Why did they make me swallow this mead muck?
My lord, alive, would barely let me drink.
They wouldn’t treat his wife this way, I think.
Now all I am is something they can fuck.
They say this way they’re sharing in their lord,
Behaving as he did with me, his slave.
And now they launch his boat upon the wave,
The dragon boat with him and me aboard.
Just me, his horse, his sword… the boat’s been fired;
An honour, just for me, not for his wife;
So with him I will end this stage of life
And go with him to Asgard… I’m so tired,
Couldn’t move even if I wasn’t tied.
They told his wife he loved her too. They lied.
This sonnet was published in the Rat’s Ass Review, Summer 2020 issue. The image of the burning longship funeral, complete with much-used female slave, goes back to the writings of Ahmad ibn Fadlan. In 922 he was sent as part of an embassy from the Caliph of Baghdad to the king of the Volga Bulgars, and ibn Fadlan wrote several pages on the Vikings who had settled along the Russian river Volga. (The very word Russia comes from “Rus”, Vikings from southern Sweden.)
Unfortunately for the burning ship image we love, the Viking chief’s boat was burnt on the shore of the river–at least in ibn Fadlan’s account. That allowed ship, chief and slave to be entombed. But it’s still a great image. Perhaps in other times and places…
This poem was originally published in Snakeskin in March 2019. I wrote it for a variety reasons. I’ve often thought that when the Norse settlement of Greenland ended around 1450, not all of the settlers would have either died or sailed back toward Scandinavia… why not explore further in North America and look for somewhere pleasant?
VIKING SAILS SOUTH
Tired of ‘Greenland’ and its icy coast, a band of us sailed south to Leif’s old place, discussed old legends (drinking many a toast) of Norman settlements in Spain and Thrace. So why not us as well? Let the old stay in frost-filled farms, friendly, familiar. Go south! Long nights to lengthening days give way until it seems like Equinox all year. Bring our old gods, have garlands round them hung – wind in soft pines like loneliness of girls – where just to taste the water makes you young – pink conch shells on pink sand yield up pink pearls – we saw Njord, sea god, sleeping from our railings. Brown women smile. Our children will be skraelings.
My own family history supports this possibility of Vikings being attracted to the Caribbean: my great-great-uncle was a (very reactionary) Governor of the Danish West Indies; my grandfather was a (very liberal) Lutheran minister there; so my father was raised on St. Croix for ten years until it was sold to the US in 1917 – he was sent “home” to Denmark but returned to settle in the Bahamas for the last 22 years of his life; and though I have kept my connection to Denmark, and lived there for five years, the Bahamas is my home. Some Scandinavians are perfectly happy in the islands!
About the use of form in this poem: it is a standard Shakespearean sonnet: 14 lines (sonnet) of iambic pentameter (standard), rhyming abab cdcd efef gg (Shakespearean). However, it doesn’t have a strong volta, or turn in the argument, which is normally considered a requirement for a sonnet – you set the argument up first, and after the volta you demolish and replace it, or give it a good twist. The best that can be said for this sonnet is that the last two lines provide a resolution to the argument. Regardless, the sonnet length and structure allows a full exposition of an idea, while requiring brevity and compression. It can be very satisfying to produce.