August 5, 2011

Review by Sherry Chandler

A NEW RED: A FAIRY TALE FOR GROWN-UPS
by Lana Hechtman Ayers

Pecan Grove Press
Box AL
1 Camino Santa Maria
San Antonio, Texas 78228-8608
ISBN 978-1-931247-82-5
2010, 130 pp., $15.00
http://library.stmarytx.edu/pgpress/index.html

In her best-selling book from 1992, Women Who Run With the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estés identified women with wolves, both in their natures and in their history of misunderstanding and abuse. In A New Red, Lana Hechtman Ayers gives us a Red Riding Hood who first learns to embrace her Big Bad Wolf, then moves beyond him to embrace her own wolf spirit. In short, it is a fairy tale for grown-ups in which a woman grows up.

This novel in verse, which comprises nine chapters and 130 pages, is, first of all, a rollicking good read. Ayers’ cast of characters has attitude and that is what drew me to the book in the first place. (I’ve also found that I enjoy books published by Pecan Grove Press.) The dramatis personae

include Gretel, who has become anorexic, and Rapunzel, who has shorn her locks and her name. Calling herself Zel now, she is partnered with Cinderella (Cindy), who has divorced the Prince, taking him for half his worth. Baba Yaga advises Red

Never say yes
when you mean no,
and mean no
all of the time.

(“Baba Yaga Advises Red Riding Hood”)

Sounds like good advice to me.

The Woodsman is the brainless hunk Red married in her youth and the Wolf is an artist she meets by chance. Their ensuing affair is torrid but also gentle. It is about discovering sexual passion, which Red has not known with Hunter, but which the Wolf awakens in her. “My body was lyric and lyre / I loved the fire,” Red tells us in “The Moment Red Knew.” But this affair is also about discovering art. Wolf is always as much mentor as lover. In the end his pupil sets him aside:

“Yes, that often happens,” the Wolf declaims a bit wistfully,
“the students supersede the master and no longer need him.”

(“Red Riding Hood and the Wolf View Chagall’s ‘La Lecon de Philetas’”)

The Wolf makes this statement early in his relationship with Red. It proves portentous.

Ayers’ verse rhymes and chimes, internally and end-stopped, with a whimsical irregularity that delights the ear. Her lines are informed by a strong metric, though they vary in length. Nevertheless, these narrative poems read as free-and-easy as good prose. This is not formal verse, and most of these poems are not metaphysical or contemplative. They are set in the world of concrete objects. But lines like the ones below remind us that this work, like all good poetry, is about language:

Above the double-breasted, worsted
wool was a woman calm and rested,
neither young nor old,

neither conservative nor bold.

. . .

the old cape draped more rakishly.

(“Red Riding Hood Goes Coat Shopping”)

I don’t wish to imply that A New Red is a light work. It is serious art. In fact, it is a collection about the redemptive power of art, and the language reminds us that the essence of art is playfulness. Ayers’ play tends to engage the intellect more than the heart but I don’t find that to be a flaw. After all, we’re dealing with fairy tale figures here, characters who are less than three-dimensional. Ayers goes a long way toward re-inventing and humanizing these characters, but to move too far in that direction might be to lose some of their iconic power.

Red’s sexual awakening, her recognition of her own beauty, are a part of the redemption she finds. More importantly, as I have said, she discovers art. In the novel’s last chapter, she explains:

It turned out self-knowledge wasn’t an apple
I had to pluck from a forbidden tree–
it was a seed in me . . .
that had begun to sprout the day
I ventured out to the art museum.

(“Red Riding Hood Admits Her Own Complacency”)

And later in the same poem, she contemplates her reaction to the painting “Salome of the Seven Veils”:

Near fainting before the dancing painting of Salome,
I witnessed seven souls—wise old Baba Yaga,
beauteous Briar Rose, whirling dervish Kali,
Eden’s naïve Eve, sin-eating Tlazolteotl,
nourisher Aust, and compassionate Arya Tara,

. . .

seven powerful feminine identities
midwifing into . . . the new Red
I am becoming

“Becoming” is where we leave Red. The climax of the novel comes in the poem that opens the final chapter, “Red Riding Hood Goes Deep Into the Woods.” In the woods she has a vision:

Across the clearing I see a figure—
a timber wolf with silvery fur.
A pair of gleaming eyes meet mine,

. . .

The moon slides out from cover. I see it’s not
a wolf at all but an old woman with glowing skin
and flowing silver hair. . . .

With this vision, Red embraces her wolf nature and moves from passivity to creativity. She becomes an artist in her own right.

With A New Red, Ayers has achieved a work that is both novel and poetry. It’s a collection that can be read both for the overarching story and for the individual poem. Each new poem, each new voice is a delight and a revelation. It’s a playful work, a bit of a tour de force. Then again, Red did find her salvation when she learned to play. If I were to find any fault with A New Red, it would be for a certain didacticism, but after all, it is a fairy tale.

____________

Sherry Chandler’s first full-length poetry collection, Weaving a New Eden, was released in March by Wind Publications. She has had professional development support from the Kentucky Arts Council and the Kentucky Foundation for Women and one of her poems has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her work is most recently published in Verse Wisconsin, Soundzine, and The Louisville Review. She can be contacted at: sherry@sherrychandler.com