Kristín Svava Tómasdóttir

Translated from Icelandic by K.B. Thors

the window shaggy with hoarfrost 
the window ledge as well
frozen solid the glass the woman was to drink from 
the quilt near froze fast to the wall
not a teaspoon to feed the baby 
nothing but frozen oatmeal

where was water to be heated?
where to dry clothes for the baby and woman?
She was born for this 
to help and console   
help and soothe the sores of others
lighten pain and suffering                                          
she went proffering herself to comfort and strengthen
ready and willing to nurse and care for 
all those
who sighed under                                                      
the heavy cross of illness

she was not not a seer when it came to the secret ways of the soul
rarely surprised by major tidings	

sensed many things
saw through walls and woods and hills
saw further

many things went as she expected

though things looked bad
despite many kinds of difficulty
and much toil
conditions all imperfect
hygiene less than ideal
though things did not look promising
though the worst was expected
though there were close calls                   
no woman died
nothing ever went wrong      
women never died
not one woman
not a single woman in labor
no woman perished
no woman passed away in her hands
no woman died
and doctors never sought
(doctors were few anyway)    
never did she have a mishap   
women never died 

except for one woman in childbed
only one woman
one unbaptized child
only three newborn babies
two or three stillborn
only one time
was the ending sad         
somewhere in her possession she had a tiny box			
full of small paper slips
and verses or poem scrap scrawled in pencil on each one 	

these lines sought to flow forth 		
like the spring under rock
or straw through soil

when time allowed 			
she arranged some of these together in a poem
  • Composed from memoirs and biographies of Icelandic midwives working through the 19th and 20th centuries, Herostories forgoes sagas of conquest to center the adventures of ljósmæður, “mothers of light.”

From gender-based battles for education to narratives of selfless womanly caretaking, Herostories’ found poems explore tensions between feminine self-actualization and romanticized service, documenting the island’s first women to work outside the home — precursors to today’s midwives who remain central to Icelandic healthcare.

K.B. Thors is the author of Vulgar Mechanics (Coach House, 2019). Stormwarning, her Icelandic-English translation of Kristín Svava Tómasdóttir’s Stormviðvörun, won the American Scandinavian Foundation’s Leif & Inger Sjöberg Prize and was nominated for the 2019 PEN Literary Award for Poetry in Translation. Her translation of Tómasdóttir’s Hetjusögur, Herostories, is forthcoming from Deep Vellum in 2023.

Kristín Svava Tómasdóttir is a poet and historian in Reykjavík, Iceland. Her fourth book of poetry, Hetjusögur (2020), was awarded the Icelandic Women´s Prize for Literature. Her co-authored book on the history of women voters in Iceland, Konur sem kjósa, was nominated for the Icelandic Literary Award and awarded the Women´s Prize for Literature.