AN ANTHOLOGY OF THOUGHT & EMOTION... Un'antologia di pensieri & emozioni

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Eccentric Islands: Travels Real and Imaginary by Bill Holm

Call me island. Or call me Holm. Same thing. It’s one way to start, though like so many other human starts—or human books—it’s not original. We stand on the shoulders of our ancestors no matter how many machines we invent. Only our memory and our metaphors carry us forward, not our money, not our gadgets, not our opinions.—from Eccentric Islands, 2000

In his book of essays, Eccentric Islands: Travels Real and Imaginary, Bill Holm, often called “the bard of the Midwest,” takes readers on an excursion to islands both real and symbolic. He journeys to five physical islands: Iceland, Madagascar, Molokai, Isla Mujeres, and Mallard Island. And he travels to conceptual islands, including the Necessary Island of the Imagination, the whimsical Piano Island (located in a man-made lake under the atrium of an upscale hotel in the far interior of China), and the acute isolation of the Island of Pain. Writing with the mind-set of a 19th-century traveler for whom the journey is as important as the destination, Holm appeals to the traveler and the philosopher in everyone.

Island is both thing and metaphor

"Island is both thing and metaphor. Without the weight of things, metaphors turn vapid, sour, empty, fly off into space and connect with nothing.... Islands are good to think on if a man would express himself neatly." Poet and essayist Holm (Coming Home Crazy; The Heart Can Be Filled Anywhere on Earth) offers an eloquent meditation on beauty, genius and isolation. From the metaphorical islands of pain (both physical and spiritual: "You are not a human being. You are not you. You are pain. You have been islanded") and the piano ("the piano, though a public instrument, is, for those who love it, a private world") to rock-solid islands like Molokai in Hawaii, Holm's ability to link the specific and the broad is both beautiful and wise ("We have always needed lepers. Someone has to be unclean. Leprosy, or AIDS, becomes thus, not a disease, but a profession, even a vocation in the religious sense"). The author, whose surname, appropriately, means "island" in Icelandic, also makes two journeys, one in 1979 and another in 1999, to the homeland of his forefathers, where he celebrates the Icelanders' resilience and language. Like a modern-day Thoreau, Holm convincingly "downsiz[es] the universe in order to get a better look at it." These essays are replete with pith and humor; for all his observations, Holm's willingness to poke fun at himself will reassure thoughtful readers that he is both as ordinary and extraordinary as they are.

Call Me Island

Holm leaps into his topic with an essay titled "Call Me Island," in which he expounds on his central topic. Holm says "The idea of this book will be that islands are necessary for us to be able to think about what is true at the bottom of our own character; we need to reduce the world for a while to count it and understand it."

Holm takes readers to Isla Mujeres (Island of Women), a tiny island off Cancun, Mexico and a sharp (and, for Holm, preferred) contrast to the glitzier tourist resort. Isla Mujeres is a destination for tourists as well, but with it's own character and pace. Here one can visit the (gentle, mock) bullfight, explore the beach or walk from one end of the island to the other. In a tongue-in-cheek attempt to keep this little bit of paradise to himself, Holm tells the read "You would not like it."

Another island in the book is also one near a tourist resort: the island of Moloka'i, site of the leper colony where Father Damien devoted himself to the care of the lepers forcibly confined there until he, too, succumbed to the disease. Here, the vivid descriptions of the bleak and rather inhospitable island provide a backdrop to the story of a heroic man and a blistering portrait of the smug and self-satisfied society he quietly defied.

Holm visits Iceland twice, the visits 20 years apart in 1979 and 1999, and his love for this rocky sparse island shines through his descriptions. He conveys well a sense of being foreigner and at the same time that of coming home. His trip to steamy and equally rugged Madagascar is a brilliant contrast to his essays on Iceland.

The metaphorical islands he describes are the islands of pain, imagination and the piano. The last is based on an actual piano on an island in a Chinese hotel lobby, but extends to his own experiences with playing the piano -- an instrument that isolates the player yet demands an audience.

My favorite essay is about tiny Mallard Island, in Rainy Lake in Northern Minnesota. Here an eccentric lived for years among his books and research papers in the various small houses he built around the island; Holm goes on retreat there, away from the noise and electronic buzz of "civilization."

Holm's wit, brilliant and clear images and lucid narrative, interspersed with prose poems sometimes painfully lovely, combine into a thoughtful and thought-provoking book. Certainly, it will inspire some readers to look for their own islands, real or imaginary.

If you like essays that reach beyond the usual, give Eccentric Islands by Bill Holm a try.

As a withdrawn and bookish child, Holm had to make his own island of a patch of grass under a rare prairie tree; as a more outgoing adult, he has traveled to many islands, several of which—Madagascar, Molokai, and Iceland among them—he profiles in this tightly knit collection of travel essays. “Islands are necessary,” the author declares, “for us to be able to think about what is true at the bottom of our own character; we need to reduce the world for a while to count it and understand it.” One thing that is true, Holm insists (gainsaying John Donne), is that we are all, in fact, islands—a sentiment that he reinforces with a lonely memoir of a sojourn in the landlocked Chinese city of Wuhan, where he confronted the profound sense of exile that can unmoor the most intrepid traveler. “When you find yourself islanded, ‘retrospect’ is the cruelest non sequitur of all,” he writes of such moments. “Avoid it.” Mostly Holm is upbeat, however, and he celebrates the very real pleasures of spending time on little pockets of the world that are at a far remove from any other place. That does not mean, he adds, that islands, however remote, do not change. His beloved Iceland, on which he’d spent time as a teacher in the 1970s, was once a forgotten backwater; but on a return trip in 1999 he discovers that it has become a vibrant and utterly modern place that seems in many respects not so different from Copenhagen or Minneapolis. And, whereas Madagascar was once a lost world primeval, he notes that it has now been logged and farmed to splinters and clods.

Holm mixes keen you-are-there observations with profound bits of homespun philosophising, and never once does he sound a false note. The result is a pleasure for islomanes, and for anyone who appreciates good writing.

Bill Holm Poems from
Chain Letter of the Soul

By Bill Holm
Copyright © 2009

New Religion

This morning no sound but the loud
breathing of the sea. Suppose that under
all that salt water lived the god
that humans have spent ten thousand years
trawling the heavens for.
We caught the wrong metaphor.
Real space is wet and underneath,
the church of shark and whale and cod.
The noise of those vast lungs
exhaling: the plain chanting of monkfish choirs.
Heaven’s not up but down, and hell
is to evaporate in air. Salvation,
to drown and breathe
forever with the sea.

Go stand by the fence.
Keep quiet. The horses will come –
thirty, forty of them,
however many live and dine there.
They will put their long, narrow noses
one or two at a time
over the fence to nuzzle you,
maybe nibble on your shirt
or suck your finger.
They are watching you
with full attention.
You look curious to them:
docile and harmless.
They want to touch you, pet you,
see what skin feels like.
Don’t disappoint them.


Entering a tunnel the first time
you operate on pure faith
that there’s another side.
Maybe the sign was just fooling…
Maybe it’s a trap. Maybe
that light is only a trick after which
the road falls a thousand feet
straight down into the sea.
Notice even rational humans,
like you, for instance, always breathe
a little easier after the road
continues through the mountain
uneventful, down the cliffside
toward what looks from here
like civilization, and maybe it is.