Poetry

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

What are the woodcutter’s transgressions? We know from the poem that he habitually wanders into the woods “far” from home and “late” into the night, activities that suggest infidelity. The children’s biological mother is nowhere mentioned, but readers familiar with the original fairy tale as well as with the one starring Bluebeard may well wonder whether the woodcutter did away with her, too. By the end of the poem, we assume what the stepmother fears, that he has murdered his children. That’s why his axe blade has grown “dull” and why he “furrow[s] and torture[s]” his “thumbnail.” When he asks whether his wife would like meat or a “fat ham” we understand before she does that his is trying to make her complicit in his crime.
Because the second wife’s telling of the tale is cast in the form of questions, she does not seem fully cognizant of what is going on, appearing more like another victim than an author of her husband’s evil acts. She tells him, after all, that she could “live on your love” and professes not to want or need meat from him. The worst we can really accuse her of is not knowing what is really going on, the universal (and universally damned) defense of many mothers whose lovers abuse their children or stepchildren. To me, this postmodern version of “Hansel and Gretel” tells a contemporary tale of a deeply dysfunctional marriage, one where the husband is ruled by his obsessions and moral turpitude while his willfully blind wife stands by, afraid to believe her worst fears are coming true.
Bicher’s note casts the poem as a sort of survival-of-the-fittest manifesto, asking whom you might sacrifice or how far go to feed those you love, even if it sometimes means feeding who you love with others you love. But as noted previously in these columns, poems have their own agendas separate from their author’s intent and their readers’ interpretations. The best ones are fluid enough to accommodate the multiple meanings the readers impose, and it is this quality that gives poems universality. To me, “Woodcutter’s Wife” speaks truth to the power of abusive relationships and casts light on the liminal space between genuine ignorance and willful not-knowing, the place codependents find themselves in day after day waiting for the worst to happen, and then it sometimes does. The real victims of this scenario, of course, are the children. Even if they’d not wound up as dinner, Hansel and Gretel are profoundly damaged and doomed to repeat their parent’s stories—following the lead of the adults around them, Gretel practices being a victim by cutting herself, and Hansel practices murder by stealing a paring knife. Perhaps this poem’s darkest message is that one generation’s sins are always visited upon the next; parents may try to protect their children by not telling them their secrets, but evil will still seep through the family fabric, infecting everyone with its dark design.]]>

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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