Are there poems or books that stay with you for most of your life, that reemerge in your thoughts like a close friend with whom you haven’t spoken in a while but with whom you can resume the relationship easily and comfortably? Who grow with you as you move through different decades and phases of life? To whom you turn when you may be feeling lonely or are hoping to make sense of thoughts that you hope will align and better define beliefs you instinctively know are right?
After all this build-up, readers may be wondering what book or poem I’m going to recommend!
Louise Glück’s brilliant poem, “Gretel In Darkness,” has haunted me for years. I first met Gretel as a child in her fairy tale existence. I followed Gretel and her brother in English and German, fascinated by their story. I became fearful of being lost, of the dark, of fires. I would lie awake at night in my parent’s home until I sleep overtook me and my worries. I always admired Gretel without understanding why.
When I was 18, I met Gretel again thanks to my poetry teacher and mentor, Tess Gallagher. Unlike the first time I encountered Gretel, I was now able to talk about her which Tess encouraged me and other young poets in her workshop to do after reading Glück’s poem. Tess said that this is a poem she would always return to for inspiration. Since then, I have visited and revisited Gretel several times a year.
I could take this post in a couple different directions, one of which would be to ask readers of this blog to join me in a line-by-line explication of “Gretel in Darkness” and savor its words, structure, and imagery. Instead, I will urge you to read, then reread it, and possibly keep the poem near you as I have for decades.
You may feel, like I have, that I’ve grown up with Gretel and, with each year that goes by, appreciate her more than I could have imagined. I guess that might make me a little different from Hansel who appears to have willed himself to have forgotten what happened in the witch’s cottage. Gretel remains haunted by their entrapment and escape, by trauma that will not leave her even though she is now technically safe and those closest to her appear to have moved on.
Where will Gretel’s sense of abandonment and need for reassurance take her? Will she try to erase memories of her youth by seeking new forests on her own, by daring to find a new home, by seeking a woman or man with whom she can start fresh and find a path out of her darkness?
Or will she choose to stay silent, perhaps knowing that being too vocal about the dangers she faced and that still scar her would make it more difficult for the next generations to be brave. Maybe there is even a part of Gretel that has found peace with remaining in the dark.