“Gretel in Darkness” by Louise Glück

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This is the world we wanted.
All who would have seen us dead
are dead. I hear the witch’s cry
break in the moonlight through a sheet
of sugar: God rewards.
Her tongue shrivels into gas . . .

Now, far from women’s arms
and memory of women, in our father’s hut
we sleep, are never hungry.
Why do I not forget?
My father bars the door, bars harm
from this house, and it is years.

No one remembers. Even you, my brother,
summer afternoons you look at me as though
you meant to leave,
as though it never happened.
But I killed for you. I see armed firs,
the spires of that gleaming kiln–

Nights I turn to you to hold me
but you are not there.
Am I alone? Spies
hiss in the stillness, Hansel,
we are there still and it is real, real,
that black forest and the fire in earnest.


(Link, also on p. 1931 of the anthology.)

Glück’s poem is an interpretation of the story of Hansel and Gretel, which is summarized on this University of Denver webpage. “Hansel and Gretel are the children of a poor wood cutter. Fearing starvation, the wood cutter’s wife—the children’s step-mother—convinces him to lead the children into the forest, and abandon them there. Hansel and Gretel hear her plan, and gather white pebbles, to leave themselves a trail home. After their return, their stepmother again convinces the wood cutter to abandon them; this time however, they can only leave a trail of breadcrumbs. Unfortunately, the various animals of the woods eat their trail of breadcrumbs causing Hansel and Gretel to become lost.”

“Lost in the forest, they find a house made of bread (later versions call it gingerbread), with sugar windows, which they begin to eat. The inhabitant of the house, an old woman, invites them in and prepares a feast for them. The woman, however, is a witch who has built the house to entice children to her, so that she may fatten and eat them. She cages Hansel, and makes Gretel her servant. While she prepares to boil Hansel, she tells Gretel to climb into an oven to be sure it is ready to bake; but Gretel guesses that the witch intends to bake her, and tricks the witch into climbing into the oven, closing it behind her. Taking jewels from the witch’s house, they set off for home to be reunited with their father, whose wife has since died. ‘Then all anxiety was at an end, and they lived together in perfect happiness.'”

Glück’s poem references specific details from the story – the sugar windows, the oven, and the stepmother’s death. Like a lot of modern fairy tale retellings, Glück explores how the characters’ traumatic experiences make their supposedly happy ending unrealistic. The line about all anxiety being at an end is a direct quote from the very end of the story (see these two translations). “Gretel in Darkness” directly refutes this claim, as it is essentially driven by Gretel’s anxiety over the abuse she suffered and the death she caused. Besides being a retelling, this poem can also be interpreted as being about real-world personal demons and PTSD.

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