If you are of a certain generation, then perhaps you remember tales from the Brothers Grimm. Forget the Disney version, these fairy tales were dark and twisty and played more with your imagination then any singing candle or magic lantern. But they were, and still are, firmly rooted in fantasy, in that “once upon a time” realm that delights and at times, even disgusts (evil people suffered such grotesque ends that I rather pitied them).
I didn’t discover Anne Sexton until I was in college, which I thought was somewhat late in the game. Her voice is authentic, rhythmic, and raw. Couple that strange, sideways view of the world with the Brothers Grimm and you have Transformations, fairy tales that make uncanny turns into our post-modern world.
Now I love fantasy, but I teach the fantastic because it invades our psyche, taps into those secret recesses we might like to keep buried. Take, for instance, Sexton’s play on the tale of Rumpelstiltskin, whom she portrays less as villain and more as human desire: “he only wanted this—/a living thing/to call his own./And being mortal/who can blame him?” (20). Her very introduction to the tale, in fact, points out that this dwarf is merely an aspect of ourselves that we would like to forget: “Inside many of us/is a small old man/who wants to get out…I am the law of your members,/the kindred of blackness and impulse./See. Your hand shakes./It is not palsy or booze./It is your Doppelgӓnger” (17). Such lines also recall the scene from Tod Browning’s Freaks when the circus group chants to Cleopatra: “One of us! One of us! Gooble-gobble, gooble-gobble!" To deny or forget the humanity of the Other is a dangerous game, and Sexton wants us to remember that perhaps that shadow self deserves a little pity.
Not that she’s kind to every fairy tale gal; for instance, she calls out Snow White for being a “dumb bunny” (8) and poor Cinderella “and the prince/lived, they say, happily ever after,/like two dolls in a museum case/never bothered by diapers or dust,/never arguing over the timing of an egg,/never telling the same story twice,/never getting the middle age spread,/ their darling smiles pasted for eternity” (56-57). Even Red Riding Hood’s mother gets a slap on the wrist for sending non-essentials to a rather sick grandmother: “Wine and cake?/Where’s the aspirin? The penicillin?/Where’s the fruit juice?/Peter Rabbit got chamomile tea./But wine and cake it was” (76). Despite such critiques of myths that have been distilled and commodified so much that their power has been somewhat lost, Sexton still respects, even highlights the horror found in the original tales. For instance, the poem on Red Riding Hood ends with the women’s amnesia of the assault by the wolf and their Jonah-like journey in his belly, while the reader to grapple with the paradox of their rescue: “Those two remember/nothing naked and brutal/from that little death/that little birth, from their going down/ and their lifting up” (79).
The images from Grimm still haunt me to this day—toads and gold falling out of girls’ mouths, people being shut into a barrel of nails and rolled into the river (“The Three Little Men in the Wood”)—but Sexton’s horror works in a different way. It’s less earthy, but more real, straddling the threshold of fairy tale and confessional. In the foreword to Transformations, Kurt Vonnegut describes her work this way: “She domesticates my terror, examines it and describes it, teaches it some tricks which will amuse me, then lets it gallop wild in my forest once more” (vii). And isn’t that the very nature of the fantastic? To tease and instruct, to challenge and comfort, and stretch our imaginations in ways that don’t shut down our critical thinking, but rather, give it a good romp every once and a while.
Sexon, Ann. Transformations. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1971.