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A Review of TRANSFORMATIONS by Sophie Weeks
I have probably read thousands of fairy tales over the
course of my life. As a child, I
devoured the Grimms and dug out the now-obscure Andrew Lang Fairy books from
the library, developing a taste for world literature through its fairy
stories. In middle school, I read Hans
Christian Andersen and others, transitioning from folk tale to literary fairy
tale. But only one book of fairy tales
has ever changed me; appropriately, that book was Anne Sexton's TRANSFORMATIONS.
speaking, calling Sexton's a book of fairy tales is misleading. The book is a collection of poems about fairy
tales both famous and obscure, from Cinderella to Godfather Death. All her poems are themed around the title:
they depict movement and transformation.
From the cover, Sexton's sad, knowing eyes seem to have absorbed the
ageless wisdom she writes about and transmuted it into something new: sharp
poetry that leaves a mark. In his
foreword to the volume, Kurt Vonnegut writes “Anne Sexton does a deeper favor
for me: 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.”
Here is how
Sexton writes about Snow White:
what life you lead
is a lovely number:
fragile as cigarette paper,
legs made of Limoges,
Vin Du Rhône,
her china-blue doll eyes
for the thrust
Sexton's poetry both dismantles and also strengthens all the
old tropes of virginity. The delicacy,
like “cigarette paper” and the violent thrust of the unicorn, spread over a
line break so that we stop, just for a moment on the word thrust before finding
a magical creature on the other end of the horn. Sexton extends and plays on the idea of Snow
White as a doll, and there's no reverence here, no Disney princess. Snow White is a “dumb bunny” who lets the
queen in, an empty vessel for the desire of others.
strongest, though, when she writes of true transformation, something a static
character like Snow White never experiences.
In “Little Red Riding Hood,” she begins by warning of the deceivers, who
are all around us, waiting to tell us lies.
But as she gets into the meat of the fairy tale, her whimsy is as
irrepressible as the resilient Red Riding Hood and her grandmother. When she concludes,
huntsman and the grandmother and Red Riding Hood
by his corpse and had a meal of wine and cake.
naked and brutal
These lines expose the eternal innocence of fairy tales,
where our heroes and heroines battle monsters and then forget the fight,
remembering only the wine and cake given to the victor. Briar Rose doesn't become an insomniac, nor
Red Riding Hood an agoraphobic. Triumph,
fairy tales tell us, is complete, but Sexton pushes aside the veil to expose
the disturbing heart of the matter.
job is to make new, over and over again, and Transformations makes new in the best sense, takes the old stories
that soothed us to sleep and turns them around to reveal what those old stories
tell us about ourselves and the world.
In Transformations, Sexton
transmutes the familiar into the strange and piquant, showing us visions of a
world of boundless transformation.
These poem-stories are a strange retelling of seventeen Grimms fairy tales, including Snow White, Rumpelstiltskin, Rapunzel, The Twelve Dancing Princesses, The Frog Prince, and Red Riding Hood. Astonishingly, they are as wholly personal as Anne Sexton's most intimate poems. "Her metaphoric strength has never been greater -- really funny, among other things, a dark, dark laughter" (C.K. Williams).