What are we, but small creatures avoiding new versions of violence?
From “My Mother Reads Me Little Red Riding Hood as a Young Girl”
Buffalo Girl, the most recent collection from award-winning author and educator Jessica Q. Stark, deftly fuses fairy tale, illustration and verse to offer a powerful exploration of generational trauma, violence and survival. Stark continually retools Little Red Riding Hood against a backdrop of recovered history, putting her keen understanding of the material on full display. Buffalo Girl is that rare collection that is best experienced in print form, where readers encounter Stark’s expert use of the page alongside full color images that add complexity and nuance to the lines they accompany.
The cover of Buffalo Girl sets the stage for a collection that unpacks what it means to be a child of war, to literally embody the colonizer and the colonized. Stark’s mother straddles a scooter at the center of the image, her jaw tilted slightly as she makes eye contact with the camera. Behind her, several men, including one in fatigues, drive the opposite direction. The design effectively centers Stark’s mother, highlighting her agency and control not just of her journey, but of the camera’s gaze. This mirrors depictions of the author’s mother throughout the collection, ensuring that the reader never mistakes the women in the narrative for helpless, or hapless, objects in their respective stories.
The author opens the first section of the book with “Phylogenetics,” a poem in which the speaker first asks, “but isn’t it obvious that we always had a knack for stories about little girls in danger?,” before describing comparing Buffalo Girls to “Little Red Cap, taking all her known objects to bed…” In the next poem,”The Wild Water Buffalo,” the speaker recalls entering a river to break a fever:
I plunged into another view,
broke water, and met eyes with
a frightening mass, half-submerged
Under our murky blanket.
The mass turns out to be a buffalo, prompting the speaker to declare, “Bathing with a beast is no burden.” The juxtaposition of these two poems complicates the image of the Buffalo Girl, comparing the dancing girls of New York to Little Red Riding Hood while also literally aligning the young speaker in “The Wild Water Buffalo” with the buffalos that populate Vietnam. Stark returns to this notion in the final poem of the collection, “Aubade with Buffalo Girls in Flight,” where the speaker asserts, “I was born into this day//a buffalo. I will die one, too….When I was a girl, I haunted men.”
Correlating the buffalo, a symbol of bravery and prosperity in Vietnamese culture, with Little Red Riding Hood urges readers to reconsider the relationship between girls and the wolves they encounter throughout their lives. By employing erasure continually to reimagine elements of the Little Red Riding Hood mythos, Stark recenters the girl not as a passive, naive instrument for patriarchal messaging but as an autonomous girl capable of confronting the wolf on her own terms. The very first entry in this series, “Little Red Riding Hood,” includes a moral from the Charles Perrault version which suggests that the tale is meant to warn “children, especially attractive, well-bred young ladies” not to talk to strangers lest they “provide dinner for a wolf.”
Stark opens the erasure by setting the scene, describing how a “good woman” goes to the village “with a wolf and//a very great mind” before admitting that “there/are various kinds” of wolves. The second section of the collection employs a series of prose poems that center “Red” and a wolf at various points in that love affair, culminating in the speaker of “Little Red Hood” coming forth from the wolf’s maw. Here, Stark looks at what it might mean to be both the wolf and the little girl.
In addition to Stark’s mastery of language, Buffalo Girl uses mixed media imagery more effectively than any collection in recent memory. Ultimately, Buffalo Girl is one of the most nuanced, complex and unique collections of the year.