Fierce Sexual Fairytale: On Maryse Meijer’s ‘Northwood’

Meijer’s investigative hybrid fairytale utilizes space, color, shape, and contrast to examine the light and dark of sexual love.

Maryse Meijer
Hybrid | 128 Pages | 5.8” x 8.5” | Reviewed: Electronic ARC
978–1948226011 | First Edition | $18.95
Black Balloon Publishing | New York | BUY HERE

Image: Black Balloon Publishing.

It’s difficult to classify Northwood. All at once, it is an experimental novella, a poetry collection, and a piece of visual art that utilizes space, color, shape, and contrast to examine the light and dark of sexual love. Maryse Meijer’s second full-length work is both a classic fairytale and a contemporary story of forbidden passion between two artists, each of whom uses the tumultuous affair as fodder for his respective work. The novella is a study in isolation and connection, family and origins, beginnings and endings, myths and truths. With incredible precision, Meijer takes traditional, known elements and manipulates them into a hybrid fable that possesses all the danger and violence of a classic Grimm narrative, creating a product that defies expectations and denies genre. (Indeed, even the printing is unexpected, with the text appearing in stark white against a black page, subverting the reader’s assumptions.) In this innovative work, Meijer masterfully places disparate ideas beside each other, playing with symmetry and discordance, and using every poetic tool in her arsenal: imagery, syntax, sound, visual use of space. Much like a mythical heroine, the reader must traverse the menacing yet alluring landscape of Meijer’s world, following the breadcrumbs through the woods toward the conclusion and inevitable catharsis.

“Candles quivering against the glass, our shadows 
hovering above our heads I will never forget
the spider’s egg opening in the corner, her babies 
spilling across the wall as you dug your chin into my neck.”
(from “Night Song”)

The narrative is constructed via a series of standalone poems that, together, detail a years-long obsessive and toxic affair the speaker has with a much older married man, an experience that colors her relationship with her mother, colleagues, and eventual husband. Meijer demonstrates her chops as a poet and prose writer by utilizing a variety of different forms but consistently maintaining the same clarity and directness of language. The form play is unique and intriguing, and the experimentation is balanced out by the straightforward storytelling, so the result never feels like it’s just a shtick. The meticulous choices the author has made with the form play ensures that the content and the form always work well together, making the poems individual successes across the board. For example, the phone conversations between characters are written in short, clipped sentences that, centered on the page, create a long line down the middle resembling the slice of a knife, mending wound, or a scar; the conversations highlight the emotional distance between the characters, and the back-and-forth rhythm and cut-like appearance of the poem emphasizes the cold aggression of the dialogue. From prose poems to poems of unrhymed couplets, left-justified poems to pieces that look like scatterplots, Meijer uses the space to mirror and to sometimes strategically contradict the perception of the speaker.

“He likes a woman who breathes easy. 
More and more I am that woman, 
clawing through the belly of the wolf, 
shredding its strong sides.”
(from “The Lovers”)

In terms of fairytale inspiration, the Northwood narrative most closely parallels Red Riding Hood, particularly in its sexual and violent depictions. The original story is classically interpreted as a morality tale about the struggle of the virginal traveler resisting sexual sin as represented by the hungry and duplicitous wolf who craves her body indiscriminately. In Northwood’s reimagining, the speaker, a young woman and ink artist, rents a cabin in the woods to work on her art in solitude. Like Red Riding Hood, the speaker ventures into a dangerous wood and emerges changed. In the woods lives a woodcutter character, who, in the original tale, is the hero who slices open the wolf’s belly to save Red Riding Hood, but in Meijer’s world, he is just as dangerous as the lupine lover. The lover is described in wolfish terms (crooked teeth that appear yellow in the light, silver hair, “a wolf in wolves’ clothing”), and their sex is depicted with violent imagery and graphic language; the lover penetrates the speaker so fiercely that his hand disappears in her body up to his wrist, and he frequently leaves bruises, draws blood, and makes the speaker pass out entirely; the diction reflects the violence of their conjugal unions, with words like “slap” and “skin” continuously reappearing in the manuscript. The affair is not one of love or romance, but is rather a relationship of eating and being eaten, and the way this obsession consumes the speaker’s psyche mirrors the way the wolf seeks to destroy and eat Red Riding Hood. Instead of the physical consumption of the body, Meijer cleverly translates the lover’s pursuit of the speaker into a quest of psychological domination.

“I touched the red wool of the new couch. Everything was red, now, she said she was tired of beige, the tyranny of neutrals, it was all about strength and life and love, wasn’t it? Wasn’t it, sweetheart?”
(from “Queen of Swords”)

Much of my reading enjoyment stemmed from charting the patterns in the narrative, picking up on references that appear in multiple poems and creating a thread of references that link everything together. Like the fairytales from which the novella derives inspiration, the poems are image-driven. Similar to in fables, the number three is important in these poems (the lover brings the speaker three pots of ink, for instance) and colors constantly reoccur (black, gray, yellow, silver, and red are particularly notable). Images of animals are also significant; foxes and wolves specifically reappear, both explicitly and implicitly. The speaker references princes, princesses, and other archetypal figures, and many of the poems’ titles are named after Greek myths, such as “Daphne” and “Narcissus.” The author also pulls inspiration from the classic Tarot, naming pieces after specific cards, like “The Fool,” “Queen of Swords,” and “The Hanged Man.” References and borrowed imagery abound in this novella, providing the groundwork for the astute reader to connect the dots, revealing the story within the stories.

“Where are our stars? Our evenings? Our trees? 
Good ghosts 
tucked inside their mirrors, 
haunting as quietly as they can.”
(from “Echo”)

A story of forbidden lust, the narrative is also one about artists and how we are both fueled and destroyed by our work, another form of being consumed. Both the speaker and the lover are artists and teachers: the speaker expresses herself visually with ink drawings, and the lover has authored successful published books. Both characters use the affair in their work. By mining the experience for their respective mediums, the speaker and the lover reinterpret the events themselves, and the speaker even calls out her lover for this, expressing frustration that, in her lover’s novel about the affair, he never hits her, which forces the reader to question how much truth we owe the traumas that inspire us. The narrative becomes a meta investigation into how we construct stories and make art, the limitations of building something new out of old references, and how much we can and cannot trust the perspective of a narrator who alternately hides and reveals details.

“In class I say it’s so important, how you present yourself. I pretend it’s all on purpose. The run in the stocking. The back of my head where I didn’t quite comb my hair.”
(from “Exhibition”)

I tend to err on the side of more traditional when it comes to my reading habits. When pressed, I say I prefer a straightforward narrative, simple and clean, without the unnecessary bells and whistles. I’ve been burned too often in the past by stories that, in straying from what is expected, are transformed more into a self-indulgent gimmick than into a piece possessing any heart. Reading Northwood was a satisfying pleasure, because it was not a mere contrivance. The emphasis on the story, the carefully crafted poetry, and the meticulous arrangement of the words on the page made this experimental novella a true work of art that was grounded in the fierce and flawed nature of sexual love. Maryse Meijer’s deft craftsmanship and clear focus make Northwood a darkly intriguing work that is both frightening and undeniably seductive.

JEN CORRIGAN is a Nonfiction Editor for Alternating Current Press and a Staff Book Reviewer for The Coil. A nominee for the 2017 Pushcart Prize, her prose has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, Pithead Chapel, The Tishman Review, Hypertext Magazine, and elsewhere. Visit her at her website.