- The Better to Transform You With
Dancing Girl Press
20 Pages; Print, $7.00
We all know the story: a girl enters a forest or a garden or a tower and there meets a wolf or a witch or a stepmother who eats or imprisons or otherwise abuses her. The tension of the myth is created by the reader’s desire for the girl to escape. Variations on these myths are peppered throughout literature, music, and pop culture: new translations of the Grimm tales offer darker, bloodier versions of the fairy tales of our childhoods; literary figures from Ann Sexton to Roald Dahl have written their own versions; and TV offers both fairly direct modernizations—ABC’s Once Upon a Time (2011)—and procedural crime twists—NBC’s Grimm (2011). One could argue, in fact, that our most [End Page 20] popular contemporary myths—medical and crime procedural dramas—have done little more than trade huntsmen and handsome princes for surgeons and detectives, princesses and stepchildren for emergency room patients and kidnapping victims.
Reaching beyond the simple retelling or recasting of the myths that compose our culture’s symbolical landscape, Mary McMyne’s Wolf Skin (2014) weaves brave, dark versions of the Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and Hansel and Gretel tales into the emerging identity of a textual version of the poet. In doing so, she creates a new myth about mother- and daughterhood, contrasting the mortality of self and body with the immortality of love. What’s most impressive about this collection is the way that it builds a mere twenty pages into a single composition that illuminates and complicates both the individual speaker and mythical characters, each informing the other.
It starts with flight: a mother drives her children to a butterfly dome behind a car adorned with stickers memorializing a deceased person, and her daughter cries. At the dome, the children wonder at the butterflies’ otherworldly color (“Mama, just like the birds. They’re alive.”) while the mother reflects on mortality and “the woman in [her] head who pinned monarchs to cork.” In the next poem, “Lepidoptera,” that woman pins butterfly specimens into display grids, not to bask in the beauty of their wings but to “[dream] of flight as she…transfixed their wings.” Thus, before any myths have even been mentioned, the book’s central symbology is established: mothers, children, and flying creatures that mediate the connection between the dead and the living.
That mother-daughter relationship is particularly central in “Fur,” where the speaker links herself directly to myth: “You know that story about the girl who meets the wolf / beside the forest….In my mother’s version, the girl is mindless…as dumb as porcelain.” This mother lists admonishments designed to keep the speaker safe: “Be not girl, her eyes say, but wolf.” Thus, by maintaining that the girl is vulnerable, the mother maintains the status quo of myth, even as she reverses it by instructing the girl to become the very wolf that threatens her. After years pass in the poem and the mother has died, the speaker feels “in her throat, a howl.” And with the mother’s death, “Fur” allows the stepmother of the Grimms’ mythology to come into play, thus transitioning the poems fully into the world of myth.
The speaker(s) in the next twelve poems is (are) pulled directly from the Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel, and werewolf myths while continuing to develop, via the links established in “Fur,” the speaker from the first four poems. It’s as if, having lost her mother, the speaker becomes the red-hooded child searching for a lost maternal figure, the orphaned children sent to wander a dark forest, the girl stolen from her mother and locked up in a tower. But McMyne’s heroine(s) is (are) neither simply victims nor facile representations of girl power. Her “Rotkäppchen” (German for “Red Cap”) says, “The beauty of being eaten by the wolf is that you do not remember” asking the huntsmen to “leave us, like stones in the wolf’s belly.” Juxtaposed as it...