By Shannon Nakai

Tómasdóttir, Kristín Svava. Herostories. Deep Vellum, 2022. $16.95

“Nature” vs “Nurture”: Found Poetry of Nineteenth-Century Icelandic Midwives in Kristín Svava Tómasdóttir’s Herostories

In the ambitious and lyrically rendered newest collaborative work by poet-historian Kristín Svava Tómasdóttir and translator K.B. Thors, the found poetry collection Herostories (Deep Vellum, 2022) locates the relatively unknown stories, accomplishments, and personalities of midwives in nineteenth-century Iceland. Known as ljósmœđur, or “mothers of light,” these midwives enjoyed unprecedented prestige in a time and place that otherwise held skeptical views towards professional women. Part physician, part superhero, the midwife in these poems is presented as a woman born for the role requiring epic feats of navigating long hours of vocational study; deadly midnight treks through blizzards, avalanches, fallen bridges, and raging rivers; and grueling candlelit attendance to laboring women in squalid living conditions. 

The term ljósmœđur is a sampling of the intricate wordplay that Thors deftly negotiates in her translations, as discussed in an intriguing interview with Tómasdóttir at the end of the collection. At one point in the interview, they discuss the anachronistic choice of the Icelandic word for midwife in Thors’ translation. As Tómasdóttir notes, “there was another word more commonly used in Icelandic for midwife, yfirsetukona, a woman that ‘sits over’ or ‘sits by’ a woman in labour—more descriptive, but much less romantic. Ljósmœđur gained hold in the twentieth century, probably because people thought it sounded nicer!” Thors responds, “The poem ‘strong but still soft and mild’ ends with ‘lightmotherhands’ and then an additional ‘midwifehands.’ It felt important to have the light and mother present–this is the only instance of that direct translation in English. Fortunately, [Tómasdóttir’s] repetition made doubling that final word quite natural, so we have the familiar meaning resounding too.” While Thors makes allowances such as this for the unnatural register of antiquated words to twenty-first-century ears, both poet and translator have taken care to preserve the authenticity and form of the original text, so much so that the titles themselves sound more like log entries, devoid of the sonic cadence of poetry. “From an early age she was always there” or “When she was bathing the baby” allude to Tómasdóttir’s position as both poet and historian: the original language and subjects of these poems, from their focus on God or travels or personalities, explicitly showcase the historicity of these poems, while also drawing attention to the natural poetry of the Icelandic language. Even in more perfunctory texts like memoirs or biographies, the register used to name and describe takes on a rhythmic cadence and imagistic compounds that are blatantly absent in the English language. Translated words like “poemscrap,” “caringhands,” “curinghands,” and “householdhappiness” indicate the acrobatic hybridity of meanings in the Icelandic vocabulary. The fluid use of the word “nature” throughout the poems as applied both to the dangerous landscape and to the characteristic of the woman born for this vocation thematically suggests a symbiosis between insurmountable natural forces and the unrelenting drive and hope of the midwife. 

The hyperbolized repetition that so drew Tómasdóttir to this project thus elicits Icelandic values placed upon the midwife-adventure in the natural elements juxtaposed against feminine charged virtues of heroism. In the chunkier prose poems, the language Tómasdóttir lifts from the original texts casts refrain after refrain of the weather conditions, the weather being an integral part of the Icelandic language. In her interview, Tómasdóttir notes the Icelandic pride in their expansive weather vocabulary, as the scenes meticulously describing and repeating the natural elements indicate. This also pairs with the image of the valorous midwife who selflessly braves through the snowstorms, another signpost of romantic Icelandic values: the hero in the adventure narrative. The title Herostories is a similar play on words that focuses both on the element of narratives in the collection as well as the hero or “her” behind them. Likewise, the poems underscore the agency of women confined to a sole career allotted to them outside the domestic sphere (albeit in another domestic sphere), only to subvert the limitation: the act of assisting with childbirth, like the very act of childbirth itself, transmutes from something women were only allowed to do into something only women can do.

Tómasdóttir approaches the subject from various vantage points, borrowing from multitudinous voices: friends, family members, priests, and the midwives themselves. Likewise, the poems appear in varied forms. The poems most explicitly handled and breathlessly rendered by Tómasdóttir bear the recognizably elliptical form of erasure, the original sentences stripped to hypercharged focal points, as the opening poem showcases

We seldom imagine

how much we have

for our carelessness


until we arrive at the graves of the dead

Some poems celebrate a collective “they,” while others spotlight a specific midwife, an intimate glimpse into the psychological interiority and characteristics of the person herself. Against a dark theater of deadly terrain, the midwife is likened to the beacon of light she bears in her nighttime cross-country trek. With the formidable capability to endure and overcome, “she was greatest / when most tested.” The most obvious showcasing of the midwife’s supernatural capabilities appears in the blocked prose poems, the language heavily repetitious as the same nouns appear in a Ginsberg-like energetic chant. Halfway through the poem “Then there was no electric light from the windows,” the lines land overtly on the theme of insurmountability:

impassables log all slopes full of snow impassable sinking

mudslide ice with cracks and deep snowslush impossible-

going impassable snowdrifts the valley a snowcoffin nasty-

going between farms impassable impassable impassable

no footholds supreme snowdrifts never less than kneehigh

snow over everything difficult to navigate deep over ice

terriblegoing impassable due to snow and ice gravel beds

While Tómasdóttir’s attention to the conspicuous emphasis could hold such praise in circumspect–indeed, the dilemma appears as one poem repeatedly celebrates no life lost when the midwife arrives, only to confess in a later poem the arrival of one stillbirth, perhaps three–on the whole, the voices gathered in the poems illustrate the profound respect these women commanded from their community for their skill and sacrifice.

With these two attributes, the nature of the midwife becomes thematically unique. A profession easily dismissible for its highly gendered specification, midwifery here is instead acknowledged as an employment of the mind. The midwife is a scholar, oftentimes serving as a full-fledged doctor. Though the emphasis on feminine virtues is richly overplayed in the poems, reminiscent of language used by Solomon in the Bible regarding the ideal woman, her nature as a hardworking, angelically compassionate, and self-giving woman also makes room for the brilliance of the midwife as a thinker and free agent. One poem alludes that “her mind was on study rather than housework,” while another indicates:

read all the books she could find

read all the books she could find


The mind of the midwife is essential in the labor of her hands. As described in a later poem:

and light shone in her mind

and fear disappeared

and she went sure and straight to work

Marvelous power

invisible hands

wonderful brightness

The poems showcase the extraordinary agency afforded to the midwife. Translated from the Old English as “with woman,” she is featured in scenes reminiscent of Willa Cather novels of community gatherings with coffee and cake, newborns held by rapturous mothers in the streaming sunlight, harsh snowstorms, and horses sludging through turbulent rivers. In the series of poems beginning with “she was born for this,” the vocational call is admittedly regarded by the subject as one of vanity. In spite of the (sometimes literally) self-sacrificing nature of the work, the repetitive mantra-like lists illuminate desire, a primal indication and recognition of the needs of the self:


longing to learn

longing for broader horizons

longing for a change of scenery

longing to leave home

longing to be something more than a cook

compelled ever on

The following poem echoes the structure, underscoring the dynamic intentionality to act upon the self’s desire:


yearning to learn

yearning to study

yearning to look around the world

yearning to get to know something else something more


to become

Thus a portrait emerges of a woman who cannot be contained, as “her soul belonged / to the bright broad channels…” The essence of her vocational call is expansive. Following these lines Tómasdóttir includes that “her nature wove strong / but different and opposing elements / so heated were her feelings / that she was so to speak totally at their will.” The English translation to “nature” here operates as subtle wordplay, as the original Icelandic varies when the poems speak to the nature of the woman–her nurturing heart, her resistance to failure–or the elements she faces each time she steps outside the home. In a sense, her nature is bound to the Icelandic countryside, keeping vigil in a house “with a mind so open and attuned / to the beauty of nature and life / the beautiful blue mountain view / peace in this work path.”

Herostories documents how this unique band of women thus brought forth a nation. As Tómasdóttir and Thoms each allude, the modernized birthing experience of Iceland today starkly contrasts the home birth scenes alit by the “blubberglow” of an oil lamp until crested by sunrise. Recalling these stories thus asks the reader to consider deeply the significance of preserving one’s collective origin story in a sense, how a nation navigated high infant mortality rates centuries ago and exists in the twenty-first-century world. Herostories resonates ultimately as a psalm of survival, a victory for humankind at the hands of working women prominently present:

Birthplaces of the nation

in scant fishermen’s huts

in decrepit country turfrooms

in toy rowboats out at sea

on rocky beaches by desolate heaths

on green brass banks in the fields

Shannon Nakai is a poet, book reviewer, and contributing editor for The Cortland Review. Her work also appears in Cincinnati Review, Los Angeles Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Los Angeles Review of Books, Atlanta Review, Cream City, Cimarron Review, and elsewhere. A Fulbright Scholar and nominee for the Pushcart and AWP Intro Poetry Prizes, she works with and for migrants and refugees with the International Rescue Committee in Wichita, KS, where she lives with her husband and three children.

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