In her terrific article on the Armless Maiden folktale, Midori used this quote from the British poet Vicki Feaver, author of a hard-hitting poem based on the Brothers Grimm verision of the tale, The Handless Maiden:
"I read a psychoanalytic interpretation by Marie Louise von Franz in her book, The Feminine in Fairytales in which she argues that the story reflects the way women cut off their own hands to live through powerful and creative men. They need to go into the forest, into nature, to live by themselves, as a way of regaining their own power. The child in the story represents the woman's creativity that only the woman herself can save."
(The quote comes from an interview in Poetry Magazine, "No More 'Mrs. Nice'.")
I didn't know Feaver's work when I read Midori's piece, and I made a note to myself to seek it out. It's taken me all this time to finally do so...and now I'm kicking myself for the long delay. If you're a fan of mythic poetry, this woman's work is simply not to be missed.
The Book of Blood, Feaver's most recent collection, is the best place to start -- although her previous book, The Handless Maiden, is also a fabulous read. (I've posted a link to the latter book's Amazon.co.uk page here, because the Amazon.com page has Feaver's collection confused with Loranne Brown's novel of the same title.)
The Book of Blood begins with a quote from Stevie Smith, which sets the tone for the pages that follow: "The human creature is alone in his carapace. Poetry is a strong way out. The passage out that she blasts is often in splinters, covered with blood…"
As Laura Helyer points out on the Poetry House website: "Feaver seems to agree that ‘the passage out’ is a necessarily bloody or messy one for women poets who look to make a space for their voice in a tradition that has largely, and often aggressively, excluded them. By this I mean much must be re-visioned and re-imagined from a woman’s point of view. Even today, it is impossible for women to be indifferent to this imbalance even if they resent being labeled ‘women poets’. This has been successfully addressed and redressed through writers such as Carol Ann Duffy and Angela Carter through the unpicking and rewriting of fairy tales, mythic imagery and the voicing of passive female subjects of often canonical paintings. It is an approach that Feaver has supported in this collection with poems such as ‘Girl in Red’, ‘The Gift’, ‘Medea’s Little Brother’, ‘The Red Cupboard’ and ‘The Fates’ as well as famously in her previous book, The Handless Maiden."
(Read Helyer's full article on Feaver's work here, which includes excerpts from Feaver's poems.)
Writing in The Guardian, Sarah Crown observes: "Like the characters in Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber - clearly a strong influence here - Feaver's unruly women are more than capable of taking aberrant pleasure in their actions. A modern-day Red Riding Hood rejoices in her 'sizzling vermilion' lipstick and 'ruby high heels,' not caring that 'Grandma said / it made me look like a tart;' Cinderella, meanwhile, loves her work, seeing herself as 'an artist of the hearth.' Feaver also lends a more sympathetic ear to the stories of mythically wicked women such as Medea (who dismembered her brother) and Blodeuwedd (the Welsh owl-goddess who conspired with her lover to murder her husband). But she does not absolve them. Feaver permits Medea, for example, to tell her side of the story, but at the same time forces us to look her crimes in the face in a retelling so violent it is almost unreadable."
Indeed, Feaver's poems can be dark, violent, sexual, brutal...much like the old fairy tales themselves. She joins a long line of women storytellers, stretching back and back through the centuries, who have used fairy tales as a metaphoric language with which to speak of the stark realities of women's lives. Her work is unflinchingly feminist, but that doesn't mean these are poems for Women Only, of course.
As fellow-poet Matthew Sweeney has said: "Vicki Feaver's poems always come back to contemporary relationships - not so much domestic as domestic gothic, where the women are sensual and murderous. These are powerfully distinctive poems, women's poems that don't shut out men."
Art credits: The top two pieces are H.J. Ford's illustrations for The One-Handed Girl (a variant of The Armless Maiden/Handless Maiden/Silver Hands story); the rest of the art comes from Jennie Harbour, a turn-of-the-century English fairy tale illustrator (about whom little is now known, alas).