said the dark, and wrapped me
in its long, barbed sleeves
– Emily Pérez
Once upon a time there lived two children, a boy named Hansel and a girl named Gretel. Their mother had died, and their father, a poor woodcutter, married again—this time, to a woman who urged him to abandon his children deep in the woods. For you see there was not enough food for the family to eat, and what were these children but ever-growing, ever-gaping maws of need?
Hansel and Gretel, already wise to their stepmother’s plan, filled their pockets with small white stones. The stones were meant to ensure they could find their way home after their father took them deep in the woods, intending to leave them behind…
Once upon a time, I was a child reading this story, just as I imagine you were, and you, and you; just as I imagine the poet Emily Pérez was. Surely she must have wondered, just as we did, why the children, having scattered those stones, chose to follow that moonlit trail home. What courage, or folly, or strange resolve led them back again—back to the house where they knew they were not wanted?
Let us call it the house of stone. Perhaps it was forged of boulders and mortar, with a thatched roof and a wooden door. Or perhaps the stone is just a metaphor for how it felt to dwell there: in the presence, at the mercy, of one so hard and cold, unyielding. Could their father not have rolled that stone away? Why was he afraid? Why was he unwilling? And what of the lingering grief for their lost mother, she who could not return from death even with a pebbled trail? Was there a headstone bearing her name, plotting her absence, right there in the rutted yard?
Throughout her engrossing collection, House of Sugar, House of Stone (The Center for Literary Publishing, 2016), Emily Pérez weaves an elegant and sonically significant tapestry of questions: “Where is the girl who hid in the woods,” she laments in the opening “Lullaby,” and “Where is the boy / who broke brambles with his hands. / Why were the two setting down stones / and where should the stones have pointed.” Surely not back to that broken source, their beginning always already in medias res? Perhaps the siblings even contemplated a different course—“What words did they slip / to the shivering air,” Pérez wonders—though perhaps they could not bring themselves to take it—“what was the sound / that silenced.” (Habit? Complicity? Love?)
When the stepmother found the children had returned to their beds, she grew furious and bade her husband take them into the woods again—deeper this time, so as not to be foiled.
Had the children not thought to re-collect the stones as they journeyed home the night before? Was it their guilty father who gave them the stale crusts of bread they were soon to shed behind them? And would it not have been better to eat the bread, for the sake of strength and stamina? Surely the father must have seen the crumbs. Were his children calling his bluff, daring him to leave them again?…
How hard it is to trust the difference between sacrifice and sabotage! Perhaps the difference is merely semantic in the end? I like to think Pérez and I are on the same page here, that she is reckoning with a similar thought as she writes: “What did you leave on the table when you left / and why did you leave the table?”
Perhaps the children emptied their pockets of the reclaimed stones, placed them in the bowl where fruit would have been during a time of bounty. Perhaps, in the early light, the stepmother mistook the stones for berries and swallowed.
One morning you learn
that when a man says,
If I hurt you again,
I’ll kill myself
It does not mean you are safe.
Perhaps this was the morning the children learned that lesson. When their father gave them the bread, they wondered if, like the apple in another story we all have read, this bread might not have been meant to nourish… “Like every story: a hero, a villain.”
How hard it is to trust the difference between them: hero, villain! Perhaps the difference is merely semantic in the end? I like to think Pérez and I are on the same page here, that we have “wandered on the windy way” with these children, as them, hero-villains in the making of our own survival, our own demise: what else is the approaching adolescence for? That archetypal katabasis, shared with everyone across every time and place: “The trail a mass of ruts and mudguts.” (Oh, her glorious internal rhymes!) “The long winter’s walk away from home.” (Oh, her luminous alliterations!)
Now the father has left his children to return to his wife. This is one meaning of cleave.
Let us not ignore the father
his back’s reflection in the mirror
as he shuffles past the front door’s frame…
Now the children, their bread crumbs eaten by birds, have broken off from the fable of origin, the way one snaps a limb from a tree. This is another meaning of cleave.
“I discerned the possibility of the hidden/ And I set out to find it” comes their (and our) inevitable cry/creed.
Deeper in the woods than they have ever wandered, the children—“taking terrible, tangible // sweet-tooth time”—stumble upon a cottage made of candy. They do not ask questions. (Would you?) They are starving, and this place is answer to a wish they do not remember wishing.
Let us call it the house of sugar. Perhaps the house materializes in your mind at once, like a post-hypnotic suggestion of sweetness. If not, let Pérez conjure it for you in her delectable poem, “Further Thoughts on Abandon”:
stumbling upon that home, an oasis of honey comb:
panes and shingles made of sugar, mint-stick
railings, gumdrop fences greeting us like miracles
after two days lost in snow-dense woods.
The children, after gorging, sated and sleepy, are doomed to let down their guards. We, the readers, recognize the sugar-witch who appears as a dead ringer for the stony stepmother. She, too, wants to survive in the leanest of times. She, too, through deception, will bring about her own demise. In this way, the younger generation will outwit/outlive their elders—but to what end, we wonder? Will they only survive to become the ones they replace?
This is a question that pervades Pérez’s collection. The speaker in House of Sugar, House of Stone was once a dead ringer for a girl like Gretel, hungry (for food and more than food), resourceful.
I ache for it sometimes, H, you and I,
a table laid with nuts and fruits and meats,
more sweets than our wildest candy-store
The children are captured by the witch, who tries to fatten them up before boiling them in a pot for stew. But the children end up shoving the witch into her own oven and take the house of sugar as their own.
When Pérez-as-Speaker-as-Gretel recalls what it took to survive, she describes her role in the journey this way: “only after / I played ingénue then murderess / would all come right.” She has learned how to be the hero and the villain at the same time, how inextricable the roles become, especially for women. Later, in a poem called “Perfect Wife,” Pérez writes as Gretel, grown:
Be doing be done.
Be done unto be under be asunder
but holding strong. Be slow thighs be
patient eyes be looking blindly at.
Be a pretty putty tat. Be blank be long
be sleek and strong enough for a woman
but made for a man…
Notice how our poet masterfully evokes the mood of a nursery rhyme, then blends it prosodically with a feminist deconstruction of idealized womanhood. Gretel embodies here the Everywoman that every girl is expected to grow into. In fact, it is Grown Gretel who goes on to incisively document the double binds of Girl-Now-Woman, Woman-Now-Wife, and soon enough, Wife-Now-Mother.
From this vantage, she can write “To the Artist’s Child.” If we believe the myths, is it any wonder, with a childhood like hers, that Gretel would grow up to be an artist?
Sweet unwanted one:
seek out a new address […] Go before the house
grows hot with urge,
with inspiration. Go before
her silence sheathes
instead of sloughs,
before she shuts herself
into her room, pregnant with new
In some versions of the story, Hansel and Gretel return to their father’s house only to discover their stepmother is dead. The family reunited, the past forgiven, they all live happily ever after. Perhaps this is the ending Pérez means to refute in her poem “Clutch”:
I hold this hurt to not forget the hurting.
I stretch it thin, a see-through scrim,
wet sheet on skin, a synapse-like-live-wire-
pulse with which to shock and stimulate…
Surely it is the ending Pérez means to rewrite in her poem “Revision”:
Later, much later,
the smell of fur
and famine fades,
the heat of the scene
the air rise, escapes
each molecule present,
drifts, combines with other
better drafts, the scene
shifts subtly, not waiting
for witness, or understanding.
Neither stones that stay fixed to the path, nor crumbs that disappear from it, Pérez scatters her poems like seeds for readers to approach, to circle, to contemplate like runes, perhaps to tend. Returning to each poem, we find it altered, sprouted. The leitmotif of the book is transformation after all—for the children, for their father, for the stepmother and the witch. As Pérez writes once, “Never again a time before.” As I wrote once, after reading Pérez: All is always after now.
In other versions of the story, the children’s birth mother isn’t dead but missing. Her whereabouts are never accounted for. Perhaps she left the house of her own volition. Perhaps something or someone lured her away. Perhaps it is this mother Pérez evokes in her final poem called “Coda”—a word which conjures an ending but is often preceded by multiple recursions:
The mother who
watches you cry
as she eats a sandwich,
pays a bill, or sits
straight staring at the windowsill
looks just like the mother
who starts in the night
uncertain of where
or why, only knowing
she must fly…
Perhaps the fabled mother regrets something from her past and goes away to make it right. Perhaps she returns to find herself replaced. Or perhaps she makes a nice home for herself in the forest, nurses her own sweet tooth and her need for space until, like all of us, she grows hungry again and in ways she did not expect.
Once upon a time, also known as March 2018, I attended a conference in a faraway land called Tampa. Standing in the same line at a Festival of Books, two women struck up a conversation. One was named Emily. The other was named me. We spoke of fairy tales—their resonance, their ambivalence, their resonant ambivalences. Emily mentioned she had written a book that drew some narrative energy from the story of “Hansel and Gretel.” I asked where I could find her book, and she gave me a postcard that bore its likeness—the book in miniature. On the back she wrote, in a shorthand only the initiated would understand: Colorado Review 1133. I had a map germane to this place. I knew how to find it. But I couldn’t have imagined what stunning landscapes, what rending questions, what aural magic awaited me inside.