Musings + Essays

Gretel + Her Breadcrumb Trail.

By: Jen Shoop

I recently listened to a brief NPR Author Interview with former British poet laureate Andrew Motion on the subject of war poetry. I more or less inherited an interest in this subject matter because my father spent several years in intensive, self-directed study of the genre before writing a memoir that explored his experience as an Army draftee who fought in the Vietnam War through the lens of 20th century war poetry. I spent a portion of graduate school copy-editing the drafts for him and handling an elaborate permissions project seeking the rights to reprint many of the poems he wanted to include. Over the course of one hot D.C. summer, I learned a lot about Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and what Vietnam was like for a young man pursuing a law degree and drafted into the army, somewhat against his own principle. Writing that sentence, it occurs to me afresh how profoundly lucky I am. I have skated through life, cocooned and bubble-wrapped, compared to my father, and his parents, and their parents. I am determined that this attenuation of hardship does not invite a parallel loss of courage, or lassitude, on my end. I am fortunate, and I must remember it.

Anyhow — a happenstance clicking around led me to this NPR interview, whose title turned my head. The conversation itself was not particularly substantive, but there was enough meat on the bone and enough resonance in Motion’s recitations to spur me into looking up he and his own poetry.

Does it ever feel as though you are Gretel following a breadcrumb trail that was destined for you at a given moment? I don’t know what led me to listen to that NPR interview, or to chase down Motion’s poetry, or to land on the following poem, but some force drew me here with intent. And the echo of this poem against the current cultural moment rings prescient.

I visited The Anne Frank house while studying abroad and I felt exactly as Motion did: shocked by how touched I was, electrified by the tragedy. I sound callous admitting this, but I approached the museum thinking I knew the story, had wrung my hands at the sadness of it already, and that the visit would be more of a tick mark on my cultural program for the season. I was wrong. Visiting this museum was heart-rending. An arrest. As Motion put it: “Just listening / is a kind of guilt.”

Anne Frank Huis

Even now, after twice her lifetime of grief

and anger in the very place, whoever comes

to climb these narrow stairs, discovers how

the bookcase slides aside, then walks through

shadow into sunlit room, can never help

but break her secrecy again. Just listening

is a kind of guilt: the Westerkirk repeats

itself outside, as if all time worked round

towards her fear, and made each stroke

die down on guarded streets. Imagine it—

four years of whispering, and loneliness,

and plotting, day by day, the Allied line

in Europe with a yellow chalk. What hope

she had for ordinary love and interest

survives her here, displayed above the bed

as pictures of her family; some actors;

fashions chosen by Princess Elizabeth.

And those who stoop to see them find

not only patience missing its reward,

but one enduring wish for chances

like my own: to leave as simply

as I do, and walk at ease

up dusty tree-lined avenues, or watch

a silent barge come clear of bridges

settling their reflections in the blue canal.


If you are up for a literary reflection this morning, I’m curious what you make of the aggressive, foregrounded use of enjambment in the stanzas above. (Enjambment is the continuation of a sentence without a pause beyond the end of a line, couplet, or stanza.) The clipping sensation and jerky movement between lines hang rich with subtext.


+The sandpiper.

+The word “poetics” still makes me squirm a bit because of this memory.

+The study of English and the great “or maybes.”

Shopping Break.

+These delicate signet rings are beyond beautiful. Contemplating adding one to my daily jewelry stack.

+We aren’t a toaster oven family, but this one is legitimately attractive and would be the one I’d want on my countertop!

+Playful striped sweater — 25% off.

+I feel like we can never have enough trays — this $22 woven one would be great on a bar, ottoman, or coffee table. I like the material because it’s kid-friendly/non-fragile.

+Julia Amory dress vibes for less.

+A dream holiday dress.

+Hunter’s short refined rainboot is THE BEST. So much more flattering on me (I’m so short) than the taller height, and I love the sleek profile. If you’re taller, though, I love the matte gray color on their tall refined boot.

+I LOVE a waffle tee — this one comes in great colors and is on sale.

+I can think of 100 immediate uses for these luxe-looking leather zippered pouches. I’m imagining using them for stowing cords and pens when traveling for work, or even on a desktop.

+FUN $138 skirt.

+Obsessed with these Hayden Lasher bags.

+An investment, but this cropped cashmere cableknit turtleneck is perfection.

+LOVE this divided serving tray — serve complementary dishes in it! Like a stack of pancakes next to a fruit salad, or a pile of fried chicken next to mac and cheese. So clever!

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4 thoughts on “Gretel + Her Breadcrumb Trail.

  1. WOW. Jen, this has to be one of the most powerful poems you’ve shared here. I kept coming back to re-read it for several days.

    This part in particular:

    but one enduring wish for chances

    like my own: to leave as simply

    as I do, and walk at ease

    up dusty tree-lined avenues…

    A reminder to never take our freedom for granted…

    I always come back to this line from the 90’s series, My So-Called Life, with Claire Danes (she was excellent in it). I can’t even remember the exact scene but it was something about another character in very dire/unfortunate straits. Claire’s character Angela was talking to her mother about it and delivered this line with so much gravitas: “That could have been me.” That line has stayed with me ever since. It must seem strange, to relate Andrew Motion’s poetry to a TV series but this thought of “it could have been me” always strikes me when I see for example, an unhoused mother with young children on the street. How did I become so fortunate, relative to so many others? Or reading Anne Frank’s diary or about any victim of injustice, for that matter. It could have been me.

    1. I agree – that section really moved me, and it reminded me, in fact, of something that a friend once said after his wife had just endured emergent, life-saving surgery while delivering their daughter. He said he was driving around town so gingerly, so as to avoid jostling her in the car, taking his time, being so careful on the roads (and in general, with everyone around him), and he said, “I don’t know why I don’t live like this all the time.” There was something about that insight, the recognition that something really bad can make you change your entire outlook, carriage, way of moving through the world, and how easy it is to sort of fall out of the cautious/gentle/generous mindset when you’re through the woods. Whenever I encounter scenes along the lines you cited here — a woman with young children on the street — I think, “I need to remember this daily. I need to be grateful for what I have every minute.” And yet it is really easy to let life get in the way of those simple and powerful truths.

      Reading poetry like this is a good way to remind me to sit up straight.


  2. A friend of mine is currently visiting the lynching museum in Alabama. My mom and I were discussing it, and she said, I couldn’t do it. No way. My fiancé piped in with… even though it doesn’t change anything, I think it’s important to bear witness. I think that’s so very true. And I’m so very lucky to be marrying a man who has such a heart.

    I do love those breadcrumb moments. I never see them coming, it it leaves me just stunned, in the best way, experiencing the invisible forces that move our lives. I try very hard to pay attention to them 🙂

    1. Thank you for sharing that — I agree, there is real power and importance in bearing witness. And totally agree about breadcrumb moments / invisible strings! I am a big believer that everything happens for a reason.


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