Three Poems

Agnar Artúvertin

The Protestant

From my first knowing, I knew
that I'd been born into the wrong country.
Mother, why couldn't you see it?

Where did this foreign sense come from
if not some strange country, frightening, yes,
but alluring also?

And the moontower through the open window —
after you had fallen asleep —
why did it grow, so enticingly grow?


Candles burn out. We act out
our dramas, empty bottles
of beer, sometimes do good
deeds — help the elderly
with street crossings —
but nothing ever changes.

Poem About the Body

The head isn't at issue here but the body: the body
which contains everything in its nerve and vein; the body
that swallows hell and earth wholly; the body
whose chemical lure tricks the mind into thinking; the body
which confounds the mazelogic of guinea pigs and rats; the body
where rests the roots of the poetic sublime; the body
of bodily experience from whence oozes all viscosities of the body —
semen, blood, bile, lymph, beauty too. It takes a body
conflating imagination and experience to make a body
of literature. So be grateful and worship the body.

translated from the Faroese by Matthew Landrum

Read the original in Faroese

Read translator’s note

Agnar Artúvertin is a writer, poet, publisher, and translator with seventeen publications to date. He lives and works in the Faroe Islands.

Matthew Landrum holds an MFA from Bennington College. His poems and translations have appeared in Beloit Poetry Journal, The Emerson Review, and The Potomac Review. He lives in Ann Arbor.

When I met with Agnar Artúvertin at the bar at Hotel Tórshavn, top on my list of questions to ask was why the reviews on his 2009 collection of poetry Jahve Kemur Aftur all allude to the scandal it created in the Faroese literary community. He pointed to the book's title. "It means the return of Jehovah," he said, "the Old Testament God of judgment." He went on to explain that he views his function as an author as speaking in judgment of society. His thin paperback deals explicitly with topics such as incest, homosexuality, premature ejaculation, and prostitution. But these themes explain only a part of the subversive and satirical nature of his poetry. Artúvertin masterfully exploits the political tensions present in Faroese, making his work shocking on the level of the individual word.

The Faroe Islands are a small group of volcanic islands, barely a map dot in the broad expanse of sea between Scotland and Iceland.  As a part of the Kongeriget Danmark, Danish was the language of religion, law, economics, and education for centuries. Though this changed with home rule in 1948, the language issue remains at the heart of politics. To differentiate Faroese from Danish and keep it from succumbing to a tide of techno loan words, an official language commission invents new Faroese words to replace foreign loans and prescribes proper vocabulary use for television, radio, and print. This has been only partially successful. Phrases such as vit smsa (we'll text each other) and googla (to google) abound in the speech of the younger, techsavy generation.

Artúvertin switches between the colonial Danish, mandated Faroese, and English slang. In his dedicatory poem, he uses the Danish loan word beskjúttari which means both protector and sharpshooter, the word containing both the magnanimous and oppressive side of Danish dominance. He also taps the religious vein of Faroese, often mimicking liturgical language as an writer in English might co-opt King James language. Other constructions like "mín scrotum" and "supermarknaði" are only grammatically Faroes. These simultaneously fly in the face of official language policy and reach into the actual speech of the younger Faroese.

A constant experimenter, Artúvertin pushes the boundaries of medium and form. His poem "An SMS" was composed on a cell phone and uses texting slang and abbreviations. It won first place in a SMS poetry contest. This novel use of form is juxtaposed against the traditional theme and haikulike compression. Its focus on the state of the youth generation is made stronger by the poems cultural connotations – SMS is the name of a popular shopping mall in Tórshavn.

But Artúvertin is more than a shock artist. He is a masterful writer and a tireless advocate of minority language and literature awareness. He serves on the board of Rithøvundafelag Føroya, the Faroese writers association and maintains strong ties with international writers. He is slated to appear at international literary festivals in India and Macedonia.

The paradox of Artúvertin's writing is that by flying in the face of official language policy, he exposes and expands the vibrancy of Faroese. He is also adding to the small body of modern Faroese literature available to the 50,000 speakers through his own writing and through translating canonical and contemporary world poets into Faroese.