When I say I have come to find darkness,
I realize I mean aloneness
Excerpts from Iceland, February, 2018
The cabin is small enough I can hear Nolan, the Irish composer, working next door, so when my back is pressed against the wood and I am reading, I can hear him clicking his pencil in rhythm with the song he is trying to write, humming notes to himself. It does not sound like music, although I know that it is, or will be, one day.
The day I leave New York, the sky is milky white. When the plane lands, there is nothing out the window-- no lights, no sparkling city, just black frozen ice. It’s impossible to see the horizon. “Thank you for your blessed company” the pilot says, squinting at us. There is an enormous moon above the bus stop, but no people on the streets. It is so quiet, and I am not afraid.
I make it to the small village in Iceland. The people who live here are ruddy-cheeked and friendly and wear grown-up sized snow-onesies. They watch me as I walk by, because I am a new face, and most of the faces are known here.
I came here to be in darkness but in truth, it is not dark most of the time. Instead, everything glimmers, sunset and sunrise lasting for hours. I find this ironic, considering my proposal is to live and work in the dark. What I am realizing is maybe I’ve come here instead to watch the light more closely. Everyday, when the sun finally rises at noon, it seems a miracle, uncanny, unreal.
When I say I have come to find darkness, I realize I mean aloneness. I realize I have come to be alone. To face the loneliness. Because there is fear there. I am afraid when I am hiking alone in the woods. I rush up the mountain with images of myself knee-deep in snow, frozen, eyelashes clinging with frost. Of nobody finding me because there is hardly anyone here. I have always been this way, most afraid of the things I can’t see: the mechanics of the whirring plane, the outstretched days, months, years. I rush to avoid the fear. Because who knows what will happen? Which is maybe why I have come here. Here, there is nothing to reflect all that I cannot see back at me. There is just me and the small mountain and sometimes Nolan when we cross paths in the cabin kitchen.
When I am afraid, there is no one to say “I am afraid” to.
What I thought would be darkness is just a soft gloaming : the darkness only exists around the edges, a soft pink hovering. I stumble upon a German hiker in the woods who does not seem afraid of anything, not frostbite or bears and especially not loneliness. She is sturdy in her boots, walking the territory. The sky is all shades of inky blue, the snow so white, and I hike into the woods behind her, grateful to have not made the first footprints. You must accept your aloneness, she tells me, you must decide to be faithful to it.
I think I have accepted my aloneness, but only for hours at a time.. I talk out loud to the lake in the morning. The way the crystals hover over the surface, the way the water is different every day. The funny looking plants, like something out of Dr. Seuss, are covered in crystals, too. I talk to them like a crazy person. I say, I love you. To myself, I say, I am sorry.
Alone, in the woods, the memories come quick and hard and I cannot turn away from them. I cannot push them back with the city’s slick noise, the crowds and smog, the streetlights reflecting into my bedroom. Here, there is only a small lamp and myself.
Which means I start remembering a particular person I was in love with, once. We lived together for a month, pretending to be adults. We smoked clove cigarettes on a hill, we snuck into fenced parks to watch sunrises and trains pulling out of their station, we drank too much coffee in bookstores. On the top floor of an apartment building, he played me guitar as clouds skated across an ice blue sky. I think of him now because he spoke about light often. In bed in the dark, he would hold his hand up and claim that its outline glimmered brightly. As hard as I tried, I could never see what he saw.
The thing about memories is sometimes, there is no point to the remembering of them except pain, which sometimes feels like a rerun of joy, except the characters have changed.
The director of the artist residency invites me to mid-winter festival of darkness, Þorrablót. The town’s gym is covered in sparkly lights and there are families from all over the valley reuniting. Everyone knows each other, so it seems, holding large cans of beer, kissing, hugging. When I enter the gym, I am handed a toothpick of fermented shark, and a shot glass of brennivin. The fish tastes like ammonia, the brennivin like cumin. The band begins to play (the keyboardist has studied in New York and I know this because the town won’t stop mentioning it). When the dancing begins, I feel known here, even though I am not. It feels like a Bar Mitzvah, the women in the center of the gym, the men on the outside. We spin faster and faster until the music stops and we face our partner. I dance with a ninety year old man who holds my waist and grins. I grin back because no man has touched me so carefully in a while.
In the morning, I open Instagram. I watch for the appearance of tiny icons meaning someone has watched my “story.” I don’t know what story I am trying to tell. Don’t we all want someone to tell us we are beautiful, that we are worthy of being watched? I feel a quiet panic rising. Back on the mountain, I hear my zipper clicking against my jacket, and I am startled by my own presence: a black dot in a backdrop of mountains and blank sky. So much stark cold. I do stupid things inside my cabin to distract myself, like turn the internet on and watch the music video for “Down in the DM,” which suddenly becomes the most brilliant music video in the whole world.
And then, the Northern Lights. I have made up a lot of bullshit about why I have come to Iceland but maybe it comes down to this. It’s freezing, and I can only stand to be outside for a few brief moments at time, but it feels like every moment before now has led up to this, this getting here. The giddiness of looking upwards and seeing that shimmering unfolding, an alien glow illuminating the mountain’s edge. I can’t go back to sleep even though it is too cold to stand outside, and how could I, knowing they are unfolding around me, fireworks gone loopy, loose around the edges, unconfined. How could I sit inside after traveling for ages to see something so miraculous, so utterly impossible? I wait until midnight, walk the field even though I can’t feel my feet. The stars are so bright, and I am a little kid again, endlessly full of a life that feels everywhere and unfocused in the best of ways. I am busted open with awe and heartache and a sick awareness of the moment going by even as I am living it.
I catch myself in the warped aluminum bathroom mirror, coming in from the cold. My cheeks are flushed red, my eyes watering. It is so quiet here, but I could have sworn those moving lights made a sound.
I write only one thing down that night, hands shaking from the cold, a quote from Galway Kinnell:
Sometimes it is necessary to reteach a thing its loveliness.
Sometimes it is necessary to reteach a thing its darkness, its aloneness, its light.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Raisa Imogen was born in Portland, OR and grew up in Chicago. She earned a BA from Bowdoin College, where she was the recipient of the American Academy of Poets Prize. In 2016, she studied Italian literature with a concentration on Dante’s Inferno at the University of Bologna. Her poetry and essays can be found at Muzzle Magazine, The Kenyon Review, and at www.raisaimogen.net. In 2018, she was a resident at Gullkistan artist residency in Laugarvatn, Iceland. When Raisa is not editing or writing, she’s herbal-crafting at the Brooklyn Herborium, boxing, and dancing like a weirdo on her roof. The founding editor-in-chief of SIREN, Raisa currently lives in New York.