By Paul Park
Tor.com, 17 April 2011
Reviewed by Francesca Forrest
This is a tour-de-force, an epic poem in Anglo-Saxon style, with Icelandic saga subject matter, set in a postapocalyptic future Iceland. It’s brilliant; it’s breathtaking; I wish my old Anglo-Saxon professor were alive to read it. It’s like the Battle of Maldon or Beowulf, but with a Glock Nine gun; it’s like Njal’s Saga, only the throne of the cruel enemy king is made of
Shards of glass,
Upturned cars, chunks of concrete
Like many a good epic, “Ragnarok” starts with the lineage of the hero, Eirik the African. He gets his epithet from his mother, Naomi, whom his father, Thomas, took
From famished Boston, far away.
Brave were her people, black-skinned,
Strong with spear, with shield courageous,
Eirik is born in a risen-ocean futureworld, during “the starving years,” well inland in
Hvolsvollur … [at]
A rich farm before the stream,
Safe and strong.
(For your edification, I’ve made this map, so you can see where the various Icelandic locales are, relative to one another. You can plot the hero’s journey.)
Eirik falls for Johanna, who is “slim and fair… a tall primrose.” Johanna turns down Naomi’s offer to host their wedding feast (and if you’re familiar with sagas, you’re hearing warning bells going off now), choosing instead to be married at Karsnes, close to her home.
Johanna is described at this point as “Snake-hearted, sick with pride,” which, while not without precident in sagas, makes her a rather dubious object of affection. Ah well, when you’re rapt with desire, you can overlook a little snake-heartedness. As it happens, Johanna doesn’t engineer the pivotal conflict but merely provides the occasion for it: the wedding makes it possible for Cruel Jacobus, the epic’s antagonist, to seek revenge for the murder of his brother at the hands of Eirik’s father. Cruel Jacobus asks,
Am I the last
To mourn my brother, mourn his murder?
The reckless weakling, Thomas Ragnisson,
Shot him down, shattered his skull
Outside the wall
With his Glock Nine.
See how Paul Park is maintaining alliteration and the midline caesura in all these quotes? It’s a delicious pleasure to read. He actually puts a description of this Anglo-Saxon style of poetry right into the poem, when Eirik says that future generations will “tell our legend, teach the truth” in the old poetic form:
“Two beats, then pause.
Two more. Thumping heart,
Chopping axe, and again.
But let’s get back to Cruel Jacobus. He carries out a slaughter and kidnapping at Hallgrimskirkja, a towering church (quite a magnificent sight in our present-day world; it’s like the child of the space shuttle and an immense pipe organ) that Johanna’s father has taken for his own hall, and then he sends his men to attack Eirik’s home at Hvolsvollur.
The descriptions of Eirik’s journey to Hallgrimskirkja and the carnage he finds there are powerful stuff, as is the highly charged scene in which Eirik questions a skraeling youth (“A teen-aged boy, bald already/Back bent, black-toothed”), who defies him:
Now you threaten me, though I’m helpless,
With your Glock Nine. Go on, shoot me.
Cunt-mouth, coward—I dare you.
Jesus loves me. Laughing, I tell you.
Fuck you forever.
Well, I won’t quote you more; you’ll have to visit the Tor website and read the rest of the poem and see how things work out for Eirik. Let me finish by saying that, as the skraeling teen’s quote suggests, this poem is more than just a Romeo + Juliet-style take on old sagas, with virtuoso poetry (though that alone would be impressive). It highlights tensions between the haves and the have-nots, and the skraeling boy’s condemnation of Johan, Johanna’s father, is pointful. Eirik’s final speech moves the poem from heroic exploits in the Beowulf mode to existential contemplation in the style of The Wanderer, as Eirik reflects on having sunk his faith “in something empty,” considers all that humanity has lost, and chooses a final course of action.