Vocabulary Landscape

Eva Heisler

I pass through an absence of the word "forest."

I pass through an absence of the word "green."

I pass through the word "absence."

I couldn't name what I was seeing, and so I couldn't see.

The first word was þúfur; it named the grassy hummocks that made walking difficult.

The second word was drangur; it identified the isolated pillar of rock rising from
a silver sea.

The sea broke beneath my third word, klettar.

One word found another;

I named a handful of features—
and a landscape emerged from grays on browns under blacks over her shoulder
                                                                                                    and scattered across ochre.

What I could not name remained obscure, and the landscape was the sepia blur
of a rain-soaked letter.

I remember pretending to read. I looked at a page, waited, turned the page,
looked at another page, waited,

turned the page.

I remember words as black marks that would not yield to my look. I don't remember that moment when the black marks disappeared and I learned to see words by not seeing letters.

I am reminded of this memory as I stand in the Icelandic landscape, turning my head, looking by pretending to look, seeing by pretending to see.

The fourth word was jökulá; it named the glacier river that fed my fifth word jökulsárlón, a lagoon with icebergs from a calving glacier. A single seal

swam among luminous blue chunks of ice. The quiet
was broken only by an occasional crack as ice shifted. The quiet

was not the absence of noise but frozen

I peered at the newspaper image of a glacier river soon
to be dammed for an aluminum smelter:

the river was an inky swathe.

I pressed at the vertical fold that bulged in the center of the two-page spread—

the landscape rubbed off on my fingers.

—among the rustle of turning pages was the sound of water.

The vocabulary landscape was divided among features I could pronounce and those
I could not.

Spoken words—the pronounceables—were wheeled. The spokes of a word disappeared as it spun, as the word rolled through a glacier-gouged valley, as it
steered toward beetling cliffs:

                                                                                                            I spoke the landscape.

The unpronounceables
lodged in my mouth,

inhospitable lodgers that blocked the view.

The Icelandic word for "map" is landsbref, translated literally as "land-letter."

The map is epistolary—a drawing in the form of a letter. Dear ____ ,
the address will be given on approach. Approach—

the horizon line like a strip of adhesive tape joining sea and sky. Approach—

the horizon line as crack in the mirror.

I came to the place of far, but when far is near,
distance is dream:

it is not possible to inhabit far.

The paved path follows Reykjavik's craggy south coast.

The sea is silver, sequined.

I breathe the sea.

I see a penguin-like bird on a boulder in the sea. Clearly artificial—metallic, smooth—it is a duplicate of the extinct great auk last sighted off this coast in 1844.
Out of reach in the cold sea, it is a beaked ghost.

Further down the path, briskly on the way to something larger than myself,
I see a beach and there, in the black sand, is a word.
It too faces the sea and I read the letters upside down: "n-á-t-t-ú-r-a."

The letters are concrete, deep in the ground like the foundation of a house.

The surprise of the word is a mirror most unlike the mirror of the sea.

The word is admonition.

The word is joke.

I am consumer of wind and sea.

Again I pass through the absence of the word "forest."

Again I pass through an absence of the word "green."

Again I pass through the word "absence."

The eleventh word was haf (sea) and the twelfth word was stein (stone).

Hafsteinn (sea stone); Eysteinn (island stone); Aðalsteinn (noble stone).

I go back to the path.

I find the metallic auk, but I can't locate the concrete letters.

My back to the sea, I kick at the sand. I search for the reprimand, hoping to find
the bottom of an "n" or the top of a "t" surfacing from its burial at high tide.