REVIEW: Woods Wolf Girl

Woods Wolf Girl
By Cornelia Hoogland
Wolsak and Wynn (2011)

Read by David Barrick

Myths and fairy tales are incredibly durable stories. Their iconic imagery and archetypal narratives allow them to be constantly retold, revised, and adapted for new audiences and fresh thematic purposes. In Woods Wolf Girl, poet Cornelia Hoogland takes the basic material of Little Red Riding Hood and creates her own vision of a young woman named Red who “walks into the woods” and enters the world of adults. What makes Hoogland’s retelling noteworthy is her multifaceted treatment of the subject matter: magical landscapes mix with vividly real descriptions of nature (“Wind frisks the trees, / the whole forest its plaything”); fantastical allegory mixes with detailed confessional poetry and family history; and, thematically, Red’s anxiety over her first sexual experience finds a fitting counterpoint in her need to forge an identity distinct from her mother’s.
Woods Wolf Girl is structured as a sequence of lyric poems, each of which is ascribed to the perspectives of Red, Mother, or Woodsman. The pivotal moment is not the girl’s arrival at her grandma’s house, but rather her encounter in the forest with the Woodsman, whom Red says “looked at me in a way that made me feel the look” for the first time. Hoogland deftly navigates the territory between fear and desire (which Red experiences as “pulsing, [in] my wrist or maybe / my heart”), and aptly describes the often-lopsided power dynamics in a romantic liaison between an older man and a younger woman. The Woodsman is the not-so-hidden wolf here, a smooth-talker who uses his knowledge of flora and fauna to impress Red; later, he morphs into the more literal figure of a predatory poetry professor, who dazzles and seduces Red with beautiful language. This layering of identities makes the Woodsman more than just a repugnant symbol of manipulative masculinity – his human frailty emerges as the book progresses, particularly when an older Red bumps into “the wolf in the grocery store,” now transformed into a pathetic middle-aged bachelor.
Indeed, the characters in Woods Wolf Girl have complex identities, and perhaps the most compelling of these is Mother. After Red leaves on her journey, Mother frets endlessly and loses her sense of purpose: “I walk around like a zombie. / When I wake, my hands are gone.” Accustomed to micromanaging her daughter, Mother finds that their separation only emphasizes that Red is “bone deep inside me.” She worries about the temptations Red will face in the woods, which in turn causes her to reflect on her own strict Evangelical Christian upbringing. Since childhood, Mother felt frustrated and limited by being “in charge of cheerfulness” (50) – obligatory happiness in the face of hardship – and now feels slightly jealous of Red’s liberties, as well as resentful of her own mother’s soft and lenient treatment of Red. Hoogland captures the distinct struggles experienced by women of different generations, especially Mother’s difficulty in acknowledging “my daughter as she was / or as I wanted her to be.”
Ultimately, Red’s experience in the forest is what allows her to individuate herself from Mother (here in the words of the Woodsman):

[it] is the vice that broke the grip, that enticed
the girl out of the tower.
The mother’s tower, the mother’s grip.

The girl who speechlessly “walks into the woods” emerges with a language which allows her to describe and interpret her own life, apart from either her lover or mother. By the end of the book, Red also identifies with the figure of the wolf, transforming it into a symbol of freedom: “I was born for meat. / To live under the sky. / Mornings to howl up the sun.” Hoogland’s complex handling of metaphor and her ability to spin myth in surprising directions is what makes Woods Wolf Girl a rewarding read.