Liz Kay’s The Witch Tells the Story and Makes It True (Quarterpress, 2020) is a confession, but not one that begs any kind of forgiveness. It is a series of persona poems marking the developmental path of a girl born with powers, and who she becomes as a result of various abuses and an unbreakable sense of self. It is a bright-eyed, feminist retelling of Hansel and Gretel. The witch wants to speak. To you.
The book is illustrated by artist Devin Forst, who adds digital versions of woodcuts between poems and sections to represent or seemingly predict what might come next. The combined aesthetics of the cover—pitch-black linen, gold-embossed title, and Gorgon-like representation of the witch—with the art within it make the book into an artifact fitting to its tale: the witch represented, embodied. Dreamy and sinister.
The story begins how you would expect it to and ends how you would expect it to—Kay kept faithfully to the Grimm original as a frame—but in between, Kay gives herself license to imagine this character fully and to show us her history. We are privy to family dynamics and personal traumas that the original tale left room to explore.
Much of the witch’s vitriol is reserved for men. In “Rendering—The Witch Boils,” we are introduced to a terrifying scene of her father slaughtering lambs which are “stretched on his table, pink as children.” Through such impressively harnessed exposition, we come to understand the familial abuses she endured as a child. Later, watching a man force his way through the forest, she imagines, “This is how a man moves in the world, / the friction of him working like a grindstone.”
As the witch grows older, she learns to dampen, if not destroy, the power of men, sometimes even as they are growing into themselves. True to Grimm and to her vitriol toward men, Hansel is confined in a cage as the witch attempts to fatten him up for eating. In the absence of her father, Gretel, having spent her life thus far in the “small orbit of a man’s hearth,” transfers her focus to Hansel, “run[ing] loose/ in her bare feet…to feed the boy, and back to feed him more.” The witch finds an affinity for Gretel, musing “What,” the witch asks, “has the girl ever been but something to be taken? / Do you think she does not know this?”
It is no secret we are supposed to despise the witch in the traditional fairy tale, but while brutal, this witch is not lonely, nor is she pathetic, and we question whether her violence is unwarranted.
All before her sinister plans for the children, we watch her slice her own lifeline open, kill a newborn sister she quite loves, rage against town folk who question her and remove a man’s innards so that she can stuff his body like a scarecrow before he is burned at the stake by frightened neighbors. She is conniving and she is unapologetic. She is waiting, like a spider, for the children to arrive and, being able to see through her own spittoon, she is waiting, too, for her own demise.
In “The Witch Describes How the Girl Pushes Back,” she even goes into the fabled fire without hesitation, having known her own demise would look like this, and accepting it almost gleefully as it occurs: “Each amber tongue is a kiss my body / melts into. I open my mouth to take it in.” It reads more as transformation than demise, and so the witch’s earlier statement, concerning her childhood—“I was one who was not / devoured. Look who I am now”—rings true even in this moment, as she “settle[s] as soot in [Gretel’s] lungs.”
Unlike Sexton’s Transformations, Kay writes not one poem to retell the story, but a full collection. Each of the poems is a complete world, depending on no other piece. However, read together, they inform one another into a dizzying portrait of a vicious protagonist we watch with horror and awe. Some poems in The Witch Tells the Story and Makes it True are as complicated and nuanced as novels, which Kay also writes deftly.
The form of the poems ranges from clean couplets to prose poems to loose sonnets and the use of white space. There is an occasional rhyme, but they are so seamless they almost don’t register on first read. Line breaks are primarily enjambed, but natural as speech, as in “Gretel Speaks,” which is the final poem and only poem in the book whose speaker is not the witch. In describing Hansel’s greed and theft of the witch’s jewels, Gretel laments, “And my brother, stuffing / his pockets with pearls / and stones. Some habits are hard / to break. Others break like bones.” What has Hansel learned? Just as important: what has Gretel learned?
Before the witch leaves us, in “Alchemy—The Witch Explains the Nature of Value,” she comes to understand, herself, that “At the edge of a nightmare, / it is only a gilding, a single breath between terror / and wish.” As readers, we are invited into the nightmare, and we enter knowing better, no longer children ourselves, though neither—never—out of danger.
KATHERINE FALLON received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and is the author of DEMOTED PLANET(Headmistress Press, 2021) and The Toothmakers’ Daughters (Finishing Line Press, 2018). Her work has appeared in AGNI, Colorado Review, Juked, Meridian, Foundry, and Best New Poets, among others. She teaches at Georgia Southern University and lives with her favorite human, who helps her zip her dresses.