Are there Copper Pipes in Heaven // Eru Koparrør Í Himmiríki (book excerpt)

Katrin Ottarsdóttir is a pioneering Faroese filmmaker and writer. Her book Are there Copper Pipes in Heaven (Eru Koparrør Í Himmiríki), translated from the Faroese by Matthew Landrum, is forthcoming February 15, 2020, and available now for pre-order. Covering domestic abuse, drug use, coming of age, and mental health, it is the first book of confessional poetry in the Faroese literary tradition.

For each of the poems below, the original Faroese follows the English translation.

  • Moon // Máni
  • Sun // Sól
  • The Suicide // Sjálvmorðið
  • Nevermind // Líkamikið
  • Are there Copper Pipes in Heaven // Eru Koparrør Í Himmiríki

Translator’s Preface

“I do not know that she should have written it.”

It was 2016 and I was in The Faroe Islands working on a translation grant for Katrin Ottarsdóttir’s book Are there Copper Pipes in Heaven. I would often hear some iteration of that sentiment when I mentioned my project.

Ottarsdóttir’s debut collection breaks ground in Faroese literature. It is the first book of confessional poetry in Faroese and it’s difficult material—domestic abuse, drug abuse, mental illness, and coming of age in a conservative culture—breaks social mores in this close-knit society.

With a capital of 21,000 and a total population on the archipelago that just broke 50,000, the Faroe Islands are essentially a small town. Everyone is related within a few degrees. Privacy is closely guarded. Emotions are kept in check. Though global trends are bringing a greater expressiveness to Faroese language, it’s still high praise to be told “that’s not so bad.”

Still_from_LUDO-a-Faroese-film-by-Katrin-Ottarsdottir_Hildigunn-finger_300dpi 400w
Scene from Ludo

As an award winning writer and the pre-eminent Faroese filmmaker—her films Atlantic Rhapsody and Bye Bye Bluebird are foundational to Faroese filmmaking—her influence is far-reaching. And her treatment of the subject matter is thorough. If people didn’t read the book, there’s also a movie. The book’s material is re-explored in her 2014 film Ludo with Ottarsdóttir’s daughter playing her mother. There was even an interactive art installation at the Norðurlandahúsið in 2012. Exhibit goers would move from room to room hearing shouting voices from other rooms. “That was too much for me,” one friend said of it.

Another, speaking of the book, told me, “My parents knew her parents and they saw the situation differently.”

I shared these responses with Katrin at a Copenhagen cafe a few years later. She nodded. “My father was a beloved educator and respected in town.” She explained that the public face of the family was very different from what went on behind the walls of the family’s house.

The book presents a narrow world where cycles of abuse and appeasement play out between mother, father, and child. The focus on this family of three (the father, the mother, and the child)—what Ottarsdóttir calls “the trinity”—is nearly exclusive. The only other figures in the book are a group of prostitutes, drug-pushing doctors, Neil Armstrong, the disembodied voice of Leonard Cohen, a dog, and a bunch of anthropomorphic rhubarb. It is the only Faroese book I know of that does not mention the sea.

Ottarsdóttir’s tumultuous trinity of mother, father, and child is the central organizing motif of the book. Each has its own niche which extends even to the book’s grammar. Faroese, like other Scandinavian languages, is gendered. A boat is female, the gallbladder is neuter, snow is masculine and Faroese speakers use pronouns for each noun accordingly. This is simple enough with the father—he—and the mother—she. But in Faroese, child is a neuter noun with the corresponding pronoun it. Early on in the project, I defaulted to English habits and translated the child’s pronouns she/her/hers. But when I sent my initial draft to Ottarsdóttir, she wrote back that only the mother could be referred to as she—a pronoun for each godhead of the trinity. So what to do? Calling a preteen girl “it” in English is unthinkable. It conjured up my childhood and my older sister’s bookshelf with its copy of the 1995 bestseller A Child Called It. That wouldn’t do. After some discussion and casting about, I decided to lean into new pronoun usages in English, specifically for the singular use of “they” which, to me, best conveys the non-gendered connotation of the Faroese “tað” without the dehumanizing qualities of the English “it.”

The book’s opening poem captures a brief moment of calm. The father is tending his backyard garden. Here he is the master of his domain, tending and pruning, plucking and protecting. Everything he touches grows. He matters; he is self-contained. The poem ends with him heading back into the house where a storm is brewing. Here, his confidence and competence is stripped away. He is at the whim of a mentally unstable spouse, vacillating between frenetic appeasement and dejected isolation. He enters into asymmetric power games, allowed to flirt with workers in the red light district in Copenhagen until being yanked back to reality by his wife’s mood. He cooks her favorite dessert in hopes of making her happy only to have his hopes dashed by her complaints about the mess in the kitchen. She mentally and physically abuses him, even going so far as attacking him with kitchen knives. He sometimes responds physically but most often retreats to the narrow basement. The title poem, “Are there Copper Pipes in Heaven,” depicts him trapped in the basement as his wife goes around the house turning on every faucet and flushing the toilets so the sharp rush of water through the plumbing will torment him and ensure he doesn’t get a moment’s rest.

Imperious and completely unpredictable, the mother’s mood reigns over the household. There’s no telling what will set off a crisis. A look or glance could be misinterpreted. Her husband stewing rhubarb for her as a special treat will be met with joy one time and rage the next. She threatens suicide and self-medicates. Three poems called “The Suicide” punctuate the book, relating the constant spector of suicide haunting the child, lurking in every corner, and controlling everything. She keeps a spotless house with chic decor, all signs of struggle and domestic life carefully straightened and dusted away. But her vision for perfection is continually marred by her instability and by her husband and child. The child, unwanted and unwelcome, in particular doesn’t fit into her life. She resents the child, thinking her husband loves them more than her. She needs and despises her husband, pitching and yawing between vitriol and sexual want, uncontrolled rage and playing house.

Raised in the tidal rhythms of the house, the child becomes caretaker and mediator. They are always playing the middle trying to maintain the shaky peace of the household and make sure their mother doesn’t follow through on her many threats of suicide. They make themselves as small as possible and tiptoe through the house, seeing violent abuse and violent makeup sex, all the while neglected, an afterthought. They are a sort of Greek chorus, witness to a tragedy, profoundly affected but powerless to change the situation. The child is a pest to the mother and, though loved, an afterthought to the father in his own struggle to cope.

But children do not stay children. In the first poems, there is only a ghostly presence of a child playing hide and seek in the house, forgotten, alone, and afraid. Time passes and the child begins to ask why and try to mediate the tensions of the house. Neil Armstrong walks on the moon. The family moves house. The child discovers Leonard Cohen. Their period starts. The narrative arc moves toward adulthood but age doesn’t bring freedom. Ottarsdóttir imagines that not even death can free us from fraught relationships. She images the dead “waiting for a chance to tell you / what a fucker you are / how fucking useless you’ve always been.” Home is something you carry with you, even to the afterlife.

from Katrin Ottarsdóttir bye bye bluebird 2 400w
Scene from Bye Bye Bluebird

Ottarsdóttir’s 1999 film Bye Bye Bluebird, a classic of Faroese cinematography, tells the story of two punk rock women returning to Tórshavn after living in mainland Europe. Their homecoming leads to tensions and conflicts with the sleepy conservatism of 1990’s Faroese culture that doesn’t know what to do with their dramatic hairstyles, dark makeup, and grunge attitudes. I see this book as analogous to that narrative. Ottarsdóttir, who lives in Copenhagen, returned to the material of childhood and home, writing a book that pushes against prevailing privacy norms.

But there is another analogy I prefer for this book. 55 million years ago, a fault opened between the Eurasian and North American plates. A violent upheaval of volcanism followed, creating the Faroe Islands. From upheaval, comes creation. It is precisely at such points of tension and unrest, volcanic as they sometimes are—that great art is born. Are there Copper Pipes in Heaven is a product of fault lines, both personal and culture, the surface pulled apart to make new ground, raw, difficult, and beautiful.


Moon

when the americans put neil armstrong on the moon
and showed their supremacy over the earth
a moving van in the east of the city was dropped in gear
and driven west across town

in the front seat
he and
the child
the mover and the radio

the proud american voice delivered the message
just then they were part of a united world
that just participated in this strange event together
as it happened
the exact moment it happened

smiles heated their faces
they enjoyed a devil-may-care feeling of future courage
just then
just there
in the front seat of a van that reeked of gasoline
their very own spacecraft

perhaps everything would be all right anyway
perhaps
perhaps everything would be possible
a new beginning
and the americans would lead the way

a physical impossibility had become reality
now
now things would also be possible for them
he could feel it
now
now they would also create a new life for themselves
a right life

the three of them
he and she
and
the child

he had to think like that

the child knew better
a knowledge that was
like hunger
like thirst
like fear
like
like a part of being a part of the same nervous system
for nine months

a knowledge developed and tuned over the whole
of the child’s brief lifetime

the child just laughed with him
into him
against him
allowed him this moment of sheer foolish bliss

west of all borders the grand house waited for them
him and her
and the child

the nights brought sickness
gushing blood and pain showed him and the child
that in their little world she wielded power
beyond all reasonable limits to keep away the demons
that lived in the world around them
in him
in the child

never
in her

sometimes the world hooked itself onto them
followed the child and him idiotically laughing
home to the locked doors

the outside world didn’t stick
and wiped off
on the mats
before they were allowed to cross threshold
just them
he
and the child
all-encompassing floormats at every threshold
everywhere

only the afterbirth of their numb connection to the outside world
was ever visible on them
and those traces faded gradually
then completely

when the americans landed on the moon the second time
her supremacy was complete
in the grand house that remained new for all eternity

the news of a second american triumph
escaped him
and the child
insignificant whispering of a world
that was never truly theirs
to own and love

there in the house
the moon was just the moon again

Máni

tá amerikanarar settu neil armstrong á mánan
vístu sín einaveldisrætt á jørðini
setti ein flytibilur í eysturbýnum í fyrsta gir
og koyrdi vestur um býin

í stýrhúsinum
hann og
barnið
flytimaðurin og útvarpið

sigurstolta amerikanska røddin bar boðini
beint tá vóru tey partur av eini heimsumfatandi fylking
sum var saman um løgnu hendingina
meðan hon hendi
beint tá hon hendi

smílini hitaðu andlitini
tey loyvdu sær eina kenslu av framtíðaráræði og fanansaktigheit
beint tá
beint har
á forsetrinum í bensinstinkandi flytibilinum
teirra heilt egna rúmdarfar

kanska fór alt at laga seg álíkavæl
kanska
kanska fór alt at bera til
ein nýggj byrjan
og amerikanarar vístu vegin

ein fysiskur ómøguleiki var blivin veruleiki

nú fór eisini at bera til hjá teimum
hann kendi tað á sær

nú fóru tey at skapa sær eina nýggja tilveru
rætta tilveru

tey trý
hann og hon
og
barnið

hann mátti hugsa so

barnið visti betur
ein vitan ið var
sum svongd
sum tosti
sum angist
sum
sum var ein partur av at vera ein partur av somu nervaskipan
í níggju mánaðir

ein vitan ið var ment og fínpussað alt tað stutta lívið
sum barnið kendi
barnið flenti bara við honum
í honum
móti honum
unti honum hesa løtuna í berari býttari eydnu

stásiligu húsini vestan fyri øll mørk bíðaðu bara eftir teimum
honum og henni
og barninum

náttin bar sjúkurnar í sær
fossandi blóð og pína vístu honum og barninum
at í teirra lítlu verð hevði hon einaveldisrættin
at brúka út um øll mørk fyri at halda demonunum burturi
sum búðu í verðini rundan um tey
í honum
í barninum

aldrin
í henni

av og á krøkti verðin seg upp í tey
fylgdi býtt flennandi við honum og barninum
heim til stongdu hurðarnar

verðin var ikki nóg treisk
bleiv turkað so dyggiliga av teimum
undan teimum
á mottunum
áðrenn tey sluppu inn um gáttirnar
bara tey
hann
og barnið

altumfevnandi mottur við hvørja gátt
allastaðni
bara eftirburður av teirra lofnaða sambandi við verðina uttanfyri
sást nakrantíð á teimum
tey sporini kámaðust so við og við burtur
heilt burtur

tá amerikanarar settu seg á mánan aðru ferð
var hennara einaveldisrættur vorðin fullkomin
í stóru húsunum sum vórðu verandi nýggj í allar ævir

tíðindini um enn eina amerikanska stórhending
fóru framvið honum
og barninum
óviðkomandi tutl frá eini verð
ið aldrin rættiliga hevði verið teirra
at eiga og elska

mánin var aftur bara máni
har í húsunum


Sun

the sun is banned from some houses
blackout curtains and blinds do their duty
like small angry servants of our lord
who darken each and every one pretending to live a normal life
in houses without sunbeams
NASA could not do better in its attempts
to keep away damaging rays from the heavens

in some houses they stuff themselves with vitamins instead
listening to the news from dawn to dusk
from sunrise to sunset when the spirit is upon them
hearing about famine
drought
bombs
war
every imaginable catastrophe
and count their blessings to live in a country
too innocent to deserve such misfortunes

it’s so much easier
to bear one’s own little misfortune
in a darkened house
even though the child is afraid of the dark
and doesn’t understand it’s the world
that’s to blame

Sól

sólin er bannað í summum húsum
svartar rullugardinur og persiennur gera sína skyldu
sum smáir illsintir tænastumenn fyri várharra
myrkaleggja alt og øll sum látast at liva eitt vanligt lív
í húsum við ongum sólargeislum
NASA kundi ikki gjørt tað betur í sínum royndum
at halda skaðiligar geislar burturi úr himmalhválvinum

í summum húsum fylla tey seg við vitaminum í staðin
lurta eftir pressuni frá morgni til myrkurs
allan sólarringin á tamb tá andin er yvir teimum
hoyra um hungursneyð
turk
bumbumenn
bardagar
allar hugsandi vanlukkur
prísa seg lukkulig yvir at liva í einum landi
ið ikki hevur uppiborið slíkar vanlagnur
tá er tað so nógv lættari
at finna seg í síni heilt egnu lítlu vanlagnu

í myrkaløgdum húsum
sjálvt um barnið ræðist myrkrið
og ikki skilur at tað er verðin
sum hevur alla skyldina


The Suicide

the suicide plays hopscotch with the child
plays hide and seek
plays war
calls out
red rover red rover

that’s why it is so sneaky to play with
the suicide
the child never knows if you can count on it
if this will be the day
the night
where the word will be true to its word
only she who owns the word knows
she who also is a mother

nor does he who also is a father
know
but sometimes he knows how to drive the suicide
into dark corners where no one can see it
so that there’s peace for a while

sounds still come creeping along the floor
will not be put off
want to touch the child
with a cautious touch
so the child won’t be frightened

because then everything would be worse
much worse
so much worse
there is a danger that she might try
to become the judge over life and death
all this the child knows
the child knows too much

always
all the time

he does not know as much
wants to
tries to
but fears the child

the suicide once again sneaks out of its narrow corners
goes howling through the house
full of joy
invites everyone to dance
a mad dance in nights of burning bridges

the child knows nothing about this
accepts being swung in the g-force between him
and her

tonight once again everyone will dance fast as fuck
tomorrow the suicide will play babysitter
home with the child
because he and she
need the fresh air

the suicide takes a stranglehold on the child
asks to join in
on all of their experiences
forward
backward

forever

Sjálvmorðið

sjálvmorðið lakkar paradís við barninum
spælir krógva og blunda
melda kríggj
gevið ljóð
henniover …

tað er tí tað er so lúnskt at spæla við
sjálvmorðið
barnið veit aldrin um mann kann rokna við tí
um hetta fer at verða dagurin
náttin
har orðið verður ført út í orð
tað veit bara hon sum eigur orðið
hon sum eisini er ein mamma

heldur ikki hann sum eisini er ein pápi
veit
men hann dugir av og á at reka sjálvmorðið
inn í myrkar krókar har ongin sær tað
so friður er eina løtu

ljóðini koma álíkavæl krúpandi eftir gólvunum
vilja ikki lata seg køva
vilja nema barnið
bara nema so varliga
so barnið ikki skal ræðast

tí tá verður alt verri
nógv verri
so ringt
at vandi er fyri at hon kann finna uppá

at seta seg til dómara yvir lívi og deyða
alt hetta veit barnið
alt ov nógv veit barnið

altíð
alla tíðina

hann veit ikki líka nógv
vil gjarna
roynir
men ræðist barnið

sjálvmorðið spælir sær enn einaferð veg úr trongu krókunum
fer ýlandi gjøgnum húsini
fult av gleði
bjóðar upp til dans
villan dans í náttini sum brennir allar brýr

tað veit barnið onki um
letur seg syfta við g-ferð millum hann
og hana

í nátt dansa øll aftur við tí helvitis ferð
í morgin skal sjálvmorðið sita barnagenta
heima hjá barninum
tí hann og hon
hava brúk fyri frískari luft


Are there Copper Pipes in Heaven

do they use copper pipes anymore
or are they banned because she used them
to terrorize him

anyone can learn to use copper pipes to terrorize someone

beg god for a two-story house
a man who locks himself in the basement
looking for fugitive rest in a narrow room
right beneath the kitchen

don’t forget the copper pipes

the man doesn’t dare count the darkened hours
because the banished sun will surprise him again
and you must always be ill-tempered and insomniac

when the fight is finished and you’ve once again
beat him back into himself
or have attacked him with a knife
and he wounded in body and soul has gone to sleep in the basement
turn on all the faucets
let the water creak its dizzying angel song through golden copper pipes
and don’t forget to flush all the toilets at the same time
so that the heavenly demon will gurgle in the cisterns
unceasingly

the kitchen is the grand finale
let the faucet sharpen its glass-shard spear on the steel sink
please don’t turn it up too much
let the water stream spine-snappingly sharp
so it becomes unbearable
unavoidable
just over the head of the man
who is still fumbling for a pitiless sleep

the chair’s restless metal feet are waiting too
drag them across the floor
teeth-grindingly against the linoleum
again and again
and again
all night

do it all night long
you’re up to the task

the stage is set
your heavenly stage
it’s all down to you now
you and the countless yards of thin copper pipe
inside the walls
and beneath the floorboards of the house
to set the balance
make the water sing just the right
ominous tune
so lovely
so endlessly sad to the ears
his ears
as he lies awake staring at the ceiling
just below you and the kitchen
his big dry eyes
unable to ask
why
as they sink into a stiffened resin flux on the wooden ceiling
and he forgets any thought of the child
who is lying alone in between the copper pipes
singing to themselves so they will remember

everything

Eru Koparrør Í Himmiríki

brúka tey koparrør longur
ella blivu tey bannað tí hon brúkti tey
at terrorisera hann við

øll kunnu læra at terrorisera við koparrørum

bið guð um eini hús í tveimum hæddum
ein mann sum læsir seg inni í kjallaranum
leitandi eftir friðleysari hvíld í einum trongum kamari
sum altíð má liggja beint undir køkinum

gloym ikki koparrørini

maðurin torir ikki at telja myrkaløgdu tímarnar
tí bannsetta sólin fer enn einaferð at taka hann á bóli
og ringa lagið má vera á tær sum aldrin fer í song

tá bardagin er av og tú enn einaferð
hevur sparkað hann inn í seg sjálvan
ella hevur lagt á hann við knívi
og hann særdur uppá likam og sál er tørnaður inn í kjallaranum
koyr so allar kranar frá
lat vatnið gnísta sín ørandi einglasang í gyltu koparrørunum

gloym heldur ikki at skola øll vesini niður í senn
so himmalski demonurin kann surkla í sisternum
uttan íhald

køkurin er hæddarpunktið
lat kranan hvessa sítt spíska glarspjót móti stálvaskinum
koyr endiliga ikki ov hart
frá lat vatnstráluna vera akkurát so mønustingandi hvassa
at hon verður mest óúthaldilig
óundansleppilig
beint yvir høvdinum á honum
sum enn trilvar eftir náðileysu hvíldini

metalbeinini á stólunum bíða ótolin
drag tey aftur og fram eftir gólvinum
tannapínugríslandi móti linoliinum
umaftur og umaftur
og umaftur
alla náttina

endiliga alla hesa friðsælu nátt
sum tú orkar so væl

pallmyndin er sett
tín himmalska pallmynd
nú stendur til tín
og endaleysu metrarnar av trongu koparrørunum
millum skins og hold
og niðri í gólvinum um alt húsið
at gera munin
fáa vatnið at syngja tað heilt rætta
ófrættakenda lagið
so deiliga
so óendaliga syrgið fyri oyrunum
á honum
sum liggur og starir upp undir loftið í kamarinum
beint undir tær og køkinum
við stórum turrum eygum
og ikki dugir at spyrja
hví
í tí eyguni søkka upp í ein stadnaðan harpiksblett
og gloyma tankarnar um barnið
sum liggur einsamalt uppi millum koparrørini og syngur fyri at
minnast

alt


Nevermind

what is there to fear
that everyone will leave you
that you will lose your loved ones

never trusting
peace of mind

the thought never rests in you
the thought about the thought
that’s the way it is and always was
in all the tainted lives
being lived
oh so nice and lovely
and terrifyingly violent
and inescapably wonderful

nevermind you say
what the fuck does that mean

nevermind

is there nothing else but nevermind
then who are you
why are you

Líkamikið

hvat er at ræðast fyri
at øll fara frá tær
at missa tíni kæru

tryggleikin
svikaligur

tankin um tankan
er hugsaður langt áðrenn hann vaknar
tí tankin svevur aldrin í tær

soleiðis var tað og er tað
í øllum teimum forpestaðu lívunum
meðan tey livast
á so fitt og elskulig
og ræðandi harðrend
og óundansleppandi deilig

líkamikið sigur tú
hvat fanin merkir tað

líkamikið
er sjálvur tankin um lívið líkamikið
hvør ert tú so
hví ert tú


About the Author

Katrin Ottarsdóttir is a pioneering Faroese filmmaker and writer. Her 1999 film Bye Bye, Bluebird was the first feature film made in the Faroese language. Her debut poetry collection Are there Copper Pipes in Heaven, an autobiographical account of her abusive mother’s drug use and eventual suicide, is the first Faroese collection of confessional poetry. The collection received the Faroese Literature Award in 2013.

About the Translator

Matthew Landrum is a poet and teacher living in Detroit. His translations from Faroese have appeared widely, receiving The Gabo Prize and Pushcart Prize nominations. He is the author of Berlin Poems (A Midsummer Night’s Press).

Appears In

Issue 9.1

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