This week I was clearing out old files and found some of the poetry I wrote during grad school. If I recall, I began work on this poetic fragment, based on Grimm’s Hansel and Gretel, shortly after attending a Fable Writing class taught by Arnošt Lustig, while I was studying history and writing in Prague in the early 2000s.
Arnošt was an amazing human, writer, and mentor, and I learned so much about how to tell a solid story from him. “Hard by a Great Forest” is unfinished and unedited, and it was written by a much younger, less experienced, less weary me. I like its spirit, which reminds me, like Arnošt often did: there are many ways to approach the same story.
If this were a fairy tale, instead of a
poem, Hansel and Gretel would be deep
in the forest. After dropping the last
white pebble that glittered so bright by the
moon’s light, and the last crumb of the last crust
of bread baked from the wood-cutter’s oven,
their little mouths would open red as
baby sparrows fresh cracked from their shells and
whimpering in hunger. They would look for home,
and not find it. Instead, a white bird would
lead them deeper, further into the dark.
A house of cakes, windowed in pure sugar,
inhabited by a godless witch, two beds
covered in fresh linen, a stable for
little boys, crab shells for little girls,
an oven for baking, but not for bread,
would wait in the clearing they were about
to enter. And the witch and her red eyes
that are nearly blind, and her nose, keen on
human scent like a beast, and her canine
mouth ready to feast on the burgeoning
flesh, would act only kindly at first to
these two. Later she would fatten the brother.
“…a dainty mouthful,” she would mutter and
plot her coming dinner, but Hansel would
stay thin as bone, and Gretel, sent to the
oven in his stead, would bake the old witch
herself. Then this girl would unlock the door
that her brother sat behind. Free as birds
they would fill their pockets and pinafores
with jewels and gems and call a white swan
to carry them back to the wood-cutter’s shed,
to an anxious father and to their plotting
mother’s graveside. For she would be dead.
Of what? The story would not tell, only
that the man and his children lived happy
and full on that day and forever more.
If this were a poem and not a fairy
tale, then the mother might be at the
center, how she suffered in hunger and
how that hunger squeezed at her, daily beat
at her, left dark bruises shaped like stages
of the moon on the fabric of her flesh,
and her body was really the sky and
the stars and the planets in it shone down
on the pebbles the children scattered by
the trunks of the trees in the woods, always
leading them home to hunger, their mother’s
empty oven. Maybe their taut stomachs,
gaunt faces, made them ghosts, and the journey
into the forest came after the children
were buried together in small graves by
the wood-cutter and his wife; the story,
she recited to herself every night as
she lay down, “Hard by a great forest dwelt
a poor wood-cutter with his wife and his
two children…” The empty oven belonged
to her and she would weave herself into
the plot, a villain at first, then a witch,
sometimes a white bird, sometimes a full moon
illuminating the thickets and swamps.
If this were a poem not strung together
by a fairy tale but hunger or
flight or death or family, the dark woods
might enter me—a tree stands tall in the
clearing under the bright stars and moon of
the black sky inside my body’s center.
A small white bird is perched in the branches,
despite my effort to write it away,
and it is singing out loud: a piece of bread
between two mouths, the naked cupboard shelves,
cold oven, trail of crumbs; the forest
once quiet, is filled with song, a thousand
hungry birds filling up their beaks with all
you leave behind.
I do love an if…but no…or possibly story, & this is so beautifully rendered.