What we call wicked in a stepmother might be only the tip of the poisoned dagger.
Amal El-Mohtar’s “No Poisoned Comb” is a subversion of fairytale that, mid-twist, turns the knife deeper into the rosy red core of what you think you know. We hear the testimony of the Evil Queen of Snow White, who tells us we’ve got the original tale all tangled up. She’s convivial about this mangling of history: “I bear no grudge. / A story in the teeth of time / will shift its outlined shape, be chewed / to more palatable stuff.” We almost feel she might be setting the record straight not in a court of law, but by a roaring hearth, while we raise glasses of cherry wine to our lips, listening. We drop those goblets to the parquet, when the Queen spins her story darker than the Brothers Grimm themselves might have penned.
I love a fairytale-comeuppance in verse as much as any other Disney-cartoon contrarian, but El-Mohtar is spinning something here I like even better than the tale of the wronged villainess. Think less Maleficent, more Lady Macbeth without madness dropped in as a plot restriction. “I cored her”, says our speaker, who knows history misremembers her not as murkier than she was, but better, more sanitized, scrubbed and desexed for public consumption. The poem’s title serves as a possible clue – no poisoned comb signifies one less step to the ultimate savagery enacted by Queen upon Snow. The comb, in the Grimm versioning, is a sort of trojan horse: a parcel of venom wrapped in a gesture of goodwill.
Why tease goodness, this Queen seems to ask us, when you know the epicentre of your motives? The huntsman is merely a hungry prop here: it’s the speaker’s red ambition that will colour your cheeks.
This is the twenty-second installment of Other Kinds of Men, a speculative poetry reader in honour of Ursula K. Le Guin. Speculative writing, which encompasses the major genres of mythology, fantasy and science fiction, has often given voice to the most relentless and ungovernable urgencies of this age, and any other. Le Guin understood this: that to write about dragons, ice worlds and other seeming oddities was, in fact, to write into the messy, riotous complexity of ourselves. Here’s to dragons, and here’s to Ursula.