Environmental issues play a considerable part in the work of the Welsh poet and performer Susan Richardson. Alongside her own writing, Richardson runs Wild Writing and eco-poetry workshops and also broadcasts for Radio 4. In 2006 she embarked on an ambitious journey through Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland. Her travels in the Arctic and sub-Arctic, witnessing the impact of global warming, were to prove a dynamic influence on her work.
Richardson was teaching a course on 'Intrepid Women Travellers' at Cardiff University when she found a reference to a tenth/eleventh century female Viking called Gudrid which piqued her curiosity. Further research on Gudrid, (who appears in the Greenlanders Saga and the Saga of Eirik the Red) led to an ambitious proposal to follow her footsteps across the North, which received a Churchill Memorial Travel Fellowship. Richardson's experience generated Creatures of the Intertidal Zone, a series of poems that chart the landscapes and icescapes of these regions, and question the nature of 'wilderness' and where exploration segues into exploitation.
By sharing Gudrid's topography, "the environments which both formed and fortified her", Richardson developed a remarkable empathy for her character. She writes:
"I felt most awed, and most in touch with her, on the Snaefelsnes Peninsula in Iceland - a thin peninsula, a bit like an arthritic finger, jutting out from the west coast of the island into the North Atlantic. Gudrid was born there in a farm at the foot of the now-dormant Snaefelsjokull volcano, topped by a glacier, with plaits of lava trailing down its lower slopes, and with an extensive lava field at its base. I was shown an ancient track through the lava that a local academic/expert on Gudrid felt convinced she, too, would have used. The coast alongside the lava field is made up of eccentric basalt cliff formations – caves, pillars, arches, blowholes – and (in the summer) populated by millions of breeding sea birds. There was definitely a timeless feel to this landscape – when I walked there, it was hard to believe that a whole millennium separated me from Gudrid (even though, of course, I was wearing stout walking boots – for her, the terrain would have been way more challenging, dressed as she would have been in thin leather shoes and with a long woollen skirt constantly snagging on the jags of lava!).
"I had a similar experience in Newfoundland or, should I say, on the waters off the remote northwestern tip of Newfoundland, where I had the opportunity to sail on a replica Viking boat, view the land from the sea, as Gudrid would have done, and note some of the navigational landmarks which the Norse would have used when travelling to (what's believed to be) Vinland from Greenland. As we sailed along the coast, I imagined Gudrid huddled, night after cold cramped night, beneath one of her boat's half-decks, short of both food and fresh water, her skin raw with sores from wearing perpetually wet clothing. Once again, I was conscious of how easy my travels were in comparison, protected whenever I needed to be in my three-layer windproof, waterproof Goretex."
As well as these close encounters, Richardson knew that, with over a thousand years separating their journeys, some aspects of Gudrid's experience were destined to remain "blurred and imprecise". Much of Gudrid's life is a puzzle to academics, but Richardson, as a poet, found that the absence of "any definite 'truth' gave [her] the freedom to invent, speculate and fill in the gaps and absences in the poems [she] was writing."
Inevitably, Richardson's poetry is informed by the impact of climate change on the Arctic and sub-Arctic. She says, "Over the years, I’ve become a passionate believer in the potential of poetry to make a difference, to inspire shifts in perception and create new patterns of thought and experience. I feel committed to writing and promoting poetry with an environmental focus - ‘poetry for the planet’." Her enthusiasm has led her to team up with writer Siobhan Logan to form Polar Poets.
Richardson is currently working on Up There Where the Air is Rarefied, a collection of poems accompanied by prints by the artist Pat Gregory (due to be published by Cinnamon Press in 2011). This work examines the metaphorical significance of ‘the North’ - a concept which has a different resonance in different geographies and cultures. Richardson and Gregory have drawn on a wide range of sources including Inuit folk tales, Icelandic sagas and polar explorers’ narratives, as well as their own travels in northern regions. Both Richardson's publications are available from Cinnamon Press.
Susan Richardson has kindly allowed the poem sequence 'Gudrid the Rare' from Creatures of the Intertidal Zone to be quoted in full below. Copyright remains with the author.
GUDRID THE RARE
1. Arnarstapi, Iceland
I know the gasp this grass gives
when it’s first touched by snow.
On deep winter nights,
I hear the darkness breathing.
I know the sigh of these cliffs
when the guillemots leave after breeding.
I hear the cry of whales
when their meat is hung to dry
and the shriek of this sky
when fire streams from the mouth of the mountain.
I know each place where this rain’s absorbed by the sea,
as after my mother died
when Halldis and Orm
They call it the Green Land: it is not green.
Green has gone, along with my innocence.
Each day I replay the terrible scene
of our journey here – my foster parents
seized by the sea, waves snatching them away.
The wind still echoes their screams: I can sense
them everywhere. Faces glacial-grey,
they loom from the gloom of the fog which dwells
throughout this charmless land. I’m told to pray
to some new God, but I’m still drawn to spells.
I’m drawn to Thorstein too. He smiles and oh,
such a strange and perplexing feeling wells
up in me. Like the land I used to know,
I’m all surface ice - but fire burns below.
The sea which brought us here was calm,
our boat cupped like a gull’s egg in a child’s palm,
then set down in this nest of sedge and spruce
in this brand-new land
and the sun is a new sun,
stronger than the sun we knew,
bold as the taste of a crowberry
and Karlsefni loves me in a new way
his words soft as skyr,
his sperm like buttermilk
and we have a new son,
There is no need for spells in this new place
where I smell no ghosts,
no need to pray.
Yet still, for my son, I stay on guard
like an arctic tern at Arnarstapi.
I’m ready to dive to fend off threats
and - should it invade this new land -
to peck out the eyes
Here, it’s easy to believe –
and in an honest merchant-God
who trades kind skies for virtuous deeds,
as we gained bright cloth and gold
the year we sailed for home
with our cargo of sagas from Vinland.
Here, my head’s free of doubts,
sharp chunks of black lava.
But there, dwells a God who’s mad as the sea,
who can take from me husbands,
who makes each bush feel pain
at the birth of every berry.
I will mount the horse of my belief
and ride it there
over boggy ground
5. Nun’s cell, Iceland
My mind, at this time, creaks like the ice
on mighty Snaefellsjökull;
like the longboats on which I sailed
to the Green Land, Vinland, Norway, Rome –
My limbs have stiffened,
like Arnarstapi’s cliffs,
into basalt pillars.
Only my soul is supple.
It has opened,
as the land has split at Thingvellir,