The start of the 1960s saw the publication of the first poetry collection by Vilborg Dagbjartsdóttir (born 1930) who, as a modernist and a multifaceted cultural figure, has inspired both a younger generation of Icelandic female poets and poets of her own generation. Poets such as Þóra Jónsdóttir (born 1925), who made her debut in 1973, and Þuríður Guðmundsdóttir (born 1939), who published her first book in 1969, were, like Vilborg Dagbjartsdóttir, born and brought up in the countryside, and later settled in Reykjavík, and they are, to some extent, preoccupied with the same poetic subjects. They express themselves in precisely chiselled, minimalist poems that demand the reader’s full attention.
A World in a Grain of Sand
Vilborg Dagbjartsdóttir’s debut collection Laufið á trjánum (1960; The Leaf on the Trees) consists, like her second poetry collection Dvergliljur (1968; Dwarf Lilies), of nature poems and short poems that describe emotions and close relationships, while her later books are dominated by political poems against war and suppression. As a Christian, socialist, nationalist, and feminist, Vilborg Dagbjartsdóttir is an engaged and vibrant voice that speaks with strength and authority in Icelandic literary and cultural life. Her best known poems deal with women’s lack of freedom.
No sunny shores awaited
You emerged fully formed
from the master’s head
in the roar of the breaking waves
She is an interpreter of women’s words and actions, and in her poems she gives a voice to the women of literature and the Icelandic Sagas, as in the poetry collection Kyndilmessa (1971; Candlemass), which refers directly to Ibsen’s Nora in A Doll’s House:
Little Nora, where is it exactly you could have gone?
Even if you had tiptoed over these years
lying between us
no comforts would await you in my house.
I tell you, it is no better elsewhere.
Conditions have worsened
and in accordance with a sacred tradition unemployment is always felt first by women
but if I have understood you correctly
you will want to support yourself
in a decent manner – my God!
A woman with your upbringing
as well as these ideas about men.
You could perhaps try to sell your memoirs
to the tabloids and then, if you are lucky,
play yourself in a feature film.
No dear, go out into the darkness again.
The fjord is glassy and deep.
Soon the moon will rise over the white mountain range
then you will be able to see your way.
Your comrade Anna Karenina will welcome you
at the railway station.
Have a short break over a cup of tea.
Times are still hard.
Kona með þitt uppeldi
og þessar líka hugmyndir um karlmenn.
Þú gætir kannski reynt að selja sorpriti
ævisögu þína og siðan, ef heppnin er með þér
leikið sjálfa þig í stórmynd.
Nei, góða mín, far þú aftur út í myrkrið.
Fjörðurinn er spegilsléttur og djúpur.
Bráðum kemur tunglið upp fyrir hvíta fjallsröndina
þá verður ratljóst.
Stallsystir þín, Anna Karenina tekur á móti þér
á brautar stöðinni.
Hvílið ykkur stundarkorn yfir tebolla.
Það eru ennþá erfiðir tímar.
In a short prose text titled Draumur (1977; Dream), Vilborg Dagbjartsdóttir describes a dream in which, in an impassable landscape, she meets Odin himself. She shouts at him, “feeling I had so much to talk to him about”. When he turns around, she says that “beneath the brim of his hat I could just make out his eye, ablaze with lust”, and she realises that “even Odin himself has only one motive for dealing with women”. “And I who thought I was a poet”, comments the author, “I managed to shake myself out of sleep and reach the waking state – my soul burning with rage”.
The rage burning in the soul of the woman, whom Odin sees only as a sexual being, is expressed in many of her poems, but perhaps rarely as explicitly as here. And it is not only the heathen god who is attacked, but also the Christian God: “When has the Heavenly Father considered the morning hunger of the poor? / The Lord Jehovah did not write his ten commandments / for slaves, serving women, or women in general”. (“Morgunverk” (Morning Work), Ljóð (1981; Poems)).
Vilborg Dagbjartsdóttir explains in an interview that she was, as a child, very religious, that she had “a close relationship with God”, and that this meant a lot to her. “But I turned my back on God”, she says. Her poems primarily present a belief in nature as a healing power, and a belief that the solidarity of the subjugated can lead to justice. Christianity, socialism, and women’s rights merge in Vilborg Dagbjartsdóttir’s poems, forming a deeply personal and powerful message.
The world of children is a significant element of her poems. In Klukkan í turninum (1992; The Bell in the Tower) in particular, Vilborg Dagbjartsdóttir makes use of the creative language of children, their simple morals and their clear ideas about right and wrong, in order to criticise the world of adults. This combination of form and content is also prominent in the work of Þuríður Guðmundsdóttir who, like Vilborg Dagbjartsdóttir, has worked as a school teacher.
There is a strong sense of loss in many of Þuríður Guðmundsdóttir’s poems, the loss of childhood and of innocence, and a longing for a lost happiness. All of these elements – nature, the child, the sense of loss – merge into a basic idea of mankind as an indissoluble part of the earth. In the poem “Ég elska jörðina” (I Love the Earth), from Orðin vaxa í kringum mig (1989; Words Grow All Around Me), she writes:
I love the earth
flowers and grasses
the smell of leaves
I love the earth
at some point I will become
and from my body
grow small shoots
that stroke the soles
of unborn children …
ég elska jörðina
blóm og örgresi
ilminn af laufi
ég elska jörðina
einhverntíma verð ég
og upp af holdi mínu
vaxa örlítil strá
sem strjúkast um iljar
ófæddra barna …
The themes shared by Vilborg Dagbjartsdóttir and Þuríður Guðmundsdóttir include nature and an opposition to war. And both of them write about love and sorrow. While Þuríður Guðmundsdóttir does not, however, have the sharp and, at times, mocking tone of Vilborg Dagbjartsdóttir, many of her poems are strongly marked by a Christian attitude to life.
Þuríður Guðmundsdóttir is a meticulous poet. She gives careful attention to the rhythm and composition of the poems. She is never verbose: her poems are controlled, and rich in imagery that never becomes obscure but is always simple and easily understood.
“Writing poetry is like setting out on a journey”, is the motto of one of Þuríður Guðmundsdóttir’s poetry collections. In Þóra Jónsdóttir’s poems, the first-person narrator is usually on the way to a new dwelling place, which can be a place in which to set up a tent for the night, or a destination where she wishes to remain for some time. This place is, however, difficult to find, and the searcher often either ends up in a cul-de-sac or gets lost. In Þóra Jónsdóttir’s first poetry collection Leit að tjaldstæði (1973; Looking for a Camping Site), the opening poem, “Blindvegur” (Dead End), describes a narrator who is travelling alone, who has reached the end of a cul-de-sac, and who sets up a tent for the night. In the closing poem, which gives the collection its title, the narrator says that she has undertaken the journey “with the single goal / of finding a camping site / for the night”. But even this simple goal turns out to be difficult to attain: “The shadows become longer / the camping site has not been found / and ahead lie barren deserts”.
Getting lost, being divided, or finding oneself in the wrong place are recurrent themes. In the poem “Tímaskekkja” (Anachronism) from Leiðin heim (1975; The Road Home), the first-person narrator claims to: “[…] fear an anachronism / between myself and that / which I seek”. Not even death itself is final in Þóra Jónsdóttir’s poems; it does not necessarily mark the unconditional end of the journey that we must accustom ourselves to.
The poem “Tvíátta” (Irresolution) from Þóra Jónsdóttir’s fifth poetry collection Á hvítri verönd (1988; On a White Veranda) describes the pull between two worlds:
As a daughter of the North
I looked South
at the sun and the migratory birds’
Evil spirits fought for my
and the blue-winged horizon of the sea
looked forward to its spoils.
I inadvertently looked North
and in that moment my breast was ripped apart.
I openly made a
coat of mail
from the wings of birds
that had flown against wires
in an unfamiliar landscape.
In the poem “Þeir sem farnir eru” (Those Who Are Gone) from Horft í birtuna (1978; Looking at the Light), the first-person narrator feels it is “impossible completely to remember / who of one’s contemporaries / is dead and who is alive”. The dead can, for that matter, easily have moved to a remote part of the country, and the poem ends as follows:
The phone happens to ring.
The connection is bad
as though there are many listeners
on the line.
I think my friends can hear
Fyrir kemur að síminn hringir
Sambandið er slitrótt
líkt og margir séu á línunni
Ég held að vinir mínir heyri
Translated by Brynhildur Boyce