|by Daniel Egnéus|
The Red Essay
1) Setting: The barn. Sometimes, I can’t remember if there were stars, fall air clear or smoky,
the shape of the moon’s face.
2) I read Perrault’s moral to my students: Attractive, well-bred young ladies should never talk to
strangers, for if they should, they may well provide dinner for the wolf.
4) Afterward, Bill died, and I was glad. Afterward, he sang Meatloaf to me and I held him and
1.5) Other times, I can see the barn door wide open, grass below soaked in starlight. I could have
screamed or clawed. I dreamt saltwater
taffy, sister’s sticky kiss, how we kicked
pigeons with our skirts over our heads.
I worried that he’d feel rejected.
3) I said, Let’s go back to the house. I’m cold. Please. Bill whispered, It won’t take long. I won’t go
in all the way. We negotiated. What do you name that?
6) Angela Carter writes, The wolf is carnivore incarnate, and he’s as cunning as he is ferocious . . .
If a wolf’s eyes reflect only moonlight, then they gleam a cold and unnatural green, a mineral,
piercing color. If the benighted traveler spots those luminous, terrible sequins stitched
suddenly on the black thickets, then he knows he must run.
2.5) After I read the Perrault quote, a female student says, When a slut at a party gets drunk, it’s
different than being attacked in a park. The class murmurs in agreement.
5) I didn’t compare myself to women choked and beaten,
cut from the night and left to pavement.
To compare, one must have a basis for comparison—
to know the common denominator.
7) I bought a stack of poetry books at AWP. A wolf stalks speaker after speaker. Sometimes he
hunts her, his spittle gleams like a knife. Other times, he awakens her animal body they grow
tufted and furred they sniff and paw and wild and oh it’s so good to be beastly be free.
8) If we say he is evil dress him in fangs and lice tell our daughters don’t stray from the path carry
mace and listen beyond heel clicks hold your keys like a weapon don’t enter the empty lot if we
tell ourselves we can keep him out by staying at the hearthside lanterns burning like yellow eyes
in each window if we blame beer and red laughter how she glittered his way the look that
invited him in then we can say: it cannot happen to me, I can’t be a victim, and I am never the
(Previously published in Mid-American Review)
7) In 1991, the world burst
open—a bright umbrella
of mall dates and bike rides and
I promised my sister Natalie, I’ll trampoline you
if you swingset me and whee!
swished through summer,
left one girlhood and entered another—
red lip-prints on mirrors, became
girl heroes, wasp queens.
We blushed ourselves clean, rose
to our cool thrones.
8) Setting: my sister’s basement bedroom.
1) According to Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Snow White is an angel in the house of
myth—the heroine of a life with no story, while the Queen is a schemer . . . an artist—
2) a witch who declares,
I’m the hand tearing the girl’s pinafore—
glistering vowel, ruby in the tree: dusk’s red teeth.
I’ll stick a needle through each eye, cut a square in my skull
to let the daemon out. Like spider’s eggs, White’s specters
will hatch on my tongue.
9) We dolled our faces—
wanted our pores to close like mouths.
We loved any bridge over water,
any wreath marking the highway median.
10) Nat and I would creak the door open after mom
had fallen asleep, circle the street—in love with the dark
that rasped us both. Like braided beanstalks, we’d watch
Headbanger’s Ball, share a tub of cookie dough, eat our weight in Nestlé.
A boy once pointed to Nat, said, Mommy, that girl has bee stings
covering her face, and I wanted to build us a moat, wall away his stare.
3) Before Snow is born, her mother spends her days
at the open window, watching yellow eyes
glow from the forest, the kingdom’s crash
of color and venders. She wraps
a shawl around her shoulders,
breathes horse dung and honeysuckle,
then motherhood replaces her bustling world
with a mirror.
5) The claim that amazes me most: Snow White is not the daughter. The Queen wants to kill
the Snow White in herself.
4) Narcissism: to close the window gaze in water broken sun the hung curtain shards of white skin.
11) Natalie showed me the Ouija
she bought at Toys R’ Us.
We palmed the pointer. Ghost girls
told us they slept in snow castles,
stuck to each other like cobwebs,
and death is all gauze and orgasm.
We planned our suicides,
slept in Pop Tart comas.
6) In other words, mother, Queen, and White are one—
part glass girl and beauty
show and kindly mother—
when the witch offers White the poison apple, they eat it together.
13) Nat began to stair-master away, shrinking
to a bone-shack, and I built my cellulite castle and prayed
we’d come unbraided.
12) When Nat and I heard garlic pop in the pan, we knew mom had begun the daily feast. Our table disappeared beneath basil-flecked mozzarella, spaghetti and pomodoro, three loaves of bread.
We watched dad demand mom bring the salt, pepper, the San Pellegrino as he told her,
you wouldn’t understand you never listen don’t interrupt me,
which meant—you’re stupid you’re stupid you’re stupid—
and we angels didn’t say anything.
14) I didn’t know how to say—
to be twined so tightly you know
if one dies, you both will—the horror
—my sister’s body.
15) What does it mean to be monstrous?
16) Mom insisted we teeth
the skin from a butternut truffle,
she watched its center dissolve
on our tongues.
She fluttered from dust mop to cleanser,
any task to keep
hunger away, though at the time
I thought she just liked
a clean kitchen.
(Previously published in Black Warrior Review)
(Image above by Daniel Egnéus)
Claudia Cortese’s first full-length book, Wasp Queen, will be published by Black Lawrence Press in 2016. Cortese is also the author of two chapbooks: Blood Medals (Thrush Poetry Press, 2015), a collection of prose poems, and The Red Essay and Other Histories (Horse Less Press, 2015), a book of lyric essays. Her poems and essays have appeared in Best New Poets 2011, Blackbird, Black Warrior Review, Crazyhorse, Kenyon Review, and Sixth Finch, among others. The daughter of Neapolitan immigrants, Cortese grew up in Ohio and now lives in New Jersey, where she teaches at Montclair State University.