Fairy tales have enchanted readers for hundreds of years. For just as long, poets have harnessed the magic of these stories for their own work. Many contemporary writers re-tell tales, placing them deep in the forest: the place of trial, danger, and excitement. There’s no telling what awaits a girl walking alone in such a dark, wild place.
Poet Vievee Francis dives right into this danger, beginning her poem “Bluster” with a quote from Charles Perrault’s “Red Riding Hood”: “...it is these gentle wolves who are the most dangerous ones of all.” Immediately, our attention is turned to the possibility of peril, though Francis’s opening lines ask us to consider agency instead of fear. “I knew the path and what was on it. / I wore his favorite color,” the poem begins. Little Red purposefully makes the decisions that lead to her wolf encounter, though the wolf is ominously gentle. To Red, he says, “‘I could just eat you up.’ As if I were a girl / whose cheeks he could pinch into blush.”
This poem reconsiders the color red--skin, lips, blood--as it recasts the familiar characters. The unnamed “he” of the poem “had the feet of a larger wolf” and yet “wore shoes like any / huntsman.” Our speaker’s interaction with him hints toward a sexual encounter, imbuing her relationship to the grandmother with new meaning: “I was my grandmother’s granddaughter after all.”
By offering a change of perspective, Francis reclaims this tale. Little Red is no longer a helpless child merely obeying her mother. But is she truly making informed decisions? Rather, Francis charges us readers with considering the issue of consent. We’re reminded that not all monstrosities are as obvious as the wolf attack; gentleness is often a disguise for coercion.
In “I am dark, I am forest,” Jennifer Givhan creates a Little Red whose journey into the forest allows a tale of cultural and familial trauma can unfold. “I carried a bowl of menudo into the forest,” the poem begins, mysteriously. As she carries this bowl of her “bisabuela’s tripas” with “cilantro y radish y cebolla chopped fine” into the forest, two languages join while domestic and wild elements meld. Our speaker says: “I stirred the menudo / my belly the pot / & scalding into the forest I carried.”
The verb “carry” becomes metaphorical, and when the pot of menudo becomes a belly, “carrying” invokes pregnancy. Later still, however, our speaker says she “carried my mother & my bisabuela,” inverting the matriarchal lineage, “across the chile-red sopa the blood-water broth.”
The bowl becomes the womb and the broth, nurturing blood. This forest becomes a familiar home, and grandmother’s tale not one of magic but of need. The Grimm’s forest becomes the backdrop of a landscape of a different region, as avocado trees can only grow and fruit in the South and Southwest. There is a forest beneath a forest, a story beneath the story.
Sally Rosen Kindred’s “Little Red” is also concerned with matrilineal heritage, as well as the naming of an unknown darkness. Our speaker puts on her “good-girl hood” like “a saint’s caul, like a fever” before she too “walked out through the woods toward my deathbed, toward my prone grandmother prayers.” A male character, unfamiliar to the tale, is added: a doctor. “To treat it, the doctor said, we don’t need a name for it.” This mysterious illness “could be the wolf. It could be the moon.” The word “lupus,” a chronic autoimmune disease, is reminiscent of “lupine,” the root word for “wolf.”
Our speaker enters the woods, preferring the familiar, mammalian danger to this medical unknown. Ripe with anxiety, this prose poem gathers energy as it questions language, twisting deeper into itself and yet never settling on “a name for it.”
Toward the end of the poem, the huntsman enters “with an axe of names” as “dawn comes howling down the path of pins.” So much potential has gathered, and yet, “Little Red” ends in hunger, a shared experience: “Hide hunger, hide my hands. Hide. Path of needles. We don’t need.”
Kindred’s speaker is not alone in entering the woods in search of something. But she has not found her happily ever after. Francis’s speaker “only cried a little really.” Givhan’s speaker survives, and--hopefully--helps to relieve the struggle of the next generation. The journey into fairy tale isn’t about finding an ending but rather creating a journey for the reader; some answers can only be found by following the darkest path into the woods.
Francis, Vievee. “Bluster.” Forest Primeval, TriQuarterly Books, 2016.
Givhan, Jennifer. “I am dark, I am forest.” Poetry Magazine, January 2018.
Kindred, Sally Rosen. “Little Red.” Says the Forest to the Girl, Porkbelly Press, 2018.
Stacey Balkun is the author of Eppur Si Muove, Jackalope-Girl Learns to Speak & Lost City Museum. Winner of the 2017 Women's National Book Association Poetry Prize, her work has appeared in Best New Poets, Crab Orchard Review, The Rumpus, and other anthologies & journals. Chapbook Series Editor for Sundress Publications, Stacey holds an MFA from Fresno State and teaches poetry online at The Poetry Barn & The Loft. Find her online at http://www.staceybalkun.com/