I’ll be honest: I wouldn’t ordinarily look twice at a book of poetry. In fact, I don’t think I’ve intentionally read a poem since secondary school English lessons! But when this charming book arrived in the mail from British author Katie Metcalfe, two things peaked my interest.
Firstly, it’s one of the first books from Norwegian micropublishing house Nordland Publishing. As a professional writer and publisher (albeit of the digital variety), supporting small publishing ventures is high on my agenda. Secondly, most of the poetry is themed around the dark gritty side of Svalbard, somewhere that’s long been high on my bucket list.
So, I delved in…
The title, Dying is Forbidden in Longyearbyen, is based on fact. There’s no welfare payments in Longyearbyen: if you want to live there you have to work. If you fall ill, you will be airlifted to the hospital in Tromsø. If you die, you cannot be buried on Svalbard.
One of the poems with the same name as the book touches on this fact, while many of the rest expand on the darker, grittier side of life on the remote Arctic archipelago. This is no book for kids or for those with a nervous disposition, as the author explores topics as dark as a young girl’s family falling to the plague, and being buried alive by a bear.
“Since my childhood I have felt an extraordinarily strong attachment to the north, with its forested, mountainous landscapes, winter and death, occultism and all sorts of unsettling subjects,” says Metcalfe.
“I was the strange little girl in school, who always had a book of ghost stories hidden on her lap, while teachers talked about algebra, geometry and religion. I was the girl with the vivid imagination, who would hear long dead wolves singing mournful songs while out walking with friends over the desolate North Yorkshire Moors.”
If you’re still wondering if Dying is Forbidden in Longyearbyen is for you, the author has kindly let me publish an excerpt:
‘You should say goodbye to the children,’
the doctor tells me, his hand a damp weight
on top of mine.
‘I will make arrangements for your flight home,’
he says, scribbling with a fountain pen on a page
dense with words, that blur in and out of focus,
The scratching pen irritates my ears.
I clench my teeth until I hear something crack
and crumble at the back of my mouth.
but what does it matter now?
Photo credit: Torbjørn Taskjelle