Poetry Sunday: “Woodcutter’s Wife,” by Kristina Bicher


“Woodcutter’s Wife”


Is the girl happy?

Why does she run from me into trees?

Why does she bury her dolls?

Why does she pin her eyes to the sky?

Why does she cut herself with sticks, at night, in bed and the blankets

….are spotted dark and I wash and I wash?

Why does she try to clean herself with leaves?


What is to be done with him?

Why does he hide my paring knife?

Why does he fill my shoes with stones?

Why does he sit on my lap, now at 12, and stroke my cheek

….and braid my hair?

Why does his skin always smell though I use my best lye?

Why does he steal his sister’s bread?


Husband, dearest, where do you go?

How far do you roam to look for wood?

Why has your axe blade grown dull?

Why do you return after dark and bring home the forest’s silence in your eyes?

Why do you ask if I’d like meat, perhaps a fat ham, when you know

….I could live on your love?

Why do you furrow and torture your thumbnail?

And what have you done with the children?


A version of this poem was first published by Columbia Journal.




Kristina Bicher is a poet, essayist, and translator whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ploughshares, Hayden’s Ferry, Narrative, Barrow Street, Harvard Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, and The Atlantic, among others. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and she attended the Bread Loaf Translators’ Conference. Her chapbook Just Now Alive (2014) was a finalist in the New Women’s Voices Series and can be ordered here.  Bicher received a BA from Harvard University and an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and lives in New York City. For more information, visit www.kristinabicher.com.



Poet’s Notes

The prompt for this poem was to retell a familiar story from the perspective of a minor character. But isn’t that always the work of any poem—to question the dominant narratives, bust open the tropes?

I chose to look at the fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel” from the perspective of the stepmother, typically a reviled character. Why exactly do we hate her? She’s selfish. Presumed jealous of her husband’s children from a prior marriage to whom she has no blood relation, she’s a threat to the natural order. And she’s scary because we’re supposed to put the kids first, right? Right?

As archetypes, characters in fables are locked into fixed moral positions. Someone is good and someone is evil. The outcome of the story, of course, never varies. So, while our everyday lives are a swamp of ambiguity and temptation, our stories—even those with harsh endings—comfort us. The prevailing order is reinforced and we’re free to carry on with a smidge less doubt and anxiety.

Also, by employing scapegoats, our animal drives for sex and dominance are neatly contained in a box topped off with a bow. This poem attempts to lift the lid, and take a more nuanced look at blame and causality and decision-making by asking new questions. Perhaps it’s the father/husband who wants to escape the emotional and financial burden of the children. Perhaps the stepmother fears for them. Perhaps the children themselves aren’t so perfect but instead are really, really difficult. What on earth do the children want? How can I possibly satisfy their hungers, and mine, and ours?

Resources are finite. Food is scarce. Whom do you feed?

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  • Patricia Yarberry Allen August 27, 2017 at 11:47 am

    Thanks for another fascinating poem, Becky, and for inviting Kristina Bicher to our site. I never thought the fairy tail, Hansel and Gretel could be more frightening than it was, but Kristina has managed to create a poem that does just this as she evokes the horror of yet another dysfunctional family.