Liz Kay’s witch will scare you
The first time I saw Liz Kay read her poetry was the summer of 2007. She, like me, was beginning her first semester in the University of Nebraska’s MFA program. Sitting in the audience, listening to her, I could feel the power in her words. It took over the room.
And that power that I first felt 13 years ago, comes through strong and bright in her latest volume of poetry, The Witch Tells the Tale and Makes it True. It would be accurate to say this collection is a retelling of the story of Hansel & Gretel from the witch’s perspective. But that would also be too simple. The poems in The Witch Tells the Tale and Makes it True collectively are far more than a run-of-the-mill retelling of that archetypal tale. Individually, these poems have a haunting quality that radiates with sadness, anger, and strength. When read together, these poems weave a story of sometimes frustrated, sometimes liberated feminine power fighting the sometimes inane, sometimes insane patriarchy. They tell a story of rejection of the order of things. They tell a story of oppression and rage, revenge and desire, love, hate, death, life, and time. In short, they tell a specific person’s specific story, but in that specificity, Kay reaches universality. The witch is both a symbol, and a rich, living being with contradictions and concerns that make her all too real.
An unapologetic, complex character, the witch defies labels like “monster” or “savior.” Kay illustrates this brilliantly. In one poem, “The Witch Implicates the Children,” readers see her blame Hansel and Gretel for finding her in the woods:
“Who would believe that you didn’t desire this? That you didn’t walk here/on your own unsteady feet? This house rises from the forest/like a fairy dream, all gingerbread/and candy suckets/What more could you have wanted?/I built it just for you.”
In “Meditation on the Girl: The Witch Considers Fear,” the witch switches her tone:
“Look at your paled skin, your blistered/fingers. How many days did you walk the forest/in your bare feet, trembling and hungry?”
Kay makes an archetype human, gives an abstract concept the complexity of character. In doing this, she forces us to realize that characters in books — in good books anyway — are not simply characters but people. The witch has hopes and dreams. The witch is good and evil. The witch is real. When you open this book you can feel her presence just as you can feel Kay’s power.
Devin Forst’s stark, strong art, with its thick lines and bold contrasts add to that power. They illustrate the tale’s beautiful complexity. Packaged in a meticulously made hardcover volume from Quarter Press, this book is, in and of itself, quite simply, a work of art.
There is a limited print run of the first edition of this book. I suggest ordering it today.