Poetry

“Song for my Daughter” and “Song for my Son,”
by Emily Pérez

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

This week’s poems were inspired by fairy tales, and in fact, I found them in an online journal called Fairy Tale Review. The first, “Song for my Daughter,” makes many allusions to “The Robber Bridegroom,” a German fairy tale (number 40) collected by the Brothers Grimm and also references other old chestnuts like “Hansel and Gretel” and “Little Red Riding Hood.” “Song for my Son” is based on “Hans the Hedgehog,” Brothers Grimm fairy tale number 108, and you can read the full text translations of both fairy tales here (“The Robber Bridegroom”) and here (“Hans My Hedgehog”).

I did a Google search for “fairy tale poems” and was surprised to see how few hits turned up because anecdotally it feels to me as if fairy tales quite often inspire poetry. Offhand, I can think of fairy tale poems by Anne Sexton, Alexander Pushkin, Margaret Atwood, and A.E. Stallings. If memory serves, the poems in Jeahanne Dubrow’s book The Arranged Marriage (University of New Mexico Press 2015) rely on the Bluebeard trope to tell the story of how a woman’s (the speaker’s mother’s) trauma from being held hostage at knifepoint was aggravated by the forced intimacy of her arranged marriage. Women, in particular, seem to enjoy rewriting fairy tales as poems, often recast from a feminist point of view, and “Fairy-tale Logic” by A.E. Stallings is another wonderful example. This column has featured at least two: “Introduction to Fairy Tales” by Jeannine Hall Gailey and “Woodcutter’s Wife” by Kristina Bicher,

Maybe my sense that poetry and fairy tales have a lot in common stems from the fact that both have origins in and hold up mirrors to the human psyche. Freud’s “The Theme of the Three Caskets” is based on a scene from The Merchant of Venice, itself inspired by a fairy tale or folk tale. As a college student, I was much impressed by Bruno Bettelheim’s book The Uses of Enchantment, which uses psychoanalytic principles to address and explain a series of fairy tales. Apparently, the Jung Institute regularly offers programs and talks exploring the links between fairy tales, myth, and psychology.

One thing I noticed when reading the fairy tales that inspired today’s poems is the importance of repetition, a technique important in poetry. In “The Robber Bridegroom,” the line “Darling, it was only a dream” recurs verbatim three times in the last paragraph. In “Hans My Hedgehog,” various plot elements are recounted then recounted again and again to preface new action, and the effect is recursive, looping, circular, and almost hypnotic.

In “Song for my Daughter,” the speaker borrows the point of view of the prospective bride in the “The Robber Bridegroom,” sold for a dowry to a man she fears and who, she later discovers, is a serial murderer and cannibal. In the fairy tale, the girl follows a trail of ashes left by her fiancé through a dark wood to a hut where a caged bird warns her, twice: “Turn back, turn back, you young bride / You are in a murderer’s house.” Inside, a crone tends a pot and, for reasons not made clear in the story, agrees to help the girl. While hiding behind a barrel, she witnesses the murder of another victim, whose severed finger falls into her lap. The girl returns home where she receives her bridegroom then reveals what she has seen, repeating three times the phrase “Darling, it was only a dream.” Her proof is the finger, and the robber bridegroom is tried and executed for his crimes.

As in the fairy tale, the speaker’s father pushes her into a marriage, “down the path alone,” and as in the tale, her path is marked, ominously, by ash instead of the breadcrumbs we know from “Hansel and Gretel.” The path is threatened by a predator, the “wolf” from “Little Red Riding Hood.” We learn that the wolf’s predation is instinctual and arises from a power imbalance: the robber bridegroom does not eat his brides because they deserve it but because he is hungry and sees them as food—“his” to take. Line 10 returns to the source text, stating the line repeated near the end of the fairy tale: “Because when asked, I will say / it was a dream, my love / a tale I heard.”

At this point, it is beginning to sound as if something terrible happened to this speaker in the past and that she is doing what many mothers do: using her own experience as a cautionary tale at the same time she shields her daughter from the trauma of knowing it actually happened. Lines 13-16 return to the tale, focusing on the crone and her awful stew pot, and ascribing a motivation—solidarity—absent from the Grimm version, “Because she was once also a girl.” Lines 17-19 go explain why the crone continues to live with and work for the robber bridegroom even after witnessing his atrocities: Evil done habitually can become routine (like “habits”), and routine acts (“recipes”) can transform into powerful magic. Finally, “good mothers” feed their children “even their raw, wicked ones,” from maternal instinct.

The remaining lines interweave the speaker’s story with the story of the girl in “The Robber Bride” to create an amalgam as current and urgent as any #metoo poem written in the aftermath of the Kavanaugh hearings. For example, look at “with man as my savior / I was safest alone,” “leashed as she was / she never said ‘no,’” “a woman’s word / can never be proof // no one believes her,” “I had no wounds on my skin / when I stumbled home.” One interpretation is that these lines recount the speaker’s personal experience with a sexual assault, unreported for all the reasons we have come to understand that such assaults often go unreported: the speaker does not want to discomfit her father (by disturbing his rest) nor disappoint him (in loss of the dowry), and most importantly, because “you’ve heard this before  .  .  .  boys will be.” That last phrase completes itself in the next line’s first word, “beasts,” but as written, the line break forces us to consider the cliché often used as a defense in rape cases: “boys will be boys.” Subverting a cliché like this is powerful technique, allowing the writer to harness the tremendous power of the original utterance—what made it a cliché—at the same time it, in Pound’s words, “makes it new.”

Unlike the fairy tale with its traditional happily-ever-after ending, the poem concludes in a dark place, telling us that boys “will be / beasts” and girls “cloth, torn to ribbons / tied tightly in knots or in bows.” The implication is that it is boys doing the tearing and that girls are bound and gagged—powerless to do anything about the assault and in fact, are forced to put on a brave face and make it pretty with a “bow.”

Anaphora, or repetition of a word or phrase, at the beginnings of lines gives this poem its powerful haunting quality; 15 of 42 lines begin with the word “Because.” It’s an evocative word, suggesting that the poem is spoken (or sung) in response to a “why” question posed by the daughter. Maybe the question is “Why didn’t you tell?” or maybe it is something more mundane like “Why can’t I go out and stay past my curfew with my boyfriend tonight?” In any event, it feels as if the speaker is using the fairy tale to express something true and dangerous about the world her daughter inhabits.

In “Song for my Son” the speaker is also a mother, this time addressing a son. The poem is based on “Hans My Hedgehog,” whose protagonist, Hans, is part hedgehog and part boy who, after he is rejected by his father, goes into the forest to tend livestock and play bagpipe music.  Twice he encounters kings who promise their daughters in exchange for his help in guiding them out of the forest. The first king tries to evade the debt but finally turns over his daughter, whom—in obvious sexual imagery—Hans strips, pricks all over with his sharp spines, and returns to her father as damaged goods. (No one, readers, ever said that fairy tales are not misogynous, violent, and dark.) The second king prudently gives Hans a grand welcome and willingly relinquishes his daughter. On their wedding night, Hans sheds his hedgehog skin, and in some pretty shockingly racist language, transforms into a “handsome young gentlemen,” eventually inheriting his father-in-law’s kingdom and reuniting with his own father.

In this tale, the women are passive victims, forced by patriarchal authority into marriages they mortally dread. Until the proverbial happy ending, the men come off as uniformly villainous. Hans’s father is cruel to him, the first king is dishonorable (breaks his word), the second is a coward, and both kings trade their daughters like chattel. We do feel some sympathy for Hans, who can’t help being born half-hedgehog and whose own cruelty seems a consequence of his father’s rejection. Hans has some redeeming qualities—he makes his own living through hard work and is an artist (plays the bagpipes), but his assault on the first princess is, nevertheless, violent and shocking.

Given this dark view of men, what does it mean to be the mother of one, especially when you are also the mother of a daughter whose exploitation by men seems inevitable? This is the uneasy territory explored in “Song for my Son,” a free-verse poem that, like “Song for my Daughter,” uses anaphora, repeating the phrase “Hans my Hedgehog” at the beginnings of four of its sixteen lines. These lines function as refrains, occurring as a single-line stanza after each of the poem’s three tercets. Let’s take a closer look at those refrains:

Hans my Hedgehog, Hans my Hoped For, Hans One Half of my Heart. [line 4]
Hans my Hedgehog, Hans my Unhandsome, Hans Heir of Half Horseshoes and Hurt. [line 8]
Hans my Hedgehog, Hans my Howling, Hans One Half of my Home. [line 12]
Hans my Hedgehog, Hans my Hazard, Hans My Only Son. [line 16]

In an example of repetition-with-variation, each refrain begins with the same five words (“Hans my Hedgehog, Hans my”), then deviates from pattern. Each line begins with what could be read as a term of endearment, “Hans my Hedgehog” that is also a somewhat disturbing reference to the fairy tale. In terms of syntax, the phrase is an appositive, setting up an equivalency between “Hans” and a “Hedgehog” and also between the speaker’s son and that fictional character. The latter two-thirds of each refrain extends the appositive, adding other elements that explain how the speaker feels about her son. In all but the last example, the additional appositives use consonance, underscored by the author’s use of capital “H’s.” Thus, in addition to being the speaker’s “Hedgehog,” the speaker’s son is also “Hoped for,” “One Half” of the speaker’s “Heart,” and so on. The consonance pattern breaks in the last refrain which, although it does include “my Hazard,” closes with “My Only Son.” I wondered about that “only:” Is Hans the speaker’s sole son by happenstance, or is it design? I sense here, perhaps, some reluctance from this speaker to be made a breeder of future sons. But it could also be read as a declaration of her child’s utter preciousness to her.

Much of the poem recounts conflict between the speaker and her son. At the outset, he seems to have been his father’s idea, his “prayer” and “wished” for by him, though he was born by and to the mother. Additionally, his was a difficult pregnancy, causing his mother physical discomfort and, in the reference to “inter-uterine stigmata,” posing some serious health concerns. Another poem I found online by this author, “Preterm,” recounts her experience with preterm labor (something I experienced in all three of my partially-hospitalized pregnancies), and I wonder if that happened here. Anyway, the speaker’s pregnancy with her son is fraught, and not just with physical afflictions. The reference to his “spines” pricking her suggests something more, possibly her fear that he is capable of the same violence against women seen from Hans in the fairy tale. “Hazard” in the poem’s last line is a loaded word that could refer to a high-risk pregnancy but perhaps also encapsulates a mother’s concerns about toxic masculinity—fear that her son might end up hurting women like the mother herself and, of course, the daughter met in the previous poem.

These poems are so powerful and interesting to me, especially read together, to show how a mother’s fear for her daughter is often the flip side of her fear for and of her son, of what he as a representative of his gender might do. How do we negotiate this very difficult terrain? The poems do not presume to give us the answers. They simply lay out the problem—the problem created by gender roles and power imbalances in our patriarchal culture since long before even these fairy tales were written—and then let us, the readers, figure it out for ourselves.

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