Poetry

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

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor
I met Kristina Bicher in the summer of 2014 when we were both in a poetry workshop taught by Victoria Redel at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, a mecca for artists and writers on annual pilgrimages to hone their craft. It was a tightly-knit and energetic group, and some of us are still in touch. Bicher must have shared this poem in one of our class sessions, because it has haunted me all in the years since, and I am happy to be able to share it with you today.
I like poems that surprise me, and this one did. It begins with the familiar fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel, with its archetypes of good (the children, the dead mother), evil (the stepmother and the witch), and morally weak (the father), and then it subverts our expectations. We’re used to fairy tales told in omniscient third person, with all the comforting expectations of universal order ruled by a benign entity that perspective implies, but this one is told in first person from the point of view of a minor character, the stepmother. In the fairy tale, we understand her as little more than the catalyst motivating the father’s willingness to get rid of the stepchildren, but here she is the hero and major character.
“Woodcutter’s Wife” is a free verse poem, not metered or rhymed, and its style is remarkably spare, with salient details communicated by means of verbs (action) rather than adjectives (description). Knowing that Gretel buries her dolls reveals worlds more than would, say, a statement that Gretel is depressed. A striking feature of “Woodcutter’s Wife” is that it is composed entirely of questions, all of them spoken by the stepmother, the woodcutter’s second wife. This poem literally does, as Bicher says in her note she set out to do, “question the dominant narratives.” The only part that’s not interrogative is the title, and it is inherently ambiguous because we do not know to which “wife” it refers. Is it the first, or the second? As such, the title is a kind of question of its own. Offhand, I can’t think of another poem posed entirely in questions, although I am sure they exist. What surprises me is how effective the technique is in constructing a coherent and thoroughly chilling narrative.
The narrative it constructs is one that utterly subverts our expectations for this fairy tale. Instead of wanting the children gone or dead, this stepmother worries for their safety. Instead of being merely weak and unable to stand up to his second wife, this woodcutter is actively menacing and disloyal, returning home late with “the forest’s silence” in his eyes, after “roam[ing]” far. There is some suggestion (Gretel’s bloody sheets and PTSD behavior) that he may be sexually abusing his daughter. When he asks his wife if she would “like meat, perhaps a fat ham,” we understand (as she also seems dimly to fear) that he has slaughtered his children and is offering them for her dinner.
The children, far from the innocents depicted in the traditional tale, are gloomy, surly adolescents. In modern parlance, Gretel is a “cutter” (like father, like daughter?) who turns away from her stepmother’s concern, running into the woods when she calls. Hansel steals bread from his sister and a knife from his stepmother; his skin smells sour while he, nearly twelve years old, creepily sits on his stepmother’s lap. Even so, both he and his sister are still children inspiring our pity when we imagine them to have been murdered by their father. For this version of “Hansel and Gretel” does not merely upset our expectations of good and evil, it also breaks down the very binary, helping us to see that no one is ever wholly either thing. The stepmother seems like a victim herself, but we are taken aback by her causal admission to using “lye,” a powerful corrosive, to scrub Hansel’s skin. Even this tale’s most despicable character, the woodcutter, has his moment of empathy when we see him as the victim of his own obsessions, worrying at the hangnail on his thumb. What we are seeing is a complex and wounded family, one transformed by the transgressions of the father and passivity of the stepmother into something malignant, seething, and dark.

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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.

    Reply
  • 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.

    Reply