May 9, 2022

Poetry Showcase: Snow White in Russia, By Ace G. Pilkington


Editor's Note: Today's Poetry Showcase, originally published in EC's "Snow White Poetry Issue" from 2011, is an interpretation of Snow White's story set within a Russian fairy tale landscape. Enjoy!

They weren’t dwarfs but heroes,
So Pushkin said, and he should know.
With horses leaping high and far, touching
Earth so seldom that even Pegasus
Would be lost in their inevitable dust.
Bogatyrs, heroes, knights without the baggage,
Of castles, jousts, and generations of inherited rage,
They were power and honor, truth in a sword’s thrust.

Now, a Queen should know better than to trust
Her face and fate to a magic mirror. What do
Mirrors know of beauty and its inexorable passage
From bud to bloom to petals blown by age
Into nothingness, to fragrant memories of lust
And love and all the flowerings gone too soon:
Like silver ripples in water, a mirror for a moon
That changes as it sweeps through night’s star fields.
Leaving only a yellowed memory of the light it yields.

That must be why she became jealous of a child.
Snow White’s face was only the promise of beauty; reality
Was still a decade away, and all the fierce and wild
Chances of growing up waited to stain and scar that lovely
Future. So, send the girl to a tsar in the thrice ninth
Kingdom, so far to the golden East that the sun shines
From the doorstep of his palace, and forget what she might
Have been in the dim mists of distance, lost in the light
Of other days and places.  Break the mirror and be free.

But the Queen was caught by green envy, by pale jealousy,
By hatred so deadly she sent her daughter to death in the wood.
And when the huntsman could not shed that childish blood,
The Queen distilled a potion from maternity, her bitter breath
Making an elixir whose slightest brush with the lip brought death,
And kept on killing, so that when the bogatyrs sought to raise
Snow White with the water of life from her unnatural grave,
She did not rise but died again. Then, she was almost alive, a slow
Struggle between poison and salvation, blow and counter blow.

Behold Snow White in a crystal coffin, placed there by the heroes,
Who grieved and watched, wept and looked on helplessly while
A battle they could not win or even join raged inside the life
They could not reach but loved—each of them—beyond his own.
Still, the little girl grew up inside that crystal.  In some strange
Universe of pain, the hated daughter grew older and more magical.
The white and red and ebony of her beauty were rearranged
Into a youth more lovely than the summer sea or first snowfall
On the golden leaves of birch trees.  Suddenly, the world changed.

The Queen with a shudder in her castle home
Said, “Mirror, mirror on my wall of stone
Say that no other’s beauty can match my own.”
The mirror, shimmering in candle light, replied,
“Oh Queen as lovely as the sun in the West
The princess has grown fairer in death
Than you are with your happiest breath.”
And the queen sank to her knees and sighed,
“I will give her life again. Then, she must truly die.”

There was a tsar’s son who granted the Queen her chance.
This tsarevich haunted the coffin, more a specter than
The half-dead girl within.  To him secretly, the Queen
Gave a silver sword to shatter crystal and a spell only
She held:  “My daughter will rise with a kiss from your lips.
But first your lips must touch mine so a mother’s wish
May bless your desire.” Thus, an antidote with the power
Of the poison moved from mouth to mouth to mouth,
And Snow White came to life and love and wedding in an hour.

See the wedding guests laughing, drinking, singing their joy,
And then the Queen appears—beautiful, terrible, a figure of hate
And love, of longings lost in childhood and fears much greater
Than the tears a monster could inspire.  The tsarevich smiles, a boy
In innocence and ignorance, he doesn’t know, but the bogatyrs
Understand why the Queen is here.  They kill women and men
Equally when necessary.  What should they use this time, spears
Or swords, bows or Christian whips, perhaps enchanted weapons
Would be best.  Then Ilya decides, “Drag her to the open steppe.”

Holding her white hands and feet, they tie her to three horses,
Wild as wind.  Then Ilya strikes to scatter them on a course
Wide and unpredictable.  There is the glimmer of a hand,
A leg, the body torn and battered, too terrible to understand
Except by looking in her face, ugly with all she had become.
The last expression of poison and defeat, the cumulative sum
That made the Queen herself is still reflected by her mirror—
The staring eyes, the twisted mouth, the inescapable inner horror.

Ace G. Pilkington is an active member of the SFWA, and co-editor and translator of Fairy Tales of the Russians and Other Slavs. His poems have appeared in five countries and sixty publications, including Asimov’sAmazingWeird TalesThe Christian Science MonitorPoetry Wales, and Poetry Australia

Image by Ivan Bilibin

1 comment:

Mandy said...

What a twist! I was not expecting the ending! I loved these lines! "Now, a Queen should know better than to trust
Her face and fate to a magic mirror. What do
Mirrors know of beauty and its inexorable passage
From bud to bloom to petals blown by age..."
Very chilling poem!

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