Sigurður Pálsson is an established poet in his home country of Iceland, having won the Icelandic Literary Prize in 2008. He has built up a considerable reputation in France, which earned him both the title of Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1990, and Chevalier de l’Ordre National du Mérite in 2007. Having been professor at the University of Iceland and the National Academy of Dramatic Art, he has also worked as a translator. It thus goes without saying that he is aware of minute subtleties of language. This is worth mentioning because it is one of the most important aspects of Inside Voices Outside Light, a collection drawn from ten earlier collections published between 1980 and 2012.
It is evident that Pálsson likes to take a different stylistic approach with each collection, which makes categorisation problematic. One can split his work into three albeit somewhat arbitrary categories however. the poems from 1980 to 1990 are comparable to impressionist paintings because of their focus on colour and lighting. For instance, in “Nocturne for Jupiter”: “easy-smiling tones”, “Multicoloured lantern” and “fading light” are juxtaposed with a short physical description: “the fat pleasure-ground”. Most of these examples constitute whole lines in the poem; one could thus say that the poet draws out the essence of Jupiter in a series of snapshots. These should be enjoyed separately, but ultimately coalesce into a picture more similar to pointillism than a collage. This is followed by a somewhat more prosaic style in the poems of 1990 to 2006, which are cyclical. Unlike the former poems, they begin as a unity of effect; they then highlight the separate steps necessary to arrive at said effect, before coming full circle in conclusion. Perhaps the most helpful poem to explain this is “Plywood”, a prose poem describing a school project, where the narrator intends to make a plywood replica of Iceland. It “starts at Reykjavik and not on the opposite corner where I was situated”: in other words, it starts at the end. The creative process is then explained in minute detail, from how many saw blades were used, to why they snapped. Finally, in an almost Proustian moment, looking “at a map of Iceland” “reports […] the smell of plywood and fine sawdust.” The final poems vary strongly in style and theme, which makes it hard to do them justice, but one could qualify them as somewhat in-between the former two time periods. The advantage of this approach is that it provides insight into the poet’s creative and stylistic evolution over the last three decades.
In terms of technique, it is easy to dismiss the earlier poems in particular as chaotic. What is easy to overlook is that it is controlled chaos. The big, bold strokes and forcefulness of isolated words are harnessed by an underlying, almost pedantic, orderliness. In “Land Possessed by Poems” for example, each paragraph is headed by a roman numeral. The paragraphs are all rather short; the reader’s overview should be excellent even if the paragraphs were not numbered. That Pálsson provides them anyway demonstrates his attention to detail, which is also applicable to his use of wordplay. Sadly, some of the subtleties are lost. For example, we have:
Spreading across the sky
Across the world.
In Icelandic, this is:
Færist yfir himininn
færist yfir heiminn
The similarity of “himininn” and “heiminn” does not translate. Other examples, such as: “about ticks” and “yes politics” do work. In the original, this is: “um póla” and “já pólatík”, and the pun derived from homophony is salvaged. Overall, Inside Voices Outside Light is rather like red wine: the collection should be enjoyed in sips, and each sip should be allowed to breathe in order for it to achieve its full flavour.