homes of the European aristocracy, the most fruitful conversations of the day took place in the privy, as the householders were expelling yesterday’s excess in preparation for the new day. There in the privy, they tidied themselves, spritzed on the newest perfumes in the province, and expounded their latest theories.

I’m finishing writing up the memoirs of my grandmother, my namesake, and rhymes and verses from her childhood. I’m going to print them out and bring them to her today – it’s her birthday and she’ll be serving crepes with whipped cream, maybe even bring out her pink tableware. Her memoirs begin on Epiphany, when it was customary to make crepes, as was also customary when a child was born – the maid must have been so glad to get out of baking for one day when Grandma was born.

Then there are the rhymes that she recites with such a rollicking lilt that putting them on paper does them little justice:

To the Alþing they came
a carl and beldame
returned with a bird
in a mitten, I’ve heard
And when they came home
they were given a bone
cracked by a stone
The man then spoke up:
“It’s time that we sup!”
and in came a dish
bearing wet fish
a trout fine to eat
and four grilled pig’s feet
The carl took his pick
grabbed a foot quick
and a man it became
Grettir by name
This Grettir is skilled in
many a thing
crossed the deep, put maidens to sleep
cows and calves and even the king

Selsund near Mt Hekla, Cream-Puff Day

Strolled around the lavafield this morning, found a secluded spot amid the bearberry bushes and pumice. I felt exposed when a ptarmigan flew over as I was squatting there; it came so close to the crown of my head, circling and croaking. I feel a bit tense, having just come from the commotion of the city and hardly knowing what anything means. Why again do they circle like that?

I went back to the tent and he was still sleeping, so I smacked him with a twig and howled cream puff, cream puff! He barely stirred, turned onto his other side. So I undressed and slipped into his down sleeping bag, clamped my thighs around his legs, sniffed his neck, and ran my hand over his warm scrotum.

We woke at the same time and told each other how badly we’d dreamed – unpleasant memories from old relationships. We could barely look at each other. Maybe a person’s head clears faster near volcanoes. Hekla could erupt at any moment, but right now I fear so much more than its fire.

The unfilled cream puffs that I brought with me have all been squashed to pieces beneath the jam jar.

We took a long walk through the lava, saying nothing at first. It feels comfortable keeping silent, even though it’s strange to walk with someone you don’t know very well without exchanging a single word. It took me time to trust the silence between us, to feel that it wasn’t just a lack of connection. I tried to be independent and not think about how he felt or how our relationship really was, why we might be at odds. But when I forgot both myself and him and started looking down between my feet at the winter flowers here and there amid the traces of snow, some cocky fox kits yelped in a crevice, startling me so much that I lost my footing and plunked down onto the moss. I was terrified, remembering a story that my brother Owlie had just told me about a fox that attacked an archaeologist, clamping its sharp, savage teeth around her calf.

Laughing, he pulled me to my feet, and, with a furtive look, led me into a small, deep lava cave, covered with damp moss. I got the gist of his intentions, found a nice, soft spot, lay on my back and took him in my arms, and he found his way in through our woollen clothing. We moved in rhythm to the joyful sounds of a snow bunting, which lets itself be blown through the sky, unafraid of volcanic eruptions. 

On the way back, he told me that his great-grandfather had bought this land and that he could build a cottage here if he wanted to, whenever he was able. Could you imagine living here with me for part of the year? he asked. Yes, I definitely thought I could. It’s my dream to live close to the wilderness, in perfect peace and quiet. You don’t need complete solitude, then? he asked. No, I don’t think so, I said. 

The winter wren’s so swollen-headed that it’s on the verge of bursting. I injected cream into the remains of the choux puffs and we chowed them down.

The stress seeps from you gradually. The city’s soot. I’ve been writing lists of words that end in two “s’s” in Icelandic: fúss, rass, hoss, spíss, koss, fliss, kross, piss, fuss, suss, tráss, góss, hnoss, hress, bless… I found 40 words.

I have no idea how to go about creating a clues-in-squares crossword puzzle, but we decided to try it together. The answer should be one particular word, isn’t that right? Or one sentence? I thought of the word nœđi (peace, quiet, privacy, leisure) ornáđ (rest, quiet, grace) or jarđnœđi (piece of land, farm tenancy). He said it might be better to have the word náđhús (privy, restroom) or náhús (tomb), even gröf (ditch, grave), and added that there I would find perfect peace and quiet. We bickered a bit and I feel as if I still need to explain to him my dream of privacy. He headed down to the heath to check on a nest and try to find a path that he saw on an old map.

We were hit by something of a storm and took shelter in his great-grandfather’s little house, which had previously been a workshed in Reykjavík. This great-grandpa was prescient, being a foreigner, and foresaw the value of the land, stipulating in his will that it couldn’t be sold off from the family. We found a full gas cylinder and some excellent cider. With our first sip, this verse sprang into his mind:

Concealed by lava in our own
secret lair
to the depths of our souls sheer joy
we share,
may God, dearest darling, pay heed
to my prayer
that he grant you rich earth,
quietude and mirth
in a sun-blessed bower,
there to reflect on this blissful hour
of refuge, delight
’neath Hekla’s great height.

We’re sitting at a cloth-covered oaken table; he’s reading and I’m writing. I have to deliver a manuscript shortly, but still haven’t found the right tone. He’s excited to finish a book by Thomas Bernhard, about a man who has an entire novel in his head and is always waiting to find enough peace and quiet to start writing it. Does he succeed? No, the years pass, as his wife incessantly knits a wool mitten and unravels it as soon as she’s finished, until finally her husband murders her.

At the foot of Mt Hekla, Bursting Day 

We decided to sleep in the cottage that evening, after the wind picked up quite a bit. Got our sleeping bags and laid them on the beds, where there were little down pillows embroidered with the words Sleep tight. He came to my bed and cuddled with me. We felt warm and fuzzy from the cider. Then he lay down again in his own bunk and began wondering aloud where he should build his hut in the future, our hut. He pointed out that there was no single spot that possessed all the land’s virtues, and asked me to prioritise: Mt Hekla in sight, shelter from the weather, sunshine from the south, a panoramic view, a ready water supply, peace and quiet. Then we heard a thud. He went out, bare-bottomed, with a flashlight, and returned with the news that the deck table had blown over, but everything was all right. I admired his courage: to wade naked into the darkness. In a short time, he fell asleep and started snoring manfully.

I couldn’t relax; my nerves were taut and my mind raced. I thought I’d outgrown my fear of the dark. I tried to find a scientific explanation: the southerly had shifted to northerly, as he said. I wondered if the traces of body odour mingled with perfume on the pillow would be enough to call old ghosts to mind. I’d assumed I would be welcome in this cute little house, yet I didn’t feel at home here. Ever since I was little, homesickness has hit me like hail from a clear blue sky. I lay there stiffly for a long time, until the day began to dawn, when I dressed and went out to the tent, feeling like it was more my own. I wrapped myself in woollen shawls and sweaters from my grandmothers.

It isn’t particularly easy to be a guest in other people’s homes. On farms in the old days, hospitality was measured by how guests were made welcome in the home, whether invited or not – the latter including those who hadn’t made plans ahead of time, as well as those who just dropped by in search of food and shelter.

It might be easy to be an invited guest, but to be uninvited and reliant on others must be hard for anyone.

I could imagine becoming a gypsy, if they weren’t dependent on others so much of the time. If they were self-reliant and dancing free, as in my dreams. 

I remember when I met a swarthy gypsy clan-leader and followed him into a big white tent on the outskirts of the forest. He warned that his extended family had been harassed and refused shelter so often that it had grown suspicious and less hospitable than it would have liked to be. And I didn’t like the look of things inside the sweaty tent; it seemed their solidarity hinged on desperation, like at a family reunion in the remotest part of a fjord in bad weather. The instruments out of tune.

A woman wearing a beautiful headpiece offered to read my palm, which I accepted, reaching into my pockets for anything I had, and she said that I would be wandering a long time; it was as if there were a curse that would prevent me from finding a place to be for the time being. Her eyes filled with compassion and she said that I was clearly some kind of gypsy, a ruddy gypsy, but that I had to clear off – I didn’t belong with them. Spoke to me like a dog, as the gypsies have so often been spoken to: Get out of here, scram, go on, git! 

I must have dozed a bit; woke to find him attempting to zip our sleeping bags together, then giving up. The wind reverberates in the mountains and the storm whips the tent flap. Impossible to take a nap in this. What hellish currents are these? Would you rather be Eggert or Bjarni? he asked me with a laugh, just before he fell asleep. He told me that the explorers Eggert and Bjarni had in fact camped here the night before they hiked up Hekla and became the first people to discover that it isn’t a gateway to Hell. I once dreamed about Bjarni in a lustful love-game with a loon on the wooden floor of his apothecary. And the only thing I know about Eggert is his Georgic, although I noticed the two men’s travel journal in the box of books in the car.

I’m going to try to put myself to sleep by finding new “s”-words: túss, skass, hlass, krass, hass, hoss, fliss, flass, trass, kross, gloss. Did I already have kross and fliss? And pluss? What is pluss, anyway? Is it a genuine Icelandic word? I wish I’d brought my dictionary with me. Not that it’s a perfect account of Icelandic. But it’s a decent attempt. Those who put it together must have really needed peace and quiet.

Then there are the mm-words: gúmm, skamm, djamm, gjamm, vamm, skömm… and búmm, in honour of Bursting Day today. Salted lamb and split-pea soup. I’m happy not to have to redo the dictionary, update it. It would drive me mad. Now I hear bleating. It certainly is nice that there are still sheep grazing and farmers sleeping soundly in their farmhouses amidst all the summer cottages. Few fear the old fox roving through the lava, russet and independent. 

Reykjavík, Ash Wednesday 

I went to visit Grandma around noon. Asked her what she thought of the summer cottages, whether she would have enjoyed staying in one over the years. She replied with an unequivocal no. She’d never felt comfortable in summer cottages; they weren’t her style. Nor would she have wanted to live in the suburbs. Even if they’re supposedly a nice place for children and dogs. She would rather shoot herself than have to walk a dog!

Once a week, a very charming man brings a grey dog to the retirement home and goes from room to room to allow the residents to pet it. She said that she told the man the dog was incredibly cute and probably fun, but that she didn’t like dogs, and he hasn’t come to her room since. Then came the story of the summer cottage.

Grandpa had just returned from a sea voyage. He reserved a little cottage. And good weather was predicted that summer. But he needed to spend more time in town than he’d thought, so Grandma was there alone with her three daughters and a very young babysitter. 

By the end of the summer, the girls had grown tired of the little home of their own that they’d created outside and were waiting to go and pick berries. They nagged their mother and asked: When do the berries come, when is Daddy coming? They wanted him to pick berries with them and teach them about plants, as he usually did, about which ones could be used for dyeing and healing, and they wanted their mother to recite verses and teach them poems. That’s the way it was supposed to be. 

But by the time the berries were ripe, he came and made an announcement: that he was moving in with another woman. She needed him so much, and he her.

A few years later, he came back to Grandma. They never rented a summer cottage again. Their home was beautiful, open to family and friends; a warm and welcoming country home in the centre of town. Every day, visitors both invited or uninvited shared meals with them. At the dining table, issues were discussed; folk sat in rocking chairs late into the night. These weren’t just men’s clubs or sewing circles; the sexes were mingled and every generation was represented. There was singing and versifying, canned fruit cocktail eaten with whipped cream, or freshly picked blueberries from the north. On the weekends, drives were taken in the Cadillac through the city’s outlying countryside to enjoy the view of the mountains, and everyone who wanted to join in, joined in.

Stykkishólmur, first day of summer

I’m sitting at my desk, looking at the sun. There’s hardly any night these days, which means I’m not paralysed by fear of the dark even though I’m alone in strange premises. I was invited to come and stay in a little apartment by the sea, which was previously used to store library books. It was as if my prayers had been answered, because I wanted so badly to get out of the city.

The man who came to fix the internet connection told me that Kamilla, the librarian who smoked cigarillos on sunny days and played the accordion, had lived here for a long time. But you have nothing to fear, he said, even if she’s around, because she was so good to us kids; we could stay at the library as long as we wanted and read whatever we wanted. 

My desk faces the sea and the islands. I have a good view, despite being in the basement, and it’s a nice feeling. I remember the words of the star-master, who said that my work energy was best harnessed in dungeons or secret underground bunkers. And I actually feel good writing here; looking out at the islands eases my mind.

According to the Saga of Gísli Súrsson, Ingjaldur’s idiot son lived in a turf hut on Hergilsey Island, and Gísli hid there and pretended to be the idiot. I actually dreamed of Auđur, Gísli’s wife, last night, but I don’t remember how she looked; I couldn’t see her face, but she handed me a diamond-shaped silver brooch and asked me to keep it safe. According to folklore, dreaming of silver means snow and sorrow, but I had the feeling that my dream meant something else. I called my dear brother, Owlie, and asked him to tell me about Auđur; I’d forgotten what happened to her. He said that she’d been a good woman, a good companion of Gísli and faithful to him and that after his death, she’d left the country, gone on a pilgrimage to southern lands.

My dear ornithologist, Birdy, has gone to meet his destiny, living in a cave in the south of Iceland in an attempt to recover his flight feathers. He didn’t take his cell phone with him, and it’s too far for walkie-talkies. It’s probably best to sever all ties in order to reach one’s inner divinity, if there is such a thing.

I invited him to come here with me, but he said he preferred not to. He was afraid of digging himself inadvertently into my life or my uterus, saying that he’d felt the desire and thus decided to dig himself into Mother Earth instead, and then meet me as a new man.

I dreamed of him at dawn; we were in the cave, so deep inside that it was pitch-black and we kissed each other’s eyelids and sniffed each other’s ears, and then he stroked my hair and slipped into me which was utterly wonderful. I don’t know whether the sound of the waves lapping was in my dream or from here on the beach. I woke to the summer solstice feeling blissful, ready to achieve great things.

Under columns full of water from melting glaciers, I dream of justice in this country, yes, and in the world.

I really want fresh fish, but don’t know where to get it. The woman at the beauty salon advised me to go down to the harbour when the boats come in and ask the fishermen. I tried, hung around down there but couldn’t bring myself to ask. All the fish is sent to Reykjavík and returned frozen for the supermarket. I had a hamburger with béarnaise sauce in the little restaurant by the harbour.

Such crises are like any other period of upheaval, when renewal is closer than ever before. I’ve been reading an old article by Grandpa in which he harps on about how Icelanders should acquaint themselves better with the ecosystems in and around the country, how the fish live and reproduce. So we don’t drive any species to extinction. I’ve often wished that he were alive, but never more than now; I want to ask him so much about the future.

From Land of Love and Ruins by Oddný Eir, published in 2016 by Restless Books. Translation by Philip Roughton.

This story originally featured in the Spring/Summer 2019 issue of AnOther Magazine which is on sale internationally now.