MK Chavez: “Little Red Riding Hood/Companion” 

Commentary by Amanda Moore, Contributing Editor

Like many young readers, I moved from loving picture books to fairy tales, most opening in a place far from the known universe, “once upon a time,” before transporting me to a magical world of fantasy and make-believe. I didn’t know then that some of these tales were never meant for children or that others sought to enforce certain moral codes and ethical teachings. I simply delighted in the princesses, elves, talking animals, evil witches, impossible situations, and, ultimately, the happy endings that restored the world to order after terror and chaos. And while I loved these stories fiercely and read them repeatedly, I eventually outgrew them and turned to books and poems that addressed a more-real world, one more familiar and speaking to issues, characters, and complications I cared about and recognized. Fantasy worlds remained a childhood vestige until, in college, I rediscovered the dark, sensual possibilities of the fairy tale in versions reimagined by Angela Carter in her collection The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (Penguin 1990) and Anne Sexton in her poetry collection Transformations (Houghton Mifflin 1971).

In the hands of these magnificent writers, the fairy tale became a vehicle to interrogate the female experience, consider the darker impulses of humanity, and explore the pleasures of flesh, lust, and even revenge. Carter and Sexton recast their tales with a modern edge, subverting dominant narratives and excavating the larger implications of their characters’ fates and allowing me a way to find my way back into those primal stories from my youth. To see how another poet, Emily Pérez, also found inspiration in fairy tales in making her poems, read this previous Poetry Sunday column.

Today’s poem claims a rightful place alongside those retellings, as MK Chavez empowers Little Red Riding Hood, an innocent damsel in distress if ever there were one, by giving her autonomy over her body and destiny and, ultimately, recognizing her multiplicity. Chavez’s Little Red Riding Hood is no child sent forth on an errand to Grandmother’s only to fall prey to the wolf. Instead, she is a complex embodiment of female power, a character who morphs over the course of the poem to become, as the title suggests, “[c]ompanion” to the wolf—even the wolf itself—instead of a little girl swallowed whole.

The poem opens with an epigraph, a quote from Clarissa Pinkola Estés’s Women Who Run with The Wolves (Ballantine Books 1992) that evokes the image of the “bad” woman, labeled this way for daring to seek her own freedom. Epigraphs are often a way to establish both tone and ethos with the reader, bringing in the wisdom and insight of another text, writer, or thinker to position or shape the context of the poem. In this case, I find the source of the epigraph to be as important as the quote itself; Pinkola Estés’s book explores the female archetype in various myths, folktales, and fairy tales, and it encourages women to resist the ways they are silenced and restrained in the modern world by embracing a “Wild Woman” archetype. This Wild Woman seeks freedom and embodies strength. She uses her instincts to outwit the allegorical wicked stepmothers and henchmen who would hinder her, she embraces her body and her brain, she finds and relies on her pack, and, above all, she survives. In evoking this archetype at the beginning of the poem, Chavez lets us know that her Little Red Riding Hood will not need a woodsman to deliver her and Grandmother from the clutches of the wolf. Instead, this is a heroine ready to wield the “secret” that “rests in [her] marrow.”

Inhabiting the persona of Little Red Riding Hood through the use of first-person perspective, the speaker dispenses with the image of a girl traipsing through the dark forest on a mission to deliver baked goods, locating herself instead at “the striptease.” The surprise of this setting momentarily subverts her persona’s innocence, but she is nevertheless a character in danger, one who is “prey” while she is “pirouette[ing].” This ballet movement keeps her spinning in place with a fragile momentum, arms raised and precariously balanced on one toe, a posture I associate with the figurine fixed in place in a music box, spinning beneath a lid raised and lowered at the whim of a viewer. Little Red Riding Hood is meant to be gazed upon, to perform, and she is also a potential victim.

The sense of her powerlessness begins to shift, however, as Little Red promises that “[l]ater” she may “show you / what it means to be consumed.” The loose syntax provides a few potential readings of these lines, particularly around whom or what is being consumed. Little Red could be claiming she will be the one consumed—and making a “show” of it—or she could be the one who does the consuming. This duality is one the poem revisits and plays with, reminding us that a simple shift in perspective is sometimes all it takes to alter power dynamics. The presence of masculine power in the form of “pashadom and papacy,” an alliterative duo that recalls the “pirouette/and prey” in lines above, suggests that Little Red Riding Hood is the one consumed. On the other hand, she lays claim to a more lasting consumption in the assertion that, ultimately, the high-ranking men who come to “gush” will be “covered in a fine mist” that tastes of—her.

The poem further recasts elements of the original tale as it explores an unseen truth within: “What they don’t know—beyond the veil.” “They” may be everything the “pashadom and papacy” represent in terms of male dominance, cultural and religious norms, and even public perception. In this case, Little Red Riding Hood’s revelation that “beyond the veil…the wolf / is me” blows open the binary notion of wolf and girl as opposing forces of predator and prey, consumer and consumed. Almost echoing the Biblical claim in Revelation that “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End,” Little Red Riding Hood is an entity larger than a single character in the story; she is herself and her companion, a figure that encompasses all and can be found in any setting, any physicality:

a forest of tupelo
cypress & black gum,
at midrib,
lobe, and blade.

In addition to embodying both the innocence of the girl and the wildness of the wolf, Little Red Riding Hood further claims that she “lay with the wolf,” a line that foregrounds the poem’s (and the fairy tale’s) sexual undertones. Instead of being the dutiful daughter, loyal granddaughter, and friendly, pleasing girl who unwittingly welcomes a predator into her sphere, Chavez’s Little Red Riding Hood has sexual hungers and the ability to satisfy those hungers for her own pleasure and triumph. From the opening “striptease” to wanting to show us “what it means to be consumed,” this is a character who doesn’t shy away from her body’s desires, capabilities, and pleasures. That she both lays with and is the wolf is a powerful depiction of what Pinkola Estés calls the “Wild Woman,” a woman who understands she alone is the source of her own power and pleasure.

At the poem’s conclusion, Little Red Riding Hood is “picking all of the wildflowers,” a final act of voracious consumption that finds her gathering the bounty of nature’s wild, untended beauty. The “all” implies that she’s here to lay claim to the totality of what is available: all the identities and experiences—from wolf to girl, consumer to consumed, pleasure to pain, dark to light—leaving nothing aside or behind. Still resisting a simple or singular version of self, Little Red Riding Hood reminds us that within real and fantasy worlds alike, “Even a leaf can have teeth.”

If leaves can have teeth, so can wildflowers, something that darkens the “happily-ever-after” quality of the poem’s ending. It is tempered, too, by the reminder in previous lines that “Human acts can be cannibalistic.” Whether warning or admonition, this line sharpens the “teeth” of the “leaf” and forces me to reexamine the many acts of consumption in the poem. Just as wolf devours girl and grandmother in the traditional fairy tale, we humans act in ways that devour one another and ourselves even as we seek to love or protect. As both girl and wolf, Chavez’s Little Red Riding Hood becomes the ultimate embodiment of this duality. In the end, her triumphant assertion of agency calls forth the legacy of Angela Carter’s and Anne Sexton’s heroines for companionship while we traipse along through our own dark forests and stories.



Contributing Editor Amanda Moore‘s poetry has appeared in journals and anthologies including Zyzzyva, Cream City Review, Tahoma Literary Review, and Best New Poets, and she is the recipient of writing awards from The Writing Salon, Brush Creek Arts Foundation, and The Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts. She received her MFA from Cornell University, where she served as Managing Editor for EPOCH magazine and was a lecturer in the John S. Knight Writing Institute. Currently a 2019 Fellow at The Writers Grotto, Amanda is a high school teacher and Marin Poetry Center Board member, and she lives by the beach in the Outer Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco with her husband and daughter.


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