Sarah Sousa’s See the Wolf (CavanKerry, 2018) is a collection of familiar cautionary tales around the metonymic “Big Bad Wolf.” The poems achingly read like a cold admission of female obedience—a more honest and accurate portrayal of a woman who smiles politely from scar to scar, pays attention to social niceties, and always cautiously takes the direct path home. The wolf lurks in the multiplicity of female experience. He is “a man / in the dark / space / between / cement wall / and stunted pines—.” A man opening the door of a dark car who “says the words / that mean you’re mine.” A man on a park bench with “generous gestures,” patting the young female knee and treating her as “his own well-fed child.” Sousa tells us that to “see the wolf” was common slang in 17th century France for female loss of virginity, but she also alludes to a “wolf” as the masculine archetype that preys on women throughout their lives, creating a repository of fear and forewarnings—the touchstone of how to navigate life when trapped within one’s own fairytale.
See the Wolf is not the feminist “Me too” proclamation one might have expected to read from 2018. The term and movement that has fiercely taken on systemic predation against women has been a game changer when it comes to exposure and accountability of sexually inappropriate or abusive behavior. But Sousa’s opening poem in the collection, “Self Portrait with Mabel, Rose, Lillianne, Fern, Mildred, Bea” contains an unexpected, strangely provocative line, “I lived in a different century.” It is as though the speaker is inhabited by a sort of etiquette and formality of these old-fashioned names, and claims, “They take turns speaking.”
The speaker is an old soul born into the “Me Decade,” her girlhood a 1970s/80s vintage of prettiness and skinniness. “It’s one of those nights your mother and her friend preen, / too close to the mirror—sparkly silver tops, tight jeans. / And the eye shadow’s heavy, the heels high. / Hair picks mid-tease one of them says meat market, / they laugh... You learn / the word anorexic. “
Sousa’s seemingly autobiographical poems are childhood recollections of body image and “shameful hunger,” girls on milk cartons and “razor blades in candy apples,” the pain and dysfunction of a broken family, and all of the threatening men that slink between the details. The speaker and her sister are described as “Woman-raised and like certain dogs they don’t trust men. / They carry the key for the bolt lock. / They let themselves in.” Control is achieved not in rebellion or revenge but in orderliness and amenability. Emotional functionality comes with micromanaging calories, “obsessive exercise regimes,” and measuring days in TV shows: “At three o’clock General Hospital, at four Phil Donohue. / By the time the evening news came on at five, / we figured it was safe.” Many women can relate to what it’s like to shore up safeguards in these small defense mechanisms. Even the speaker’s mother seeks control in her “dollhouse of the newly divorced” in the poem, “Our Lady of Pine Sol and Bleach.” The image of her mother is Cinderella-like, as she obsessively scrubs the floors while potpourri boils on the stove. It is clear that strong emotional and psychological forces are at play when dealing with a cast of bad characters—the absentee divorced father, creepy boyfriends, and touchy male relatives that create the well-known paradox of the disciplined female who “stays when she knows perfectly well how to run.”
The tension of violence and trauma juxtaposed with the speaker’s apathetic delivery is one of the more intriguing components in See the Wolf. There is incredible restraint in detail in many of the anecdotes, and only brief references to personal feeling. In the poem “An Emergency is Happening,” the speaker tells the story of her family’s car being lit on fire, possibly by the mother’s boyfriend, though it is not precisely made clear—there is a dispassionate disposition from line to line, “We all step further back. I am barefoot / in the street. I am unsafe. But the car / is wholly brilliant with flame, irretrievably on fire.” The speaker does not reveal the incident that lead to the fire, or what events transpired afterwards, “But it goes. / Wheels and engine, wheels / and burning engine. / It goes.” The withholding of detail and emotion is clearly an intentional stylistic approach to the poems, and perhaps another clutch of control when dealing with the lingering fear of these past traumatic events.
“To fear is animal. / To create out of fear must be human.” This line is where lyric achieves what the real world fails us, what makes the tales in See the Wolf alluring in their own combination of danger and beauty.
In my version,
I’ll include how it feels to be eaten,
the entering isn’t clean—
teeth are like dull keys.
The wolf opens you
to your own red
glister like a docent of the body.
If there is one thing we know about fairytales is that the protagonist must suffer, and at the end of that suffering maybe the villain dies, maybe the reward is love, or even an upgrade in social status. The collection See the Wolf ends with the story continuing, ironically, with the adult speaker finding solace in woods and back roads. There is a “good” emptiness in the “last down-thrust of sunlight” in the speaker’s rural kitchen and peace in the chance to watch bald eagles nesting on a river. There is a sense that the woman “[b]orn rural / in a city of mills” has finally become the “place of unreachable hills,” as the speaker describes herself in the opening self-portrait poem. She enjoys the thrill of her cats killing birds “for her.” “I don’t like gore, / so they won’t leave that on the doorstep.” But the speaker knows that a certain delightfulness comes from the “under-feathers, / birds don’t drop with ease”—the rare beauty that can only be achieved as a result of wild violence. The “pure white feathers at the chickadees throat” and the “yellow-tipped head feathers of the goldfinch” with the help of her cats, are collected into token bouquets.
In the poem “Alone in my own Woods” she writes, “I have a vague goal: how much silence can I imbibe/ in two hours, how completely can I forget myself?” But any woman will tell you that even in the consolation of loneliness, and the illusion of ‘ever after,’ there is always uncertainty—the potential “growl low from that still dark place”—the chance of danger and beastly darkness. The temptation to reread Sousa’s poems and “see the wolf” again and again is both grim and spellbinding at once.
Kate Hanson Foster’s first book of poems, Mid Drift, was published by Loom Press and was a finalist for the Massachusetts Center for the Book Award in 2011. Her work has appeared in Birmingham Poetry Review, Comstock Review, Harpur Palate, Poet Lore, Salamander, Tupelo Quarterly, and elsewhere. She was recently awarded the NEA Parent Fellowship through the Vermont Studio Center.