Bill Holm,
Eccentric Islands: Travels Real and Imaginary
(Milkweed Editions, 2000)

Poet, essayist and musician Bill Holm reflects on various islands, both geographic and metaphorical, in Eccentric Islands. He is descended from Icelandic immigrants and in indeed, his name "Holm," changed from Icelandic by his ancestor, comes from Old Norse and means "island."

Holm leaps into his topic with an essay titled "Call Me Island," in which he expounds on his central topic. Holm says "The idea of this book will be that islands are necessary for us to be able to think about what is true at the bottom of our own character; we need to reduce the world for a while to count it and understand it."

Holm takes readers to Isla Mujeres (Island of Women), a tiny island off Cancun, Mexico and a sharp (and, for Holm, preferred) contrast to the glitzier tourist resort. Isla Mujeres is a destination for tourists as well, but with it's own character and pace. Here one can visit the (gentle, mock) bullfight, explore the beach or walk from one end of the island to the other. In a tongue-in-cheek attempt to keep this little bit of paradise to himself, Holm tells the read "You would not like it."

Another island in the book is also one near a tourist resort: the island of Moloka'i, site of the leper colony where Father Damien devoted himself to the care of the lepers forcibly confined there until he, too, succumbed to the disease. Here, the vivid descriptions of the bleak and rather inhospitable island provide a backdrop to the story of a heroic man and a blistering portrait of the smug and self-satisfied society he quietly defied.

Holm visits Iceland twice, the visits 20 years apart in 1979 and 1999, and his love for this rocky sparse island shines through his descriptions. He conveys well a sense of being foreigner and at the same time that of coming home. His trip to steamy and equally rugged Madagascar is a brilliant contrast to his essays on Iceland.

The metaphorical islands he describes are the islands of pain, imagination and the piano. The last is based on an actual piano on an island in a Chinese hotel lobby, but extends to his own experiences with playing the piano -- an instrument that isolates the player yet demands an audience.

My favorite essay is about tiny Mallard Island, in Rainy Lake in Northern Minnesota. Here an eccentric lived for years among his books and research papers in the various small houses he built around the island; Holm goes on retreat there, away from the noise and electronic buzz of "civilization."

Holm's wit, brilliant and clear images and lucid narrative, interspersed with prose poems sometimes painfully lovely, combine into a thoughtful and thought-provoking book. Certainly, it will inspire some readers to look for their own islands, real or imaginary.

If you like essays that reach beyond the usual, give Eccentric Islands by Bill Holm a try.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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