the sound of Svalbard, and the purpose of mystery

the sound of Svalbard, and the purpose of mystery

San Francisco
September 8, 2012
278 days until the Arctic Circle expedition

Svalbard. This is where the journey aboard the barquentine begins. To my English-centric poet’s ears, the name sounds like water running over ice. Like something silvery and fluid. It slides like headlights over a white wall, or like an otter buoyed by its playful nature. At the same time, it has teeth, this otter, and this word: Svalbard.

I find I can’t look down when I say “Svalbard.” It is a word inherently long-sighted, and makes me look up and outward.

All place-names have their inherent music: consider, for example, Snohomish, which sounds to my ears like walking through a bog, or slushy snow. Or what about Oropollo, which I heard someone say in the hallway the other day, and seems to be a surname and not a town. But Oropollo… it sounds like a rooster crowing through a beak full of honey, and doesn’t it translate roughly to something like “chicken of gold?”

And what about Affpuddle, Anton’s Gout, Barton in the Beans, Eccup, Droop and Fogo? Or Scragglethorpe, Scratchy Bottom, Vobster, or Titty Ho? All in Britain!  Britain wins. Except maybe for Toad Suck, Arkansas, which my family has attempted to find numerous times after seeing the sign on the Interstate for “Toad Suck Park.” I mean, who could not go there, given the opportunity?

So Svalbard… I wonder to the Norwegian ear, does it have the same soft ring, or does it fall on native ears the way, say “Duarte” or “Placentia” or “Fontana” falls on mine?

Mystery is all about what you don’t know. Mystery is all about how something sounds, or seems.. .not what it actually is.

Or maybe not. Maybe mystery grows… maybe it’s impossible to completely resolve certain states or experiences… places we can’t replicate, or predict, or dissect: like love, or hope, or epiphany. Or what about experiences we share but can’t possibly report back from or explain… like death, or the fashion sense of the 1970’s?

Is it really possible to know all there is of something? Absolutely and completely crawl inside it and solve it for zero? I don’t think so. I think the more we invent new ways to see, the more there will be. Think about telescopes: first our world was the center of the universe, with heaven hung like a chandelier above it, and a big pit underneath full of flames… now we are riding an expanding bubble full of whirling suns into a what or where without a name. There’s a mystery to wrap your head around.  Orthe invention of microscopes, which revealed smaller and smaller structures until they stop being matter and are just vibrating forces.. and even then we detect, behind that, the shadows of those forces. Or what about chess?

Is all this still about Svalbard? Yes. It’s about the music of names. It’s about naming mystery… about looking closer and deeper. Of adventuring. Of being happy, ecstatic at how the mystery of things keeps refilling itself to keep pace with our relentless curiosity. That’s the point, I think– or if not the point, it is the grand prize. Not to know, but to keep wanting to find out.

Svalbard… for now it is a name, and a chain of islands near the top of the world. On a map I can walk easily across the oceans with my eyes to it- a place that almost everything on Earth is south of. And soon, I’ll know a little more.