review: Waitress in Fall

image from Partus

Title / Author: Waitress in Fall / Kristín Ómarsdóttir (translated by Vala Thorodds)

Publication Date: 26 July 2018 (UK)

Publisher: Carcanet and Partus

Waitress in Fall is a work which spans three decades of Kristín Ómarsdóttir’s writing, including selections from seven collections originally published in Icelandic. The poems were selected and translated by Vala Thorodds, who is also an accomplished poet.

I began reading Waitress in Fall at a coffee shop in the city centre, which seemed fitting for the domestic but also otherworldly tone of the poems. Common objects in the collection include coffee, baked goods (and food in general), and cozy fabrics like cotton and wool. These objects all work together to create a wintry at-home scene, which quickly turns out to be a false sense of security. The poet commands a special skill in making the familiar seem unfamiliar, for example in the poem ‘Domestic Peace’:

three children lick milk

from the trees

the mother sits in a bamboo

chair and crochets hearts together

This is consistent throughout the collection, lending Kristín Ómarsdóttir’s poems a fantastical, fairy-tale quality. However, there is often a dark tone to her poems, and at some points in the collection, I felt quite uncomfortable, as if I were reading a horror novel instead. Take this extract from the title poem:

she wipes the blood from her face

(the sword)

rinses the apron in the cold cold water

(in the blue sink)

Violent imagery concerning murder, death and war is littered throughout the collection, meaning the reader is never certain of safety or comfort. I think this is what I liked best about the collection, as I was constantly being surprised by the poet’s surreal world. Regardless, I am slightly conflicted by some of the representations of women in the collection. In particular, I am unsure about the poem ‘Protein’. On the first reading, I believed it to be a successful exploration of a woman’s sexual intent, but the end of the poem seems to look down on women who ‘don’t have any boyfriends’. This is subject to change, but to me, it seems Kristín Ómarsdóttir is pointing out the ridiculousness and nonsense surrounding scripted gender roles – even in the other, surreal world of her poems, it isn’t right. Rather than putting me off, this seemed like a puzzle I needed to solve, so the collection stayed with me, past reading it cover to cover, and then dipping in and out for annotations. I definitely enjoyed reading it, and this is a collection I will return to.