White Land (Hvritanannaland)
“a land promised to the saints, west across the sea which knows neither death nor decay, only simple joys going perpetually on without care.” Navigatio Santi Brendani Abatis, Ninth Century
1. The Monks
Beyond Greenland they found a vast listening post
where prayers passed up to heaven
through clear air, souls rose like smoke.
Irish monks fled the dragon ships,
hunkered down in the Faroes. Uprooted,
chased to the sea, they scaled Iceland’s cliffs.
The Norsemen followed, dragging
their noisy cows, set out farms and fish nets.
No place for a monk.
The white-robed monks parade for warmth.
To lift their spirits they shout prayers
in God’s huge ears, raise lurid banners in a freezing wind.
Alone at last, the only sounds their voices,
they scream at heaven, sing in praise
and benediction of God’s chill wilderness.
Imagine in mid-stride, in a shrieking ave,
a priest turns to see flashing oars,
striped wool sails, red and blue
against a tossing sea, a curved dragon
taunting him from the bow,
like the devil himself.
2. The Vikings
It was not for gold they went,
but for the taste of grapes,
the smell of fresh cut wood.
In Vinland they found wild wheat,
grapevines, fields of fine tall grass.
All left behind.
By now the skraelings
have taken the birch palisades
the settlement stones.
So many of them—
with their catapults,
thongs of hide and flint.
Wave after wave of them.
They stung like hornets
and were gone.
Thorfinn Karlsefni lashes the ship’s side-rudder,
watches the sails fill with an off-shore wind.
Soon Greenland will loom with its lichen and birds.
The women unroll pallets on the deck,
murmur as they settle to rest,
watch the sky for Arctic puffin.
They have heard of land nearby
where men in white robes carry poles
with bright cloth, cry out to an empty sky.
But their ship turns homeward in the waves
leaving the Irish to mutter and sing,
to their devotions under an alien glacier,
to their bleak paradise.
SIGRUN SUSAN LANE is a Seattle poet of Icelandic descent. Her poems have appeared in national and regional publications, most notably Albatross, Crab Creek Review, Malahat Review, Mom Egg, Rain City Review, Seattle Review, Sing Heavenly Muse, Spindrift, The Journal of the American Medical Association, Melusene, Pontoon, Ekphrasis, Still Crazy and others. She received awards for poetry from the Seattle and King County Arts Commissions.