{Guest Review} Author Sophie Weeks reviews TRANSFORMATIONS by Anne Sexton

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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.

Strictly 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:

No matter what life you lead
the virgin is a lovely number:
cheeks as fragile as cigarette paper,
arms and legs made of Limoges,
lips like Vin Du Rhône,
rolling her china-blue doll eyes
open and shut.
Open to say,
Good Day Mama,
and shut for the thrust
of the unicorn.

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.

Sexton is 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,

The huntsman and the grandmother and Red Riding Hood
sat down by his corpse and had a meal of wine and cake.
Those two remembering
nothing naked and brutal
from that little death,
that little birth,
from their going down
and their lifting up.

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.

A poet's 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.
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O F F I C I A L   I N F O:

Title:  TRANSFORMATIONS
Author: Anne Sexton
Release Date: Out 1971 
Publisher: Mariner Books / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
SUMMARY:

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).

Comments

  1. I have never heard of this work of Sexton's before reading this. Your review piques my interest!

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  2. I've heard of Anne Sexton but not of this particular body of work. I am sufficiently intrigued. Thanks for the review. Might have to contact you to discuss when I read it.

    Heather

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    Replies
    1. Oh, please do, Heather! I never have anyone to talk poems with.

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    2. You and me both. My boys are not into poetry!

      Heather

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  3. I love Transformations. I wrote my senior year term paper for AP English on it, and I memorized Snow White for my storytelling class. :) Thanks for your post!

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  4. Thanks, Tahleen! I've loved learning and teaching this text as well.

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  5. Beautiful review, well more like a slight analysis. I've vaguely heard of Sexton but this has been a wonderful introduction to her work.

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