“Found” Ekphrasis? Anne Siems and KIN S FUR

There’s ekphrasis, of course, the writing of poetry in response to works of art—paintings, sculptures, and more—to amplify and expand the possibilities of both.

And, there’s found poetry, the writing of poetry created by taking words, phrases, and passages from other sources and reframing them as poetry by making changes in spacing and lines, or by adding or deleting text, thus imparting new meaning. (See the recent work of poet J.R. Solonche, for example).

But, is there “found” ekphrasis?

The other week, I was looking online through the new paintings of Anne Siems whose “Bear Girl” graces the cover of my book ALL KINDS OF FUR: Erasure Poems & New Translation of a Tale by the Brothers Grimm. And I saw “Courage”:

“Courage” by Anne Siems. Thanks to Anne for allowing me to post this image here

I knew right away that “Courage” was my erasure poem “all is red” on page 15/16 of  ALL KINDS OF FUR:

Anne Siems didn’t paint “Courage” in response to my poem, and I did not write my poem in response to her painting, but—there they are. Together, poem and painting grant to each other visions and possibilities that, separately, they could not have had.

In 2008, when I wrote some of the first erasure poems for ALL KINDS OF FUR, I searched for an image in red that could be placed by the poems “man piece” (now “the night herder’s maw,” page 9/10) or “all is red” (now page 15/16). I wanted to put into visual language the anger that All Kinds Of Fur, the heroine of this fairy tale, would have felt as she tried to dissuade her widowed father, the king, from his intent to marry her against her will—to rape her, really, on the wedding night.

“night herder’s maw,” page 9/10 from KIN S FUR, 2018.

This photo, below, of my poems from the May 6, 2008 visual poetry exhibit—the culmination of Prof. Susan Tichy’s MFA poetry seminar at George Mason University—shows the red image I paired with my poems, then:

2008 KIN S FUR, Poetry Exhibit at George Mason University

What so startles me about Anne’s painting “Courage” is that it puts into the language of oils just how I imagine All Kinds Of Fur felt when she faced a terrible truth: the true cost of her mantle of furs.

To try to save herself from incest and rape, she required of her father a mantle made from a piece of fur from every animal in his kingdom. Surely, she reasoned, he could not do this, and she would be safe. Did she consider the enormity of her request—what would happen if her father could do this, would do this? How far would any of us go to save ourselves?

Alas, her father did accomplish this “impossible” task—or he found someone, somewhere who did. A legion of hunters unleashed upon the woods? How did she feel as her father placed the mantle in her arms and the rough furs brushed against her skin? Did she think of the animals whose skins had been pierced? Of the blood?


Yes. Certainly.





Summary of the Grimms’ version of the tale “All Kinds Of Fur” (“Allerleirauh”):

“All Kinds Of Fur” tells of a princess whose widowed father develops a strong, carnal desire for her. She looks just like her dead mother, he explains, and, after all, her mother forbade him to marry unless he found someone who looked exactly like her. The princess gives her father four impossible tasks:  bring three gowns and a mantle stitched of a piece of fur from each animal in their kingdom. These tasks, alas, prove only too possible. When her father announces their wedding is the next day, she wraps herself in the mantle, covers her face and hands with ashes, places her gowns and three tiny gold treasures in a nutshell, and escapes into the forest. The neighboring king’s huntsmen find her sleeping in the hollow trunk of a tree, call her “All Kinds Of Fur,” and take her to the castle kitchen where she labors for years with the cook, until the king, in search of a wife, holds three balls. She disguises herself as a beautiful woman, dances with the king at the balls, and then disappears into the kitchen to make the king’s midnight soup. She drops one of her gold treasures in his soup bowl each night. During the last ball, he slips a ring on her finger, follows her, removes her fur mantle, and realizes who she is. They marry.

KIN S FUR: An Introduction

What a joy to tell you that my book of erasure poems — KIN S FUR — has made its way into the world! You can flip through 16 of its pages on my publisher’s website: Deerbrook Editions. And, you can order a copy, as well.

In these poems, I offer a new vision of Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm’s controversial “Allerleirauh” (“All Kinds Of Fur”), a lesser-known version of “Cinderella” that opens with incest. Erasing the Grimms’ words to reveal a young woman’s story of her journey to a new, full life, I ask, What would All Kinds Of Fur say if she could tell her own tale? In ALL KINDS OF FUR, the heroine’s words rise.

Erasure is a contemporary poetry-writing practice. Poets begin with a source text of any kind and then “erase” selected words and letters, using one or several methods—such as whiting or blacking out their selections, or “ghosting” them with a gray font. What remains are erasure poems.

In ALL KINDS OF FUR, the tale appears in gray to reveal the erasure poems.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

Praise for ALL KINDS OF FUR (from the book’s back cover):

Open this book and enter a world of danger, transformation, and tactical survival—a multi-layered, multi-voiced telling of “Allerleirauh” / “All Kinds Of Fur,” a Brothers Grimm tale you most likely have not met, a “Cinderella” version with incest. In a new translation, Margaret Yocom first brings us this forgotten tale, stocked, as we’d expect, with kings, rings, beasts, and betrayals. She then, through erasure, lures out of its darkness another voice—the voice of All Kinds Of Fur herself, lying hidden within its words. In keeping with traditions of wonder tales, erasure practice poses riddles and embodies paradoxes—adding by subtracting, listening by looking, redrawing the boundaries of author and reader, teller and told. Enter this forest. Voice what you see. Is it sunlight in shadow, or a sudden shadow cutting through light?
Susan Tichy, MFA Poetry, George Mason University

Some tales—the old ones, the magical ones—wander the borderlands between our inchoate unconscious and the day-lit logic of our lives, not to keep those realms separate, but to insure something of our dark interiors leaks up into the measured day and, by the trespass, keeps the fathomless open. Margaret Yocom’s book gives us a new translation of one such tale, demonstrating beautifully how it is desire and fear, care and threat, humility and humiliation, love and grief, are entangled in such ways they might be the source of that knot we call mind. But Yocom does more than give us a tale we’ve always known even if now we’re reading it for the first time. In her erasure of the tale, she shows us that a text, just like our own minds, has its own hidden inner life, and its own unconscious depths, a mind within the mind, a heart within the heart, a hearth within a hearth. It is a magical and necessary vision, one our culture now, in its incessant surfacing, deeply needs—this reminder, that beneath every depth, there is a deeper deep; and beneath every dark, a darker dark. It is in this dark that ALL KINDS OF FUR teaches us to see.
Dan Beachy-Quick, Creative Writing, Colorado State University

These poems are haunted by what Yocom makes invisible by her erasures; what she makes visible has different bones. The incest in the fairy tale variously translated as “All Fur” or “Donkeyskin” shows through the skin without the “s”: kin. I have used these poems in my fairy tale course to introduce students to a tradition whose dark side has been erased, in other ways, by numerous editors and publishers—and which ALL KINDS OF FUR restores. Are we not all, like these fairy tale beings, humanimals?
Katharine Young, Independent Scholar whose specialties include Folklore Studies


About  ALL KINDS OF FUR, from the “Afterword: tale / translation / erasure”:

Juleidah, the heroine in a Palestinian version of “All Kinds Of Fur.” In other versions, she is Sack-cloth. (image from deadgods.com)

ALL KINDS OF FUR explores the history of the tale “All Kinds Of Fur” and its many, international versions (see summary of the tale, below*):

. . . As a poet, folklorist, and storyteller long interested in “All Kinds Of Fur,” I wondered what happened to the tale in the hands of other editors and collectors, especially those who did not revise their texts as extensively as the Grimms did. So, I searched for the story in folktale collections throughout the world. In these tales, All Kinds Of Fur / Cat-Skin / Sack-cloth / Hanchi (Clay Pot) always dons an unattractive body covering, and she appears to others as male or female, human or spirit-world being, or a living entity whose characteristics cannot be discerned. In Palestine, she wraps herself in sackcloth and appears to be an old man or a jinn. In Sudan, she removes the skin from an old man and covers herself. In Japan, she wears frog’s skin; in Norway, crow’s skin; in Slavic countries, mouse skin. For Romanians living in the Balkans, she turns herself into sea foam. . . . What I learned, above all, through my research was that the young woman uses many creative strategies to save herself and craft a new life. . . .

ALL KINDS OF FUR, with its translation of the Grimms’ tale by the author,  underscores the importance of making one’s own translation of a source text:

. . . What might I learn if I looked, myself—poet, folklorist, feminist—at the Grimms’ words? Plenty, as it turned out. The several discoveries I made more than surprised me; they unsettled me. They changed forever my vision of the tale. For example, All Kinds Of Fur calls herself “Kind” (“child”) as she hides from men in the woods; yet almost all translators use the female-identified term “girl.” I use “child,” though, to point out how All Kinds Of Fur purposefully un-sexes—and protects—herself through her choice of words. For similar reasons, I use the pronoun “it” to refer to All Kinds Of Fur when the text calls for the neuter pronoun. (Read the PDF of my 2012 book chapter for more details on the tale and its translation:  “But Who Are You Really?”: Ambiguous Bodies and Ambiguous Pronouns in “Allerleirauh,” in Transgressive Tales: Queering the Grimms, edited by Pauline Greenhill and Kay Turner). . . .

— ALL KINDS OF FUR  discusses erasure poetry, provides a bibliography of other erasure poets’ work, and describes the author’s erasure practice:

. . . For me, the process of erasure has not been “What words should I erase?” but rather “What words rise?” Erasure offers me a chance to make visible and concrete a conversation—perhaps, even, an argument— between two texts. Through such a poem, rather than an essay, I can disagree with other interpretations of the tale as well as the assumptions of its translators. I can also create an alternative vision that presents the way a young woman, a survivor of abuse, would tell this tale. . . .

— ALL KINDS OF FUR, the first book of erasure poetry to use a traditional tale as its source text, demonstrates how poetry writing and folklore research are spiral paths to new knowledge. The author discusses how by writing erasure poems—paying attention to each letter, word, and sound in her folktale source text—she was able to inhabit the tale in a way that she, as a folklore scholar, had never done before:

. . . As I wrote, my eye was always on the ending. Would I discover how All Kinds Of Fur would “end” her tale? The young woman I was uncovering would not revel in a wedding, alone. And, how could I “end” her tale since I have long agreed with J.R.R. Tolkien and others that there is no “true end” to a story. . . .  While I was writing pages 67/68, I saw—truly saw, as if for the first time—the word “and.” I realized that, at that moment, All Kinds Of Fur had on both a stunning ball gown and a mantle of all kinds of rough furs. She wore both; she was both.

From the process of erasure, from looking so closely at words and syllables, I was led to see All Kinds Of Fur in a startlingly new way, a way that felt immediately fitting, like a proper skin. And from my folklore studies, I knew, too, that seeing her as both human and animal fit, for stories about men and women who live in multiple skins are numerous, and beloved: folktales in the Grimm collection such as “The Singing, Springing Lark,” “Bearskin,” and “Goosegirl at the Spring”; other folktales such as “The Girl Who Married the Bear”; and legends from the northlands about selkies, the seal-people. . . .

Pieter Aertsen of Amsterdam (1508-75) “Die Köchin” 1559

— ALL KINDS OF FUR’s erasure poems encourage a re-vision of other fairy tales. Here, the kitchen—indeed, all “domestic” space—becomes a place of energy, danger, and power, where spinning wheels signal power and where women wield great knives, hack carcasses, mix herbal medicines, sort good food from bad, and stir magic into soup:

. . . [I]n the cook’s order to All Kinds Of Fur  “ ‘but you must be back here’ ” (pp. 29/30), I found the word “steer”:   ‘but you must be back here’.  So, when All Kinds Of Fur speaks, she transforms someone else’s idea of what she must do into a maxim that she, herself, lays down for her own future. . . .