by Marilyn Hacker

Page 4

The little robber girl who's in that poem got into a whole series of poems based on the Hans Christian Anderson story, "The Snow Queen", which forms a whole section of Assumptions. As most of you may remember, it's, basically, which is why I think I loved it as a child, a girl's quest story: how young Gerda goes in search of her playmate Kaye, who has been kidnapped by the Snow Queen, and has all kinds of adventures on her way, mostly with an assortment of female characters--a witch, a princess, a robber woman chieftain of her band, and the robber woman's daughter who saves Gerda's life by saying, no, no, you shan't kill her, she'll be my pet and sleep with me in my bed, and if I get angry with her I'll kill her myself. I'll read a couple of poems from the sequence. This is the robber chieftan, the robber woman speaking, the mother of this fierce child. It has an epigraph from the story: "'Listen,' said the robber girl to Gerda 'you see that all the robbers are gone. Only my mother is left and she will soon fall asleep. Then I shall do something for you.'" And this is the mother, the robber woman, speaking:


I cuffed you into shape. I molded you
in my swelling matrix, pushed you out
into the world. I push you into the world
daily, and the labor is the same:
very like pain, unless I work at it.

As long as I sleep among thieves
you are safe in the upper air.

You kicked me from the inside long enough
when I bulged with you. I put my elbows
on what must have been your pointed butt
and watched your bony angles flying out.
I picked my load up when I'd caught my breath.

As long as I sleep among thieves
you are safe in the upper air.

I hug you and I slap you. I kiss you
and I curse you. I get your booted foot
on my scarred shins. I can still throw you down
and pick you up. Most of the time, it's play.
You knocked my knife hand and my breath out today.

As long as I sleep among thieves
you are safe in the upper air.

You cheered when your head reached my belt buckle.
Now I can't peer into your matted hair.
You lean against me. I can rest my chin
on your head, smelling unwashed child, while you
play-punch my breasts the way you always did.

As long as I sleep among thieves
you are safe in the upper air.

I always feel you in my hands, like clay.
You're oven-ready now. When you are baked
in the kiln of the world, my hands could break
what they made as accidently
as easily as anybody's hands.

As long as I sleep among thieves
you are safe in the upper air.

You've started. I've scrubbed away your first blood.
My breasts are hard as when we nursed. I'm due.
You chose your friend; you took her for yourself
up into that cat hideout where you sleep.
I hardly wonder what you talk about.

You are safe in the upper air
to believe what a child believes:
no blow that you receive
will ever leave a scar
but the impatient care-
less clout your mother gives;
certain that if you live
another hundred years
you never will forgive
a grain of malice there.
No harm ascends the stairs
unless your mother leaves
the bedroom door ajar.
The heavy step that weaves
its twist of fear in rev-
eries of empowered love
is--do you doubt it--hers.
The clean wind strips the eaves.
You stretch to what you will dare.
No one will know what you are
as long as I sleep among thieves.

  previous page
next page
table of contents
search the archives

  Titanic Operas Main Page
Copyright 1999 by Martha Nell Smith, all rights reserved
Maintained by Rebecca Mooney  <>
Last updated on March 10, 2008
Dickinson Electronic Archives