When I’m Gone

My copy of Kristin has lots of notes about her sister Ramborg, and I’ve written more than a few
poems about her. But nothing seemed to capture this woman who is, perhaps, the only female in the story who I’d want to be my actual friend.


While puzzling over how to write about Ramborg, I noticed this sentence she says, about Simon: “He never missed me while I was gone.” Wait, what song does that sound like? The YouTube gods sent me a sign: Anna Kendrick singing “Cups/When I’m Gone” from Pitch Perfect. Now I knew what to write.

I don’t know that Kristin misses Ramborg after she’s gone. After informing Kristin she is to be
remarried, Ramborg disappears from the narrative. I can only hope she lives happily ever after
with her new husband, after her “wretched” life with Simon.


I don’t think Ramborg will miss Kristin either. But I picture her thinking that she will be missed,
singing as she waltzes out the door, away from her home valley, forever.


This poem is for Ramborg, who deserved to be missed. (Cue the cups.)


When I’m Gone
By Megan Willome

I got the husband that I wanted.
I was a girl getting a woman’s tooth.
Simon poked my gums with a splinter—
he poked. I bled.
I missed him when he was gone.

I got the husband that I wanted.
He lost my sister, left me with her dog.
I bided my time, sat on his lap until he said yes.
(My father loved Simon like a son.)
Simon missed him when he was gone.

I got the husband that I wanted.
I was Fair Isolde; he preferred Kristin, Dark Isolde.
I was a young Abishag; he, an aging David,
who for twenty years preferred Fru Bathsheba.
He never missed me when he was gone.

I got the husband that I wanted.
He was with Kristin when our son was born.
He loved her sons more than his own children.
He broke my dish and hid it like a guilty little boy.
I didn’t miss him when I was gone, but I did miss Kristin.

So I sent the husband—the man I always wanted—
to her three times! Asked her to Come see me!
Come for Christmas! Come when my child is born!
No, she said. No. No.
Why didn’t she miss me when I was gone?

The husband that I so wanted
was with Kristin when he died.
In his feverish daze he asked her to mother his
illegitimate daughter. My stepdaughter.
He didn’t miss me even when he was almost gone.

Simon, the husband I wanted and got,
treated me like a fine horse, like a good dog.
So I am marrying someone else,
someone who’s been thinking of me for years.
Someone who’ll miss me when I’m gone.

Megan Willome is a writer, editor, and author of The Joy of Poetry, and Rainbow Crow, a children’s poetry book forthcoming in April 2022. Her day is incomplete without poetry, tea, and a walk in the dark. Find her on Twitter @meganwillome and Instagram at @meganwillome, or online at meganwillome.com

Two Simons (a pantoum)


Simon Darre is a complex character. There are times I admire him and times I despise him. Even the chapter about his death, which is so beautifully rendered, is somewhat undermined in the very next chapter, when we hear Ramborg’s side of the story. And yet I think that’s as it should be. There were always two Simons.


Two Simons (a pantoum)
by Megan Willome


I can count every freckle on his face
He wants to go fishing with me
The dead boy walks in the spring pasture
The long road home sparkles in uncertain snow


I want to go fishing with him
phew! phew! Away with you—
Uncertain snow blocks the long road home
Ramborg can marry again, maybe happily


phew! phew! Away with you—
You won’t be able to heal me, Kristin
Ramborg can marry again and be happy
Erlend is a splendid specimen of a man (sometimes)


You won’t be able to heal me, Kristin
I walk with the dead boy in the spring pasture
Your Erlend is a splendid specimen of a man (sometimes)
My every freckle is reflected on your face

Megan Willome is a writer, editor, and author of The Joy of Poetry, and Rainbow Crow, a children’s poetry book forthcoming in April 2022. Her day is incomplete without poetry, tea, and a walk in the dark. Find her on Twitter @meganwillome and Instagram at @meganwillome, or online at meganwillome.com

Rebels

No one wants to be The Man. Everyone wants to fly the
Millennium Falcon.

Caitlin Dwyer

I’m sitting down to write with Princess Leia. She’s stickered onto my blue coffee mug, buns
loose on the sides of her head, middle fingers upturned. Her expression is terse and fierce.
There are no words, but the takeaway of the image is: resist.


I take a long sip of bitter brew out of her buns. I think about what that means to resist. How
much the word burns a little crackling fire in my belly. How much it conceals, like a lacquer over
a pockmarked surface. How it lets me tell a story about myself that I want, more than know, to
be true.


Princess Leia has always been my favorite princess, spunkier than most Disney heroines I grew
up with in the 80s and 90s. Unlike those princesses, who were mostly excluded from ruling their
nations, Leia was more explicitly involved in politics, diplomacy, and leadership: a stateswoman
with snark. In the late 2010s she reemerged as a political figure, an icon of the left, leader of
the resistance against President Trump. She appeared on signs at the women’s march, bumper
stickers and lawn signs and Twitter memes. As a senator who resorts to revolutionary tactics,
she appealed to a progressive left that wanted to undermine the establishment without, you
know, actually revolting against the establishment.


But then we did have a revolt. A real one. In 2021 it came from the other side of the political
spectrum, and it involved setting up a gallows outside the Capitol and threatening to kill the
Vice President. People died. The rebels felt their cause was righteous; the rest of us were
horrified.


I was reading Book 2 of Kristin Lavransdatter this summer in the weeks when Congress was
livestreaming the January 6 hearings. I read about Erlend’s imprisonment and torture for
conspiring against the king, even as I heard testimony about how our president encouraged (or
at least refused to discourage) armed rebellion. It got me thinking about the history of
revolution in the U.S. and how people from all political opinions position themselves against
authority as scrappy, righteous rebels.


The U.S. began with rebellion, obviously: it’s our founding mythos. Tea in the harbor, midnight
ride, Washington’s icy advance across the Delaware. American identity rests on an anti-
authoritarian, anti-monarchy ethic (even as we are, myself included, obsessed with royal succession in England and Westeros) and a sense of the scrappy individual against the
homogenizing empire.


What I’ve been wondering about is the enduring legacy of rebellion. If the good guys are always
in opposition to The Man, then what happens when the good guys win? Who spends time
building roads, exacting taxes, doing the tedious and unrewarding work of building a nation? Do
the rebels become The Man, and invite a new generation of rebellion? Are we stuck in this cycle
of destruction and renewal forever just because we can’t conceive of a plot in which some of us
have to start governing?


In the Star Wars sequels, where Princess Leia has become General Leia, an older woman of
authority and gravitas, I saw this problem. The writers couldn’t imagine a world in which the
rebels had actually succeeded because then the rebels would then be the empire. They
basically re-wrote the original trilogy with Leia as the leader of a new scrappy band of rebels.
The plot felt tired. Why wouldn’t we see Leia involved in the difficult diplomacy of rebuilding
trust and establishing trade? Writing a Constitution? Having Reconciliation and Truth hearings
with former stormtroopers? In that scenario, the rebel would necessarily transform into a
stateswoman. But that’s not sexy, is it. That’s not a blockbuster film. No one carried posters of
Nancy Pelosi at the women’s march.


Listening to the January 6th hearings I was struck by how much of the far-right insurrection was
animated by this same old story. Just like the left appropriated Leia as a symbol, the right has
Don’t Tread on Me iconography and Confederate flags, the latter of which carries heavy
symbolic weight, for both sides. I’m not equating my favorite Princess to a racist rebellion that
sought to uphold slavery, obviously. I’m saying that the symbols of rebellion animate our
political debate on both sides and are part of the self-conception of righteousness that has
entrenched us into political deadlock. No one wants to be The Man. Everyone wants to fly the
Millennium Falcon.

Obviously medieval Norway doesn’t share much in common with the modern bicameral
legislature. Nevertheless, there are a few things that struck me about Erlend’s failed rebellion,
namely the vagueness around whether it would have been a good idea. The King is described as
unfit to rule (and there is some homophobic undertone here which I dislike) but his support of
torture seems to support Erlend’s claim that he’s not a good ruler. And yet everyone knows
Erlend is flaky and impulsive, prone to political mistakes; Undset repeats this chatter about
Kristin’s husband so many times it starts to feel overwrought. Does Erlend know something we
don’t? Or is he an impulsive fool storming the steps, convinced of his own righteous cause?
“And yet it had always been the right of Norwegian farmers and chieftans in the past to reject
any king who attempted to rule unlawfully,” Undset writes during Erlend’s trial. This is part of
Erlend’s defense and, it seems to me, a statement based in modern democracy. The statement
forces me to reflect on both the immense importance and potential troubles of the peaceful
transfer of power. In any functioning democratic system (or even, it seems, in quasi-functional
monarchies), people deserve the right to reject a bad ruler. That’s why we vote.

Right now, many people in this nation believe that our current elected president is ruling
unlawfully. Because this belief has no basis in fact, the left dismissed the threat of violent far-
right revolution until January 6 th , when violence became a gobsmacking reality. The left
underestimated the power of that founding mythos — even as they appropriate Leia and other
resistance symbols for their own. The story of the unlawful king holds great mythic weight in
this nation, as it must have in Erlend and Kristin’s. In some ways, rebellion is an act of
storytelling, of positioning the self as a protagonist in a long and ongoing tale of necessary
violence.


That is the plot of Star Wars, and the original movies have been my favorite films since
girlhood. But I wonder now what happens when the rebels go home. When they accept the
results of the election or themselves begin to serve in positions of power, become arbiters of
law and negotiators of treaty. When they are reunited with loved ones and, broken and
traumatized, set about making a life. When they give up being rebels and take on other titles,
other self-conceptions.


I think that Kristin, like Leia, might be the kind of woman who got to work doing the necessary
and unsexy work of taking care of people, distributing food, and building community. Erlend
rebelled, but Kristin is not a rebel. She’s a builder. Hers is the story of farmers and housewives,
listening and acting on what you hear. It is in some ways a woman’s story, a story of
homemaking and patient labor, relationship and mutual use, a story without glamor but with
immense importance for creating viable, livable communities. Neither side has any patience
with this story, but it might be the one we need to get better at telling.

Caitlin Dwyer is a writer, storyteller, poet and multimedia journalist. She’s always curious about the deeper story behind the headlines. Her essays braid reflection, observation, journalistic interviews, and scholarly research, all in search of intimate, human portraits. In her poetry, she explores mythology and motherhood. She also helps produce and host the podcast Many Roads to Here. She studied journalism at the University of Hong Kong and creative writing at the Rainier Writing Workshop. She also teaches writing with Portland Community College. At home, she often plays Wonder Woman and/or Evil Queen in epic pretend games with her children. If she’s not teaching, writing, or parenting, she is probably wandering around in the forest or lost in a book.

Never the Same

Chapter 3 of book 2, from the “Honor Among Kin” section, is one of my all-time favorite
chapters in Kristin Lavransdatter. When Callie Feyen introduced me to a form called the bio
poem, I realized I needed to write about Bjarne, the poor woman whose grave Kristin robs in
order to save Simon’s son Andres. It’s Kristin’s moment to enter eternity.


As she undertakes her errand (of witchcraft? superstition? faith?) Kristin is changed. The door
closes to her home, to her family, and even to herself, “to the woman who had wandered past, up along the road this night.” The spirits of the dead touch her like leaves, calling to her, and “After this night she could never be afraid of anything else in the world.”


A Ghostly Gift: Bjarneby Megan Willome


Orphaned, honorable, provided-for, dead,
my father’s foster daughter, my sister’s maid,
who loved children, loved the rooted earth, loved gold with rubies,
who was cut to the heart by a dagger in the dark,
who gave turf, sacred ground, the archangel rooster,
who feared abandonment, poverty, desecration.
who would have liked to see the boy I saved—the bony chicken of a child.
Look back, Kristin, look under your arm as you leave the poor section of the cemetery.
Ghost.

Remembering the Elf Maiden

I took a walk through the Ann Arbor Arboretum on the same day I read about Kristin remembering the visit from the elf-maiden. Kristin is standing near the same place the elf-maiden visited her when she was a little girl. I am not sure what will happen next. I stopped reading as soon as Kristin remembers her. 

    I tend to enter the same way each time I visit the Arb. I walk down the center of the peony garden, and past the Fairy Woods and Troll Hollow – a small patch of forest made up of maybe fourteen trees – and then down a slope that leads to the Huron River. 

    You can make homes for the fairies, and probably for the trolls too, in these woods. You use whatever you can find  – sticks and pine cones, leaves, and perhaps pedals that fell from flowers. It wasn’t that long ago that Harper would want to stop and make a house in this forest. I’d sit on a bench nearby while she worked.

    Ann Arbor houses fairies. At least, I think that’s the town’s hope. There are fairy doors all over, and actually, the Fairy Woods and Troll Hollow is the least subtle. The doors hide in bookshelves in libraries, or in the breweries and coffee shops. When we first moved to Ann Arbor, Harper and I were out and about getting to know our new town, and she found an entire fairy village, complete with a church and a school. The village wasn’t hiding, and I’d like to think I would’ve found it eventually, but Harper’s always had an awareness for these types of things. She’s always noticing things in a world the rest of us think is too dark to see. 

    I had covid when Kristin remembers the elf-maiden, and was unable to focus on much those days save for how totally exhausted I was all the time. Writing was grueling as I couldn’t sustain a thought long enough to turn it into something, and reading gave me a headache. This sent me into what I remember Anne of Green Gables calling, “the depths of despair.” Surely, I would always feel this way. Surely, I will never write again. Surely, this is not covid, this is a part of my personality that has been hiding within, waiting to come out and ruin me. 

    It was Undset’s descriptive parts of the story that gave my mind, and my soul, a reprieve. Undset’s description is like the dollar section at Target, or the Farmer’s Market on a fall day, or hearing the words, “snow day.” It simply makes me happy.

    This is a curious observation to me because normally when I read long descriptive passages, especially pertaining to the setting, it seems the author is screaming, “LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT WHAT I CAN DO! PAY ATTENTION TO ME; NOT THE STORY!” This is not the case with Undset, and in fact, the parts where she is describing the setting are the parts I understand and am invested in the story the most. 

    On pgs 703-717, I marked seven instances of description of setting. Here are a few:

  • Kristin is on a walk with two of her sons and her niece when “the first stars were sparkling, wet and white, high up in the sky, where the limpid green was turning blue, moving toward darkness and night.”
  • She walks again with Simon and Ramborg on a night that, “was black and clear with glittering stars….[and]…the sound of water was everywhere in the darkness around them.”
  • Kristin stops at a lone spruce tree, on an afternoon of picking wild flowers, “tall, pale yellow stalks, richly adorned with small open stars,” and as she looks upon the landscape she realizes she “missed everything that she once found so wearisome.”

    It is Kristin who Undset gives these thoughts to. While the narration is third person omniscient, Kristin is the one who notices her surroundings. If Kristin is the heroine of the story, then these descriptive scenes serve as great pauses – reprieves for Kristin to ground and gather herself – in order for the story to continue. And if that is the case, then part of being a hero is one’s willingness to observe without concern for what it is, or what it does. You are here. You are in it. Name what it is you see. 

    I’m not making progress on much these days, and I’d like to blame covid, but I think covid is what made me stop and realize that the franticness with which I am searching to make something worthwhile and meaningful is making me apathetic and depressed. I was a bit ashamed to write about my admiration for Undset’s descriptive prowess, but I’m grateful to have spent some time understanding why I look forward to these passages: they take me places I didn’t know I wanted to go – like down a narrow and steep and crooked path and onto a dirt bank of the Huron River where there are ants half the size of my finger and dragonflies with lace wings that skim the water, and that’s where I’ll sit for no other reason then I want to hear all the different sounds water can make.

Callie Feyen (Project Redux founder) holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University, and is a writer for Coffee+Crumbs, TS Poetry Press, and The Banner. She is the author of two books: The Teacher Diaries, and Twirl, and is working on her third –a book about JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Callie lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with her husband Jesse, and their two daughters, Hadley and Harper. Follow her on Instagram at @calliefeyen or online at calliefeyen.com.

Warm Diseases in Kristin Lavransdatter: An Acupuncture Student’s Take

I am at the one large table in the corner of the Starbucks 5 minutes from my house. An iced decaf Americano sits sweating onto the faux wood, my passport to a few hours of uninterrupted study. The music is always too loud for my taste, but the taste of coffee tricks me into a more alert state, and the location saves me gas and time during the precious hours my sitter is at my home with her toddler and mine. Noisy as this cafe may be, two toddlers are noisier. At least this noise doesn’t come with diaper changes or requests for snacks.

I sip my coffee and think about what I learned several months ago: that caffeine is, in part, the coffee plant’s defense. To some animals, it’s poison. But to bees, who sip nectar from the coffee plant’s flowers, it’s an elixir that makes them likelier to remember the plant’s location for future pollination. That gets me thinking about how some poisons can be medicines, and some medicines, if taken incorrectly, can be poison. 

We keep a laminated sheet on the inside of our medicine cabinet door with the correct dosage by weight for acetaminophen for our children. It’s one of the most commonly used drugs in the world, and yet because of its impact on the liver, it’s also one of the most dangerous, with a thin line between its toxic dose and a safe dose– a narrow “safety margin,” or therapeutic index. In other words, Tylenol’s common dose is close to its overdose. It’s a fact I have mostly chosen not to think about too deeply, even as we usually underdose when we do to give it to our children, for fevers that keep them from sleeping.

Like many drugs, science still hasn’t figured out exactly how acetaminophen works as an analgesic and fever reducer. The theories, like bees, hum and buzz around the possibilities: it could be due to the functions of neurotransmitters like serotonin, the body’s endocannabinoids, or ion channels in the brain and spinal cord. I look up the history of Tylenol and learn I’ve conflated its discovery with that of aspirin, maybe because when I was growing up, my parents used the words Tylenol and aspirin interchangeably. But aspirin is an entirely different substance. It comes from a compound synthesized from willow, evolving from the medieval use of willow bark as an analgesic. Acetaminophen, on the other hand, was discovered by accident in a lab in 1873, and largely ignored until it was tested as an analgesic and rebranded as Tylenol in the 1950s.

I’m thinking about medicine and fevers because my friends and their families are getting Covid, despite it being summer, and despite their being vaccinated, and fever is on all of our minds. Fever is also on my mind because of what I am here to study, in my final year of acupuncture school. Fever is the first sign of an invasion of Wind-Heat, according to the notes I made last night on the Four Stages Theory in Chinese medicine, a later school of thought than the Six Divisions, though both deal with the invasion of external pathogens. Four Stages Theory helps identify how deeply into the body a pathogen has penetrated, specifically a pathogen in the category of Warm Diseases, which are virulent diseases like flu, measles, chicken pox, SARS, Scarlet Fever, and yes, Covid. 

Long before so-called Western medicine was able to isolate the viruses causing these diseases, Chinese medicine identified their characteristics: they manifest with fever, the pathogen enters through the nose and mouth, they’re highly infectious, the onset is rapid, and if untreated they can penetrate deeply enough to be fatal.

As I read my notes, my mind scans back to the countless symptoms described in such detail in Kristin Lavransdatter. Unlike Kristin, I have an arsenal of vaccines at my disposal to protect my children against the Warm Diseases that used to take young lives indiscriminately. As a modern mother in a wealthy country, I have access to a level of precision about viruses Kristin could never have imagined, and the bold expectation that science and medicine will be there to help me should my children fall ill. In Kristin’s world, there is God and medicinal plants, and children who struggle with nameless symptoms.

“Kristin cupped the little face in her hand; it was yellowish-white, like tallow, and his eyes were always tired. Gaute had a big, heavy head and frail limbs. He had turned two years old but still couldn’t stand on his own, he had only five teeth, and he couldn’t speak a word. Sira Eiliv said that it wasn’t rickets. Everywhere the priest went he would ask advice about this illness that had overtaken Gaute. But to her he could only say that she must patiently submit to God’s will. And she should let him have warm goat milk.”

Scarlet fever? I wonder. 

A quick search: Scarlet fever was once widely feared by parents because of its harsh effects on children. Historically, septic complications such as brain abscess, meningitis, lung abscess, pneumonia, osteomyelitis (bone infection), middle ear and soft tissue infections could follow scarlet fever and cause early death. 

According to the six divisions, this is an invasion of Wind-Heat. Ye Tianshi, a 17th Qing Dynasty century doctor, who formulated the 4 Stages theory, is often credited with discovering scarlet fever first in China. Lanhousha (which literally translates to “rotten throat rash,”) was apparently non-existent in China during medieval times, and is first recorded in the largely undated records of Ye Tianshi, a busy doctor who didn’t have time to make extensive notes as he worked to treat suffering patients. 

But then I wonder if the fever Gaute suffered from was the same as the one that struck all of the children, manifesting differently in each of them– a mysterious “sickness” that would eventually infect Kristin and claim Orm’s life: 

“Kristin took the candlestick from the table and shone the light on the two sleeping boys… Bjorgulf’s eyelashes were not festering– thank God for that. The weather would stay fine for a while yet. As soon as the wind blew hard or the weather forced the children to stay inside near the hearth, his eyes would grow inflamed… They had been as healthy as little fledglings, all three of her sons, until the sickness had come to the region last summer. A fever had carried off children in homes all around the fjord; it was a terrible thing to see and to hear about. She had been allowed to keep hers– all her own children… For five days she had sat near the bed where they lay, all three of them, with red spots covering their faces and with feverish eyes that shunned the light… Gaute was then only ten months old; he was so ill that she didn’t think he’d survive.” 

Red spots, fevers, eyes with aversion to light… I Google around and hit on measles.

Measles is an infection you get from a virus. The measles virus lives in the mucus of the nose and throat. It’s spread through the air and by coming into direct contact with someone who has it. The virus can stay active on surfaces and in the air for up to 2 hours.

It’s very contagious. If you haven’t been vaccinated and are in a room with someone who has measles, you have a 90% chance of getting it.

Part of what makes measles so dangerous is that you can be contagious 4 days before you get the telltale rash. So you could easily spread the virus without knowing you have it. You’ll continue to be contagious 4 days after the rash goes away.

Initial symptoms typically include fever, often higher than 104, cough, runny nose, and inflamed eyes.

I’m deep down a rabbit hole, with a treatise on scarlet fever in indigenous Chinese medicine open in one tab, and an analysis of measles using the four stages in another tab, when a man sits down at the table next to me and sneezes loudly and untidily into his sleeve. I’m instantly on guard. It’s probably innocuous, but I pick up my things and decide to head to the library anyway. Besides, maybe I’m getting off track. 

Or maybe I’m deepening my learning by making connections between this medicine and my real life– where the story of a new warm disease is unfolding in real time– and between my story and Kristin’s, where the descriptions of symptoms without a diagnosis practically leap off the page. Maybe we get more on track the more we bring what we’re interested in into other areas of our lives, applying and comparing and testing. This connection-making is what we’ve been doing here, as writers, for the past seven months: bringing Kristin Lavransdatter along with us into our lives, seeing what her story might have to say about ours. 

PS If you liked this very cursory look at TCM diagnosis, check out this video on diagnosing and treating sadness and grief with TCM. It’s a series that goes through case studies using Star Wars characters! This one’s for Senator Amidala, but I feel like it would apply to Kristin at any number of points in the book…

Melissa Reeser Poulin is the author of a chapbook of poems, Rupture, Light (2019), and co-editor of the anthology Winged: New Writing on Bees (2014). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in basalt, Catamaran Literary Reader, Entropy, Poetry Northwest, Relief, Ruminate Magazine, The Taos Journal of International Poetry & Art, and Water~Stone Review, among others. She’s working toward her license as a community acupuncturist, and lives near Portland, Oregon with her husband Lyle and their three children, Sky, Robin, and Iris. Follow her on Instagram at @melissa_r_poulin or online at melissareeserpoulin.com.

Photo credit: Photo by Katherine Hanlon on Unsplash

Hail, Halfrid

One thing Kristin is spectacularly bad at is forming friendships with other women. This separation from those who could help her leaves her defenseless when she is most in need. But there is one woman she never meets who does her an incalculable service: Halfrid, the first wife of Kristin’s betrothed, Simon. 

Poor Halfrid gets a total of four pages in chapter 5, “Husaby,” from The Wife. We learn she was wealthy and highborn but sickly. She was generous to Simon when he slept with her maid and got the woman pregnant—she even allowed the child to live in their home. She must have been happy to have a son because her first husband beat her so badly that she had trouble bringing a pregnancy to term. Her son with Simon died quickly, as did she, after childbirth.

And then Halfrid disappears from the narrative for more than 100 pages, until she is referred to in chapter 7 of “Erlend Nikulausson,” from The Wife, in a conversation between Simon and Erling Vidkunsson. (Since his name is so similar to Erlend’s, I’ll call him Vito.)

Vito has red hair and blue eyes. He’s a knight, and he’s rich. He and Erlend are the same age and are even distant kinsman. But Erlend dislikes Vito, saving for him his harshest criticism: Vito is boring. Not surprisingly, Vito doesn’t care much for Erlend.

But it is Vito who saves Erlend’s life. Because of Halfrid. Because Simon dares to do a good thing.

The only reason Simon is allowed to see Erlend in prison is because he is friends with the judge, from his Halfrid-days. Eventually Simon realizes only one man might convince the king to free Erlend: That man is Vito. 

But Vito has no interest in helping Erlend. Only Simon can change his mind, and the way he does it is by bringing up Halfrid to Vito. 

Halfrid loves Vito—she confesses this to Simon shortly before she dies. And Vito loves Halfrid. They love each other when her abusive first husband caused her to miscarry, but Halfrid doesn’t want to leave him and tempt Vito away from his own marriage. They continue to love each other after that man’s death, when she marries some other fellow: She marries Simon. 

Vito has no respect for Simon, who betrays his true love by sleeping with her maid. And yet here, at Halfrid’s gravesite, is when Halfrid’s name appears five times in four pages, as this woman “better than the purest gold” turns the fortunes of Kristin and Erlend.  

Vito will not intervene for Erlend’s sake. He will not do it for Simon’s sake. He won’t even do it for Kristin’s sake, who he likes even though she has a past.

VITO: “When she met Erlend she was already betrothed, that much I know.”

SIMON: “Yes, she was betrothed to me.”

Vito will do it for Halfrid’s sake—the woman he could never have. So, in effect, Halfrid saves Erlend and Kristin without saying a word. That’s why I wrote a poem for her.

It follows the pattern of a hymn to the Virgin Mary called Hail, Mary, Gentle Woman. (It opens with the Hail Mary, so the hymn doesn’t really start until the words “Gentle Woman”). Rest in peace, dear friend Kristin never knew she had. 

Hail, Halfrid, Silent Woman

    after “Hail, Mary, Gentle Woman” by Carey Landry

Chorus

Silent woman

Wealthy wife

Lovely gowns

Gentle eyes

Sweetest mouth

Weak of womb

Sickly breath

Early tomb

Verse

You chose honor — not to be happy 

For your name means stable home

Your first husband stole your beauty

And the next was bound to roam

Verse

Steady were you, when he betrayed you

Kindness were you, to his child

Radiant were you, when was born a baby

And in death, full reconciled

Verse

All night long you spoke in whispers

From a heart much purer than gold

Never knew you saved a rebel

Only knew the peace of God

Megan Willome is a writer, editor, and author of The Joy of Poetry, and Rainbow Crow, a children’s poetry book forthcoming in April 2022. Her day is incomplete without poetry, tea, and a walk in the dark. Find her on Twitter @meganwillome and Instagram at @meganwillome, or online at meganwillome.com

Summer Reading for K-Lav and Crew

Of course the Caldecotts and the Newberys, the Pulitzers and those other titles you find and love that don’t fit into any award at all aren’t going to solve the problems of Kristin and everyone in her life, but I kind of want to take a few of them by the hand (others I’d like to yank by their shirt collar), lead them to a library where it’s quiet, and smells like words, sit them down and say, “Here. Read this. Or let me read it to you.”

Here are some books I wish a few of the characters in Kristin Lavransdatter knew about:

For Kristin:

  • Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith — This story follows Ivy Rowe through her letters to others, beginning at age 12. It is charming and honest. Kristin would find a kindred spirit in the passionate Ivy, who, even though I read about her almost 20 years ago, I cannot get out of my head.
  • Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson — Here is a memoir told in poetry, and Woodson does for South Carolina and New York City what Undset does for Norway. I also think Kristin would learn or at least wonder about a thing or two regarding her mother’s story after reading about Woodson’s mom.
  • The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo — A modern day Eve story, and one where she comes to terms with what it is she desires, how she sees the world, and what she wants to do it in. I think Kristin would have a hard time with this story, which is why I think she ought to read it.

For Ragnfrid:

  • Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis by Lauren Winner — I hesitate to use the word “luxury” in regards to having a crisis of faith (mostly because I’m terrified of Lauren Winner), but to be able to express it, to be able to create something from that experience, is an opportunity Ragnfrid didn’t have. Lauren’s words would have helped Ragnfrid’s words — perhaps they would’ve given Ragnfrid language to try on and see that she is (still and always) so lovingly held.
  • A Place to Live by Natalia Ginzburg — A series of essays exploring home, where one finds oneself at home, motherhood, and writing. I love how honestly Ginzburg handles and reveals herself, and it is something I can relate to. Ginzburg shows it is the expression of doubt that leads to faith.

For Lavrans:

  • Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz — A story about two boys who are best friends, and so obviously in love with each other but one does not realize it while the other one does. I’m not saying Lavrans would’ve read this and said, “Oh. OH, so THAT’S what’s going on with me.” Probably he wouldn’t, but I think the story is so powerfully written that I believe it would open up a possibility that love knows no boundaries, no matter what it is we do to build them.
  • True Believer by Virginia Euwer Wolff — A novel told in a series of poems, here is a story exploring faith and love and what it means to believe.
  • All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy — I’m actually relieved Lavrans isn’t a real person because I’m afraid if he were, and he read this book, it might kill him. I could barely stand to read about John Cole who felt so out of place in the world but loved it so — I just don’t know if Lavrans could handle it. Still, I recommend it, and suggest he read it with a strong drink and a notebook.

For Erlend:

  • All the Harry Potter books because dude legit needs an adventure. I’d tell him to pay close attention to Ron Weasley.
  • On that same note, Erlend would (pardon the pun) devour Justin Cronin’s trilogy: The Passage, The Twelve, and City of Mirrors. These are the scariest books I’ve ever read, filled with complicated characters I didn’t want to love. I would suggest Erlend read them with a friend and discuss frequently.
  • Into the Wild by John Krakauer — One summer I decided I was going to read all the Oprah books, and was annoyed when this title popped up on the list. I think I was 25 when I walked into the downtown South Bend Public Library, held the book in my hands and read the blurb about Chris McCandless selling all he had and driving to Alaska where he dies because he ate the wrong kind of berry. “Why would I read this?” I thought wishing Oprah had picked another Maeve Binchy book. But I read it, and the book left an imprint on me so much so that when I finished it in a Barnes and Noble (Chris would hate Barnes and Noble, and don’t even get me started on what he’d say about Amazon), I immediately wrote John Krakauer telling him how much I loved his book. He wrote me back — handwritten, too. I still have the postcard.

For Simon:

Guys, Simon gets on my last nerve. He makes me nervous every time he enters a scene. I admit I probably get invested in stories beyond what is good for me, but I take it personally that Lavrans thinks of Simon as God’s gift to, well, everything. He’s that guy who sweet talks his way into getting a hall pass when he ditched chemistry (actually, it probably would’ve been something in the humanities), or the preppy politician who smells too much of Binaca. He doesn’t fool me, and I want to give him a book to read for punishment. Leviticus, maybe? I know that wouldn’t work though, so how about these:

  • About A Boy by Nick Hornby — Simon needs a book about a super cool guy who doesn’t know it, or won’t admit it, but is lost and is too afraid to be vulnerable until someone comes along and gives him the strength to change. I think this book would confuse Simon at first, but maybe if someone read it to him he would enjoy the story. Or, he could watch the movie, first.
  • Flipped by Wendelin Van Draanen — I’ve not met a boy or a girl who doesn’t love this book, and I think it’s because the story is told in alternating chapters by Bryce and Juli. It is eye-opening to see how differently they see one event, as well as how their perspective about the other person shifts and changes. I need Simon to think about someone else besides Simon, and I think this book will help.
  • There’s a Boy in the Girl’s Bathroom by Louis Sachar — I was hesitant to read this with Hadley and Harper years ago, because I thought it was going to be predictable and shallow (shows how open-minded I am), but this is a book with a main character who is so utterly loveable, I am grateful the girls and I could spend some time in his life. Plus, there are some parts that are so funny we had to put the book down because we were all laughing so hard. Come to think of it, every one of these characters would do well to laugh, so maybe all of them should read this book.

I don’t think the point of a story is to solve a problem, anyway. I’m not interested in the point of things these days, and especially in July. I’m interested in trying to hold still when the undertow of Lake Michigan tugs at my ankles, and I’m interested in letting go and sliding into the water. I’m interested in the tang of nostalgia I taste when I pop blueberries into my mouth or bite into a white peach. I’m interested in shifting myself on a beach towel so the curves of the sand hug the curves and hollows of my body and I close my eyes, and I settle myself somewhere different for a little while.

Happy Summer Reading to you all.

Callie Feyen (Project Redux founder) holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University, and is a writer for Coffee+Crumbs, TS Poetry Press, and The Banner. She is the author of two books: The Teacher Diaries, and Twirl, and is working on her third –a book about JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Callie lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with her husband Jesse, and their two daughters, Hadley and Harper. Follow her on Instagram at @calliefeyen or online at calliefeyen.com.

Just Sparks

Photo by Maria P on Unsplash

By Melissa Poulin

Lavrans and Erlend are at a meeting with the regent Erling Vidkunsson, to discuss some trouble Erlend’s men have gotten into. In future chapters, Erling will play a pivotal role in the struggle to save Erlend from himself, but for now, Lavrans and Erling are speaking in low voices about “men like Erlend.”

“They’re the most dangerous kind,” Erling says. “Men who think a little farther than their own interests but not far enough… He never wants to listen to any matter long enough to understand it fully. And if he bothers to hear a man out, he forgets the first part before the discussion comes to an end.”

It’s late spring, and I’m deep into the second half of “Husaby” in Kristin Lavransdatter. Outside the rain falls heavily onto already-saturated soil. It’s the wettest April, May, and June that Oregon has ever had, and though I long for sun, I remember the devastating wildfires of the previous summers. Even with this record rain, parts of Oregon are still experiencing drought, and are still likely to experience climate-caused fires this summer. The Columbia approaches and then surpasses flood stage, and meanwhile, MIT scientists are busy exploring “space bubbles,” a technology some think could help us avoid the worst-case scenarios of the climate crisis.

Huge ice balloons built in outer space, positioned to reflect the sun’s rays and save us from ourselves, I read at the kitchen table, sipping coffee with my one-year-old in my lap. My four-year-old is building an elaborate car from Magna Tiles as he finishes his cereal, and my seven-year-old is still wearing a long silk scarf wrapped around her torso, though I’ve told her twice to get dressed for school. In a minute I’ll start counting to three, and they know they’ll lose privileges once I reach that final number.

Our final number in the climate emergency is well-known, as are the measures we must take to avoid reaching it– yet we are on track to raise global temperatures by 1.5 degrees C in less than eight years’ time.

Why is it so hard to learn from our mistakes? The thought flicks across my mind as I read. The parent in me reflexively holds on to natural consequences: I wonder if the promise of a technological save will prevent us from making the achievable changes scientists have urged for decades. But the parent in me also feels desperately hopeful, with young lives dependent on me, that maybe their future won’t be quite as bleak as I often imagine, late at night when I can’t sleep.

In “Husaby,” we continue to follow the spiral of consequences stemming from Kristin and Erlend’s first mistake. In youthful ignorance, they chose their passion over all else, no matter the wreckage around them, and now they experience the natural consequences. The scales begin to drop from Kristin’s eyes as she reckons with the full character of the man she married. The man who was willing to stride over boundaries and take what he wanted when pursuing Kristin is the same man whose continued boundary-crossing pulls her and their children to the brink of disaster.

These fixed parts of human nature, and the repeated spectacular fallout from characteristic mistakes, form the core of the conflict central to Kristin Lavransdatter. The tension between Kristin and Erlend is the tension between pride and humility, between the passion of one’s will and obedience to God, between reconciliation and unforgiveness.

These are essentially human knots, enlarged and exaggerated in the opera of these fictional lives. It’s easy to distance myself from Kristin and Erlend. They’re not real! It’s fiction! The 14th century was so brutal! But as extreme their sins may be, I’m troubled by the way I relate to the struggles of two characters who just can’t seem to get it together, can’t seem to get over themselves. It’s hard to be a dispassionate reader of such a passionate story. Over and over, alongside Kristin, my heart is wrung out by the same patterns of behavior.

After my older children are dressed and off to school, after the baby is down for her morning nap, I take out my bible and my journal. The devotion for the day is about Peter, the rock on whom Jesus built his church. Did Jesus choose Peter because he was perfect? Far from it. Peter was the one who denied Jesus three times as he was led to the cross. Peter wasn’t perfect, but he did have faith.

More than anything, I want to do right by my children. I want to raise them well, to teach them love and forgiveness and the value of saying you’re sorry. Sometimes I worry over my past mistakes with them, mostly times when I lost my temper. I worry that they’ll end up in therapy, just like me, in spite of all my efforts– as though therapy were the thing to avoid at all costs. But wanting to parent well is different from wanting to do it perfectly. Parenting by faith, and not by perfection, leaves room for redemption. It acknowledges the essential knot of humanity, our essential need for salvation by grace.

I recently watched the last episode of This Is Us, a show I’ve been following since my oldest was just one. “I made so many mistakes,” Rebecca says as she journeys through the train taking her across death’s threshold. “I hate to break it to you, kiddo, but I have yet to meet the parent who says ‘I got it all right,'” says the doctor who delivered her children. “No perfect games in parenting. Not even close.”

It’s a television show, but still. There’s something so profound in that admission. Modern parenting, with its maze of parenting books, preschool waitlists, and consumer choices, can make it seem like perfection is just a purchase or Pinterest board away– as if perfection as a goal were desirable. It’s only very recently that I’ve begun to see my own lifelong struggle with perfectionism for what it is: a temptation to pride, something that separates me from God. It seems so obvious: of course perfectionism couldn’t be anything but sin. Faith declares that Christ is the only perfect one. Yet in my struggle, I have long harbored a secret belief or hope that maybe it’s not such a bad thing, that maybe it’s kind of a good thing to want so terribly to please.

“We certainly are sparks!” said St Catherine of Sienna, a woman who broke every last societal expectation for women of her time, in her pursuit of God. “This is why you want us to humble ourselves. Just as sparks receive their being from the fire, so let us acknowledge that our being comes from our first source.” In humility, we can recognize that anything good we can do comes from God, and that God makes his power perfect in our inherent human weaknesses.

It’s now mid-July as I write this in a coffee-shop, with 15 minutes of childcare hours left. I’m remarking how apt it is that I held off submitting this post I had intended for June, imagining some perfect addition or ending I just hadn’t achieved yet.

What I want to say is this: more than halfway through this year of reading Kristin, I’ve been totally floored by the way Undset’s masterpiece has changed me, and by how different my reading of it is this time around. Maybe because I am a different reader: I’m now a wife and a mother, humbled in so many ways by the challenges both roles have brought. It’s funny to me that I had this image of the book as somehow a feminist text, when it seems that nothing could be further from the truth. Kristin Lavransdatter is a profoundly Catholic text, and its aim is to throw into stark relief the seriousness of the human dilemma. Like Erlend, on my first read, I “didn’t listen long enough to fully understand.” I saw in it reflections of my own interests, as they were at that time in my life. Now I see in it reflections of my own state of sin, and the ways my humanness can keep me separated from God. I see in it the saga of humanity’s wrestling with God. I’m right there with Kristin.


Melissa Reeser Poulin is the author of a chapbook of poems, Rupture, Light (2019), and co-editor of the anthology Winged: New Writing on Bees (2014). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in basalt, Catamaran Literary Reader, Entropy, Poetry Northwest, Relief, Ruminate Magazine, The Taos Journal of International Poetry & Art, and Water~Stone Review, among others. She’s working toward her license as a community acupuncturist, and lives near Portland, Oregon with her husband Lyle and their three children, Sky, Robin, and Iris. Follow her on Instagram at @melissa_r_poulin or online at melissareeserpoulin.com.

Lavrans: Queer Cowboy

For five years I listened to the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text podcast, in which Vanessa
Zoltan and Casper ter Kuille read through all seven books, one chapter at a time. Casper, who is gay, invited listeners to consider where queerness might be hidden in the pages — not to place a stake in the ground where the author has not done so, but to be open to possibilities the author never imagined.


After reading this month’s selection, I was cleaning the kitchen and listening to Willie Nelson
sing “Cowboys are Frequently Secretly Fond of Each Other,” the gay cowboy anthem. And as I
listened, I could not shake thoughts of Lavrans Bjorgulfson.


Sigrid Undset wrote the three books that make up Kristin Lavransdatter in the 1920s. The books are set in 14th century Norway, and when men do have secret fondness for other men, the characters condemn those feelings in the harshest of tones. I don’t think Lavrans likes men, but there is something about him that deeply puzzles me.


He had never loved anyone.” Lavrans is the most pious person in the story, but his fasts don’t
seem to give him the freedom he longs for. I’m not talking about a specific secret sin that
Lavrans feels guilt over, but perhaps something quieter and stranger:


Why was he never able to love his wife the way she wished to be loved? “He had not
been able to
.”


Why did he not consider loving his friend’s wife, who he had thought of from time to
time? “He could have loved someone too.”


Why was he so happy serving as a soldier in the company of men? “War … it had been a
joy, but there was no more war; his armor was hanging up in the loft, seldom used
.”


Why was he such a good father to his daughters? “But the young ones in the nest … they
had been the little warm spot in his desolation, the most profound and sweetest pleasure
of his life
.”


Why did he feel so at home in the forest, among the wild animals? “Then he found that
he thrived best out in the wilderness—up on the mountain plateaus, where every living
creature demands wide-open space, with room enough to flee
.”


All these quotes come from the scene immediately following Kristin’s wedding, when Lavrans
and Ragnfrid become each other’s confessors. It’s devastating.


From this low point, they begin again — a new love between two old souls, married so young.
Their last scenes together are quite tender. Lavrans even gives her a new ring, gold with a blue
and white stone, and forbids her to give it to their daughters. As Kristin sits by her father’s
bedside while he dies, she comes to know a bit of this change in her parents:

Kristin knew that her father loved her no less than before. But she had never noticed
until now that he loved her mother.”

And not until after her father passes away, when she and her mother have their first and only
heart-to-heart in the whole novel, does she come to understand something of her parents’ love, the love of what Lavrans calls “faithful friends.” It’s a love that lays side by side in the dark, “their arms touching each other. After a moment they laced their fingers together.” That’s all.


I don’t have a label for Lavrans, this man I can picture taking care of his livestock, especially his beloved horses. In my imagination he wears pressed Wranglers and a Resistol and knows every living creature from here to the border. He never misses church. He’s had a lot of sorrows, but you wouldn’t know that to talk with him over a Shiner and brisket. He’s good to that wife of his. He loves those daughters. Fella throws one helluva party on holidays. He carves real nice too.


But he is kinda queer.


What the River Laag Sang

He was a foreigner
come to Norway to make his fortune

He was a soldier
St. Thomas heard his wounded cry

He was a father
three boys, three girls, countless fosters

He was a storyteller
knew the entire troll lineage (or made it up)

He was a horseman
the love of his life — training colts

He was a husband
too young, too strange to love

He was a landowner
his word, respected by men

He was a follower of Christ
observed every fast
kept the forgotten creed
turned five white stones into a cross
carried the crucifix out of the fire
let the Savior’s sad face console him

He did not love his wife
— not until the end —
not the way he loved the wilderness
the forest-dwellers
all that lives unseen but
sung in the roar of the River Laag