Poetry Month

Ragnarok

There was a man, Magnus’s son,
Ragni his name. In Reykjavik
Stands his office, six stories,
Far from the harbor in the fat past.
Birds nest there, now abandoned.
The sea washes along Vesturgata,
As they called it.
                            In those days
Ragni’s son, a rich man,
Also a scholar, skilled in law,
Thomas his name, took his wife
From famished Boston, far away.
Brave were her people, black-skinned,
Strong with spear, with shield courageous,
Long ago.
                     Lately now

The world has stopped. It waits and turns.
Fire leaps along the hill.
Before these troubles, Thomas took her,
Black Naomi, belly big,
To Hvolsvollur where he had land,
A rich farm before the stream,
Safe and strong.
                         In the starving years.
There was born, Thomas’s son,
Eirik the African, as they called him.
Hard his heart, heavy his hand
Against the wretches in the ruined towns,
Bandits and skraelings beyond the wall,
Come to plunder, kill and spoil,
Over and over.
                        Every night,
Thomas stands watch, wakeful and sure,
Guarding the hall with his Glock Nine.
Forty men, farmers by day,
Cod-fishermen from the cold coast,
Pledge to shelter, shield from harm
What each man loves, alone, together
Through the winter.
                                When spring thaws
The small boughs, buds unpack
From the red earth. Eirik passes
Into the fields. The fire weeds
Move around him, arctic blooms
And purple bells. Below the ricks,
He finds Johanna, Johan’s daughter,
Guests at the farm.
                              At his father’s house
He’d sometimes seen her, slim and fair,
Ripening too, a tall primrose.
He draws her down with dark hands,
Meaning no harm, but honor only.
Rich is her father, in Reykjavik,
Rich is her cousin, with cod boats
In Smoke Harbor.
                              Happy then,
Proud Naomi offers her hall
For the wedding feast, but she’s refused
For no reason. Rather instead
Johanna chooses the little church
At Karsnes, close to home,
South of the city along the shore.
High-breasted,
                      Snake-hearted,
Sick with pride, she predicts
No trouble. Near that place,
In Keflavik airport, cruel Jacobus
Gathers his men, gap-toothed Roma,
Thieves and Poles, pock-marked and starving.
The skraeling king calls for silence
In the shattered hall.
                                  Shards of glass,
Upturned cars, chunks of concrete
Make his throne. There he sits
With his hand high. “Hear me,” he says
In the Roma language, learned from his father
In distant London. “Long we’ve fought
Against these killers. Ghosts of friends
Follow us here.”
                          Far to the east,
Black Eirik, in the same hour,
Walks by the water in Hvolsvollur.
By the larch tree and the lambing pens,
Thomas finds him, takes his sleeve,
Brings his gift, the Glock Nine
With precious bullets, powder and brimstone
From his store.
                           Father and son
Talk together, until Naomi
Comes to find them. “Fools,” she calls them.
(Though she loves them.) “Late last night
I lay awake. When do you go
To meet this woman, marry her
Beyond our wall?  Why must you ride
To far Karsnes?”
                           Cruel Jacobus,
Waits to answer, in Keflavik
Hand upraised. “These rich men
Goad us to act. Am I the last
To mourn my brother, mourn his murder?
The reckless weakling, Thomas Ragnisson,
Shot him down, shattered his skull
Outside the wall
                          In Hvolsvollur,
With his Glock Nine. Now I hear
About this wedding. His black son
Scorning us, splits his strength,
Dares us to leave him alone in Karsnes
In the church. Christ Jesus  
Punishes pride, pays them back
My brother’s murder!”
                                    At that moment
Black Naomi bows her head
Tries to agree. Eirik turns toward her,
Groping to comfort. “God will protect
The holy church. Hear me, mother,
Jesus will keep us, Johanna and me.”
Then he strips the semi-automatic
From its sheath.
                          Some time later
Embracing her, he unbolts, unlocks
The steel door, draws its bars,
Rides north beneath the barrier,
Built of cinderblocks and barbed wire,
Twenty feet tall. With ten men
He takes the road toward Reykjavik,
West to Karsnes
                           On the cold sea.
There the pastor prepares the feast,
Lights the lamp in the long dusk.
In the chapel porch, pacing and ready
Eirik waits, wonders and waits.
Where’s the bride, the wedding party?
Where’s her father, fat Johan?
No one knows.
                         Night comes.                  
Checking his watch, counting the hours,
Eirik frets. At first light
He rides north through the ruined towns,
Empty and burned, broken and looted.
Abandoned cars block his path.
The hill rises to Hallgrimskirkja
At the city’s heart.
                              Here at the summit
Above the harbor, the high tower
Jabs the sky. Johan’s hall,
Rich and secure, is silent now.
The dogs slink out the door,
Baring their teeth, biting at bones.
At Leif’s statue we leave our horses,
Wait for something,
                                Sounds from the hall.
The concrete porch piles to heaven
The door’s wrenched open, all is still.
No one shouts, issues a challenge
As we approach. Eirik the African
Draws his pistol. The danger’s past.
No ones left. We know for certain
On the threshold.
                             There inside
Lies Thorgeir Grimsson, throat cut.
We find the others, one by one
Among the benches in their marriage clothes.
The bleached wool, black with blood,
Polished stones, stained with it.
Windows broken, birds fly
In the tall vault.
                          Eirik, distraught
Watches the birds wind above him,
Strives to find her, fair Johanna
Where she lies. Ladies and bridesmaids
Died in a heap, huddled together,
Peeled and butchered at the pillar’s base.
She’s not there; he searches farther
Up the aisle.
                      Underneath
The high altar, he uncovers
Fat Johan, father-in-law,
But for this. There’s his body,
Leaked and maimed below the organ,
The wooden cross. Cruel Jacobus
Tortured and killed him, kidnapped his daughter
Twelve hours previous.
                                    Proud Eirik
Turns to listen in the long light.
Out in the morning, his men call
Beyond the door. Desperate to leave
The stinking hall, holding his gun,
He finds them there. Fridmund, his friend,
Shows what they caught outside in the plaza,
A wretched skraeling
                                   Skulking on Njalsgata,
A teen-aged boy, bald already
Back bent, black-toothed,
Hands outstretched. Stern and heavy
Eirik stands over him, offering nothing
But the gun’s mouth. Meanwhile the boy
Lowers his head, laughs at his anger,
Spits out blood.
                          “I expect you know
All that happened. Here it was
That King Jacobus carried the girl,
Stole her away, struggling and screaming,
Kicking and cursing when he kissed her.
Now he’s punished, proud Johan,
Who took this church, chased us away,
Made it his hall.
                           Who among us
Steals such a thing, thieves though we are,
Jesus’ house, Hallgrimskirkja?
Now you threaten me, though I’m helpless,
With your Glock Nine. Go on, shoot me.
Cunt-mouth, coward—I dare you.
Jesus loves me. Laughing, I tell you.
Fuck you forever.”
                               Fridmund Bjarnsson
Pulls back his head, bares his throat.
But the African offers a judgment.
“Murder’s too kind. Cut him loose.
Let him crawl to his king, Jacobus the Gypsy.
If he touches her, tell him I’ll kill him.
Bring him this message…”
                                          But the skraeling
Spits on his boots. “Say it yourself,”
The boy scolds. “Better from you.
Besides, you’ll see him sooner than me
If you ride home to Hvolsvollur!”
Furious now, fearing the worst,
Eirik Thomasson turns from him,
Shouts for his horse,
                                 A shaggy gelding,
Stout and faithful. Sturla’s his name.
Climbing up, calling the others,
Eirik sets off, out of the plaza,
Down the hill. Dark are his thoughts,
As he rides east, hurrying home
Under Hekla, the hooded mountain,
Steaming and boiling.
                                    Sturla toils
Along the asphalt, eighty kilometers,
All that day. Dark is the sky
When Eirik and Sturla, outstripping the rest,
Reach the farm. The fire burns
Under the clouds. Clumps of ash
Fall around them. Furious and empty,
Eirik dismounts.
                            Without moving,
He stands a minute by Sturla’s flank
And the split wall. Waiting, he listens
To the strife inside. Soon he unlimbers
The precious gun, the Glock Nine,
Checks the slide, checks the recoil,
Stacks the clip with steel bullets.
Gusts of rain
                      Gather around him.
Thunder crashes. Then he begins.
A storm out of nothing strikes the gate.
Men die among the horses,
Shot in the head with hollow-points,
Shot in the mouth for maximum damage.
They shake their spears, scythes and axes,
Swords and brands.
                                 In the burning rooms,
Eirik kills them. By the cold stream,
The crumbling barns, he kills more.
Howling they turn in the hot cinders.
Clip empty, he cannot reload,
Seizes instead a skraeling axe.
They circle around him, certain of triumph,
Not for long.
                      Near the porch
Of his father’s hall, he finds their leader,
Pawel the Bull, a Polack giant.
Stripped to the waist, he stands his ground.
Sword in hand, he swears and bellows.
Tattooed and painted, he paws the mud.
Now he charges, cuts and falters,
Falls to his knees,
                              Face split,
Lies full-length. Lightning strikes
On Hekla’s side. Howling with rage,  
The skraelings escape, scatter in darkness.
Come too late, we can’t catch them,
Let them go. Gathering hoses,
We pump water, wet the timbers
In the rain.
                    Or we roam
Among the dead, drag them out
From the burned hall. Here they lie
On the wet ground, wives and children,
Old men. Naomi stands
Among the living, leans away,
Turns her face. Thomas is there,
Blood spilled,
                      Body broken,
With the others. Eirik lays him
By the fire. Fridmund Bjarnsson
Finds the gun, the Glock Nine
Buried in mud, by the stream.
“Here,” he says, holding it up.
“I was scared the skraelings took it.
Thank Jesus—“
                         There by the fire,
Eirik rebukes him. “Bullshit,” he says.
“Close your mouth.” He climbs the porch,
Raises his hands. Red are the doorposts,
The frame behind him, hot with sparks.
“God,” he repeats, “God be thanked.
You know Johan, for Jesus’ sake,
Took for his house
                              Hallgrimskirkja,
On the hill. He thought Jesus
Could sustain him, could preserve him,
Save his daughter—don’t you see?
I also, Eirik the African,
Sank my faith in something empty—
Thomas’s gun, the Glock Nine,
Chrome barreled,
                          Bone grip.
But look now. Neither Jesus
Nor my Glock is good enough.
The rich hide behind their walls
In Hvolsvollur. Who comes to help?
But I will hike to Hekla’s top,
Hurl my gun, heave it down
Into the steam,
                         And the steel bullets
After it. In the afternoon
I’ll wreck this wall, winch it apart.
Safety is good, grain in the fields,
Green-house vegetables; vengeance is better.
This I tell you: Time was,
We were happy, here in Iceland.
Cod in the sea,
                       Snow on the mountain,
Hot water in every house,
Cash in our pockets, planes and cars,
The world outside, waiting and close.
Old men remember, mumble and mutter—
That time’s gone, turned forever.
The pools are drained, dams breached,
Turbines wrecked,
                              Ruined engines
Starved for oil. The sea rises
Beyond Selfoss. You have seen
Thousands die, tens of thousands—
The mind rebels, breaks or bends.
Days ahead, the dim past,
Forward, back ward, both the same,
Wound together.
                           At the world’s end,
Jormungand, the great worm,
Holds his tail between his jaws.
Ragnarok rages around us
Here, tonight, now, forever,
Or long ago. Good friends,
Remember it: men and skraelings
Fought together
                         Ages past.
So—tomorrow we’ll march west
To Keflavik. Jacobus waits.
We’ll scour the coast, search for fighters,
Heroes to help us, guide us home.
Left behind, you’ll learn of us,
Tell our legend, teach the truth
Or invent it        
                     The old way.
Parse our lines upon the page:
Two beats, then pause.
Two more. Thumping heart,
Chopping axe, and again.
Not like the skraelings, with their long lines
Of clap-trap, closing rhymes—
Not for us.
                  No more.
Johanna’s alive. How I know,
I don’t know. Don’t ask.
But I swear I’ll bring her here,
Avenge this.” Then he’s silent,
Standing near the spitting fire,
Under Hekla, in the rain.
 

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