Home > Poetry > Gretel, from a Sudden Clearing
Published: Thu Oct 15 1987
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, Convertiendse en Characoteles / Sorcerers Changing into Their Animal Forms (detail), 2013, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
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Gretel, from a Sudden Clearing

No way back then, you remember, we decided,
but forward, deep into a wood

so darkly green, so deafening with birdsong
I stopped my ears.

And that high chime at night,
was it really the stars, or some music

running inside our heads like a dream?
I think we must have been very tired.

I think it must have been a bad broken off
piece at the start that left us so hungry

we turned back to a path that was gone,
and lost each other, looking.

I called your name over and over again,
and still you did not come.

At night, I was afraid of the black dogs
and often I dreamed you next to me,

but even then, you were always turning
down the thick corridor of trees.

In daylight, every tree became you.
And pretending, I kissed my way through

the forest, until I stopped pretending
and stumbled, finally, here.

Here too, there are step-parents, and bread
rising, and so many other people

you may not find me at first. They speak
your name, when I speak it.

But I remember you before you became
a story. Sometimes, I feel a thorn in my foot

when there is no thorn. They tell me,
not unkindly, that I should imagine nothing here.

But I believe you are still alive.
I want to tell you about the size of the witch

and how beautiful she is. I want to tell you
the kitchen knives only look friendly,

they have a life of their own,
and that you shouldn’t be sorry,

not for the bread we ate and thought
we wasted, not for turning back alone,

and that I remember how our shadows walked
always before us, and how that was a clue,

and how there are other clues
that seem like a dream but are not,

and that every day, I am less
and less afraid.

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Marie Howe is the author of four volumes of poetry: Magdalene: Poems (W. W. Norton, 2017), The Kingdom of Ordinary Time (Norton, 2009), What the Living Do (W. W. Norton, 1999), and The Good Thief (Persea, 1988). She is also the coeditor of a book of essays, In the Company of My Solitude: American Writing from the AIDS Pandemic (1994). Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Poetry, AGNI, Ploughshares, Harvard Review, The Partisan Review, and elsewhere. She is a contributing editor of AGNI. (updated 4/2022)

Howe’s AGNI poem “Menses” won a Pushcart Prize and is reprinted in the 1988 anthology.

Read “The Complexity of the Human Heart: A Conversation with Marie Howe” by David Elliott in AGNI Online.

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