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Storytelling: Another of those Things I’m Pretty Sure Is Bred in the Bone

Gestur Davidson (I653929)

April 28, 2022


In a little self-talk I had with myself a bit ago downstairs in my kitchen — and thinking about storytelling and my joy in it — I recalled something my late cousin Dorothy Lee LeWin wrote in one of her little vignettes of the Davidson family members. She remembered them from her handful of years lived amongst them after her father, Seymour Lee, had passed away when she was five years old.

Jóhann Guðmundur Davíðsson
Jóhann Guðmundur Davíðsson

And writing of our grandfather, Jóhann Guðmundur Davíðsson, Dodie noted that he not only loved to tell stories, but he’d gained quite the reputation for his story-telling skill. And she gave just a snippet of a story of his that she remembered about a man who walked down the bank toward a river smoking a pipe and once at the river’s edge simply kept walking, soon disappearing below the water, and then somewhat later reappeared on the other side walking up the embankment with his pipe still trailing smoke.

Tending a general store in a very small community like Gardar, N.D., he undoubtedly had many opportunities to tell stories each day to his few customers. Indeed, I think it’s well-nigh impossible to imagine a job more suited to someone inclined to while away his time, and his customers’, telling stories.

Of course I also know, again from Dodie, that Jóhann Guðmundur wrote a lot of poetry. In Icelandic, of course. And I think many of his poems may have been written in that old, very stylized Icelandic poetic format, sléttubönd[1], in which lines had to make some sense read forward and backward!

I can’t even imagine what would go on—between my ears—reading the lines of one of my poems backwards. Actually, I think it might come close to being like one of those chatbot-challenges that people make up and submit to language model chatbots[2], —e.g. How do you know if a thing loves you back?—and expecting something meaningful to be returned.

But putting aside all this highly stylized poetry, these sléttubönd and aldýr, the most precious of all, for me it’s always seemed that writing a poem is just another way of telling a story. For I’d say that they both pretty much share the same goal of nudging you along to look at the world and yourself through a different lens, one that maybe takes you by surprise or otherwise makes you view things at an unaccustomed tilt.

And these creative, dermatological eruptions have given me a simple joy that few other things in my life, if any, have exceeded.

And I’m guessing it was that thought, that recognition, that was behind my wonder at the realization that, unless they were really in the closet about it, aside from me, no one in my generation or in my father’s generation expressed that most Icelandic of traits.[3]

So this special Icelandic phenotype just skipped one whole generation: from Jóhann Guðmundur to Gestur Val., yngri. Certainly not unheard of in human genetics. But in the event, as they say, quite the remarkable occurrence, I’d say.

And so would my father’s two sisters, for that matter! Those two sisters of my father, Pansy and Elsie, once were visiting my cousin Dorothy Lee LeWin and her husband in St. Paul, and so my mother had invited them over for a dinner in their honor at her apartment across from Powderhorn Park. And my mother, of course, invited me and my wife. And as we walked through the front door, directly opposite us sat Pansy and Elsie on the couch. When they saw me there in my late-20’s, not having seen me since I was much younger, Pansy turned to Elsie and said: It’s Johann!

And to them, that evening, I may well have seemed like a reincarnation of their father.

And I have to say that something akin to this possibility has remained lodged in some cranny of my head. We never laid eyes on each other, and I have only a few old photographs of him. And none of his poems have come down to me, as tragedy struck in the form of a house fire that consumed all his poetry late in his life.

And yet there are times, especially felt during the period, two years ago now, when I was searching for and finding out about my grandfather’s life from 1873 to 1886 when he and his family lived on their homestead farm in northern Ontario, the first Icelanders in Canada to own land, when it seems that I almost carry some trace of those experiences within me that they went through.

How can that be, I ask myself? It’s beyond genetics, surely. And even the staunchest champion of the reach of the epigenome would be hard pressed to accept this idea that my life just doesn’t seem to be the simple summation of my own experiences.

Far from troubling me or embarrassing me, however, I’ve taken a certain delight in letting my mind take up and play with this metaphysical, but really Saga-like proposition.

And what’s the harm in doing so, anyway?

I’ve a good imagination and a vivid memory, recalling some things in detail that surely never happened. But they may have. And if that pipe still trailing smoke makes for a great story, well now, hasn’t this wildly discursive essay—this short, cognitive bronco- ride—somehow managed to come full circle?


[1] “Stanzas written with this sort of elaboration are known as dýrir hættir ("precious modes") and were extraordinarily popular in Iceland. Especially "precious" were the ones known as sléttubönd, which — in addition to observing all the rules — could be read both forward and backward. These sléttubönd were most precious of all (aldýr) when every word in an odd line rhymed with its counterpart in the next odd line, and every word in an even line behaved similarly.” See here for the details.

[2] See here for a discussion of such chatbot challenges from Andrew Gelman, at his Bayesian Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference and Social Science blog.

[3] Somewhere long ago, I recall reading or overhearing someone give this version 

of Icelandic machismo: 

A man isn’t much of a man if he can’t pen a decent poem.


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