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arrakiswitch

A Reciprocal Love Affair With Books

Jean, 39, lover of sci-fi, horror and fantasy, reader of comic books, conqueror of genre fiction.

Review: Transformations by Anne Sexton

Transformations. With Drawings by Barbara Swan - Anne SEXTON

In the throes of my renewed passion for all things fairy tale this summer, I decided to pick up my favorite book of poetry, Anne Sexton's (or Mother Sexton, to evoke the persona she takes on here) collection of Grimm stories, told with her usual biting wit, and cynical eye for female behavior and gender roles. While "Cinderella" is perhaps the poem that gets reproduced the most in collections:

 

Next came the ball, as you all know.

It was a marriage market.

 

Mainly, I think, because of its common themes, the (sharply humorous) disdain Sexton regularly show for domesticity, for vapid innocence. But, thought he book starts and ends with two famous tales, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs:

 

The hunter, however, let his prisoner go

and brought a boar's heart back to the castle.

The queen chewed it up like cube steak.

Now I'm the fairest, she said,

lapping at her slim white fingers.

 

And Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty):

 

The king ordered every spinning wheel

exterminated and exorcised.

Briar Rose grew to be a goddess

and each night the king

bit the hem of her gown to keep her safe.

He fastened the moon up,with a safety pin

to give her perpetual light.He forced every male in the court

to scour his tongue with Bab-o

lest they poison the air she dwelt in.

Thus she dwelt in his odor.

Rank as honeysuckle.

 

But, for me, it's the lesser tales, like Little Red Riding Hood:

 

It was a carnal knife that let

Red Riding Hood out like a poppy,

quite alive from the kingdom of the belly.

And grandmother too

still waiting for cakes and wine.

The wolf, they decided, was too mean

to simply be shot so they filled his belly

with large stones and sewed him up.

He was heavy s a cemetery

and when he woke up and tried to run off

he fell over dead. Killed by his own weight.

Many a deception ends on such a note.

 

Or even the obscure to little known ones, such as The Maiden Without Hands:

 

She stretched her neck like an elastic,

up, up, to take a bite of a pear

hanging from the king's tree.

Picture her there for a moment,

a perfect still life.

After all,

she could not feed herself

or pull her pants down

or brush her teeth.

 

She was, I'd say,

without resources.

 

Each begins with Mother Sexton, ever the storyteller, wriggling to the heart of the tale, or her interpretation, and, like any good book of fairy tales, while you can find many of these poems in collections, this is best taken, devoured and digested, as a whole. (Especially with Barbara Swan's outstanding illustrations.)

 

In the forward, Kurt Vonnegut notes that, while a good poet extends the language, Anne Sexton domesticates his terror, "examines it and describes it, teaches it some tricks which will amuse me, then lets it gallop wild in my forest once more." I couldn't have said it better.