Marly Youmans’ ‘The Witch of the Black Forest’

The Witch of the Black Forest

The witch is singing in her swazzle-voice
As she sows teeth inside her garden close;
The little nubbins answer to her call
And sprout and shape themselves to candy cane
Or lollipop—the trees lean down to hear
Her tunelessness and watch the candy grow.
She sings, The world is hard, the world is harsh,
But taste and see (O taste!) that it is sweet.
The trees seem towers, up and up, with leaves
Like child-drawn crowns, or else are hogweed roots
Set upside down to kvetch and snatch at stars,
Or sulk and dream they are anemones
Beneath the sparkles of a moonlit sea.

Believe this: she no longer has a choice,
Could never sniff out change with her long nose,
Poor marrow-sucking bitch, her hunger all
The all she ever knows, her need the bane
That shriveled soul and made it disappear.
She tells her minion-men of ginger dough
To ferret Hansel-crabs from the sea marsh,
Prepare the cage, the pie tins for mincemeat…
The Father made of shells whistles and grieves,
Bent by the fire, cleaning his axe and boots.
Stepmother’s keeping busy, making scars.
Hansel and Gretel feel the old unease
That seems to fill both now and memory.

Days passed, and there was nothing to rejoice
The belly or the heart: Stepmother’s blows,
The bowl of tears Woodcutter drank, the small
And dwindling meals of bread, the glass of rain.
The tossed-out boy and girl were left to deer
And bear and tree, and to the luring glow
From panes in witch-hat towers. The world is harsh,
But taste and see (O taste!) that it is sweet.
Something called their names—song or sugared eaves,
The licorice sills, the faery-glamoured fruits.
Cannibal cupboards shrilled of candy bars,
While murmurs from the staring witness-trees
Said oven, cage, and ashes, ashes. Flee.

Marly Youmans
In honor of Clive Hicks-Jenkins’s Hansel and Gretel (UK: Random Spectacular)

13 thoughts on “Marly Youmans’ ‘The Witch of the Black Forest’

  1. It’s always an absolute pleasure to be given the opportunity to share what you and Marly inspire in each other, Clive. I think Marly’s ‘The Witch in the Black Forest’ taps into the uncanny and haunting wildness, which forests symbolise in our imaginations. You have captured the same quality in your picture book.

    Reading Marly’s poetic response to your own vivid re-telling of ‘Hansel & Gretel’, I was reminded of Sara Maitland’s ‘Gossip from the Forest: The Tangled Roots of Our Forests and Fairytales’. In her book, Maitland examines the relationship between geography, topography and the imagination: ‘Forests to… northern European peoples were dangerous and generous, domestic and wild, beautiful and terrible. And the forests were the terrain out of which fairy stories… evolved’. In other words, forests gave us fairytales.

    Maitland includes her own re-imagining of ‘Hansel & Gretel’ in ‘Gossip from the Forest’. In her telling of the tale, a middle-aged Hansel and Gretel look back thoughtfully on the childhood adventure that still binds them together. Hansel is the head forester to the King and is happily married with children and grandchildren. Gretel has chosen to live a life of peace and solitude in her cottage in the shelter of the woods, where Hansel visits her often. Whilst walking together one day, the brother and sister come across a mother weasel and her two babies, the sight of which moves Gretel to tears. She explains to Hansel the reason why: ‘…I killed our witch. I pushed her into the oven and I killed her dead. She was like a weasel, wild and fierce and free, and I killed her.’ For Maitland, the witch personifies the forest and her Gretel instinctively recognises this and mourns her loss.

    In the same way, the witch of your imaginings, who has gone on to inspire Marly’s spellbinding poem, is very much a creature of the dark and primeval forest, who both fascinates and repels. Like all good storytellers, you and Marly have reminded us of the frightening, yet transformative, stories which can be found if we are brave enough to look for them in the dark of the woods.

    Maitland ends her book with a plea for the preservation of the ancient forest and its equally ancient narrative tradition. ‘When a child’s birth is registered, together with a birth certificate they should also be given a book of fairy stories…’. At the same time, she argues, everyone should be ‘assigned’ to a tract of forest with which they could have a special imaginative relationship. I have a feeling that both you and Marly would readily concur with Maitland’s wishes.

    Thank you both for this Christmas treat!

    • This book you speak of sounds delicious, as do the final ideas of a book of fairy tales and a tract of forest for each birth– you are a fountain of interesting readings. Thank you for this comment!!

      • It’s my pleasure Zoe! For me, reading offers manifold gifts, so it’s lovely to know that you enjoy sharing my discoveries.

  2. These lines are so lovely, they make me swoon:
    “The trees seem towers, up and up, with leaves
    Like child-drawn crowns, or else are hogweed roots
    Set upside down to kvetch and snatch at stars,
    Or sulk and dream they are anemones
    Beneath the sparkles of a moonlit sea.”

    Merry Christmas to both of you!

  3. Clive,
    Greetings from the Black Forest(!).
    A merry Christmas to you and Peter.

    Your drawings, paintings, writings,
    have kept Monika and I warm,
    many a day and night.

    “The world is harsh,
    ..but taste and see that which is sweet.
    O taste!”

    Ein fröhliche Weihnachten,
    ..und ein warmes Lächeln,
    Monika & Gallagher

  4. Fabulous and oh what a lovely appetizer for my feast tomorrow when at last I unseal the brown cardboard wrapping.
    A joyous happy (yummy!) festive to one and all.
    B xxx

  5. A moving tribute from Marly. I have wrapped my own copy of .your ‘Hansel & Gretel’ in gold and placed it under my Christmas Tree – To Me from Father Christmas!
    It will be one of my fav presents this year I think!
    Happy Christmas to you and Peter Clive.

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