‘News Muse’ by Vala Hafstað
Taking its inspiration from idiosyncratic headlines around the globe, ‘News Muse’ by Vala Hafstað combines two very Icelandic interests–the daily news and poetry–and uses them to paint a sometimes amusing, often ridiculous portrait of contemporary life.
With a few notable exceptions, the 33 poems contained in ‘News Muse’–all of which, cleverly, include hyperlinks to the original news stories in the e-book version–are composed of uncluttered, whimsically rhyming couplets. Stylistically, these are reminiscent of nursery rhymes, with the overall effect being that the (factually-based) content seems even more absurd than it already is.
Take, for instance, the poem “A Life of Luxury,” which skewers the growing market for luxury pet products, such as epicurean dog chow or myrtle-and-fennel-scented “Fart and Away” pet candles:
I’m neutered, but to my amazement
I’m blessed with equipment replacement:
Prosthetic and custom-made nuts
That boost both my ego and guts.
Vala’s current event inspirations are varied, with subject matter ranging from dog weddings in Sri Lanka (“The Dogs’ Wedding Vows”) and that time that Icelandair flight attendants physically restrained a drunken, violent “air hooligan” with duct tape (“Tied Up”), to Church-in-a-Pub meetings in Texas (“Diwine”) and the death of a 37-year-old man who was attacked and drowned by a flock of angry swans (“Swan Song”). Nevertheless, it’s clear that she particularly leans towards a few specific flavours of news story.
For one, with eleven of the collection’s poems about animals, it’s obvious that she enjoys quirky creature bulletins, and gets a lot of joy writing from an animal’s perspective. (One of the book’s more laugh-out-loud lines can be found in her poem “The Cheetah’s Response,” which relates the struggles of mating in captivity: “Attraction is sudden, complex. / Survival depends on wild sex.”) Vala also seems to enjoy more improbable factoids, news stories which reveal surprising bits of trivia like those one might read on a Snapple “Real Facts” bottle cap. For instance, that upon consuming a great deal of starch, people with “auto-brewery syndrome” will basically brew beer right in their own bellies, as related in her poem “Auto-Brewery.”
But although it never veers into outright criticism or political commentary, ‘News Muse’ is at its best when it pokes fun at the extremely decadent, the downright bougie, and the crassly materialistic. Thirty-dollar cups of Kopi Luwak coffee made from beans that have been extracted from the excrement of small mammals called civets (“Hospitality”). Having one’s cremated remains turned into diamonds for your loved ones to wear (“Diamonds to Die For”). The Chinese couple who “sold” their newborn to buy an iPhone 5 (“Eye-Phone”); the German bishop (nicknamed “the bishop of bling”) who took a first-class flight to visit the poor in India and spent millions renovating his home (“A Prayer”).
Despite the playful tone, it’s in these moments that Vala’s project is at its sharpest and most incisive. It’s a bit depressing, but it’s funny–because it’s true.