The Ogre's Wife by Ron Koertge
Red Hen Press, 2013; 79 pp
Reviewed by Dana D. Livermore
There is a movement amongst writers in literature and the entertainment industry, today, bent on making subversive simulacrums of fairy tale classics; from young adult fiction writer, Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles to ABC’s popular drama series, Once Upon a Time, it would seem our culture has developed quite an appetite for magical-realism. In the poetry corner of the literary world, we have Ron Koertge willing and able to oblige with his most recent collection of poems, The Ogre’s Wife.
Koertge draws much inspiration from fairy tales, such as Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, Jack and the Beanstalk, and The Gingerbread Man, to name a few. But the poems quickly depart from the more traditional portrayals of these titular characters in whimsical and sometimes ominous twists that bring light to the noxious side of human nature. Readers will benefit from a fresh take on the all too real themes embedded within these stories. Koertge’s approach works best when he infuses his scenes with language suggestive of violence or marital conflict, as in the title poem “The Ogre’s Wife,” worth presenting in its entirety:
I don’t remember being little, growing up, having friends
over, much less opening the door for ogre suitors
clutching limp bouquets in their huge, hot hands.
I seem to have always been what I am: the ogre’s wife.
This much I know: he hates it when I think. He wants
his dinner, he wants to count his gold, he wants to snore.
He’d beat me if he knew I was writing this in blood
on the cutting board, but I like to see my thoughts
laid out until the house starts to shake and a cup
of water washes them all away.
He throws open the door and drops something
on the table: a cow or a limp boy in the clothes
his mother made for him.
I’ve walked to the end of the straight road, and it
just stops. When I look down, nothing but the tops
What am I to do except stoke the fire, feed it with
the homespun pants and shirt, wash the most perfect
boy, then sharpen my knife.
From the other room comes the clink of coins, plop
of another priceless egg, his command to ‘Play!’
then the harp eking out the only song it knows. (emphasis mine)
Koertge doesn’t settle for just fairy tales, however. That would be too easy. Interwoven throughout the three sections of this book are a number of poems on poetry and/or poets (ars poeticas), which evince Koertge’s witty sense of humor and unflinching self-awareness as a writer. In “The Cowboy Poet Considers His Uncollected Poems,” poems are “skittish” horses who escape through an open gate: “Pretty soon he looks goddamn miserable, so one/ fine night I leave the gate open a tinch/ and when I turn my back/ he’s gone”; in “Advice to a Young Poet,” he cautions young poets “for Christ’s sake” to stay away from “opalesce” and, instead, “show some guts” or “talk about an actress/ with nice tits”; in “Poetry Begins in Delight” he finds pleasure in misspellings: “ ‘That panting on the wall’/ really was the most interesting line/ in the whole magazine”.
Being the romantic-realist at heart that I am, however, I found two poems in particular that stand out in this collection. “Burning the Book” is probably my favorite. Love has been a longstanding instigator of the writing of poems, yet Koertge reminds us that while we can turn to “antholog[ies] of love poems” they are, in fact, often “brittle” and easily come undone. Instead, he encourages us to remember to see “longing, rapture, bliss” in happenstance observations, like the one the speaker in “Burning the Book” encounters in which children stand with their mouths open to catch snow. Longing, rapture, and bliss “lands on every tongue, then disappear[s]” the way a good love poem should. I’ll let you dear readers figure out what the other “love poem” was my favorite for yourselves. Maybe it will be yours too. Here’s a hint: it’s a messy kind of love, “the kind that makes you want/ to live forever.”