Wednesday, February 9, 2011

"Transformations" by Anne Sexton

I recently pulled this book out of a forgotten box of books in my basement. I had to read Transformations by Anne Sexton in college for a folklore and fairy tale class that I took. I reread it the other day and found myself amused by the poems.

If you can get past its creepy cover...

Transformations is a retelling of a selection of fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm through poetry by Anne Sexton. Included are the stories of Snow White, Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin, Red Riding Hood, the Dancing Princesses, the Frog Prince, and several more. In the typical Anne Sexton style, these poems include references and images of controversial themes including adultery, incest, lesbianism, depression and even cannibalism. (For anyone unfamiliar with Anne Sexton, you can read her biography here).

I have always had a fascination and love for fairy tales, hence the reason I took this class, and found Sexton's interpretations to be enlightening. She translates the Grimms' versions as having deeper rooted meanings and more complex character relationship than what may immediately come to mind. She explores the possible sexual love of the old woman for Rapunzel, the motive for keeping her locked away from potential suitors. Similarly, with the story of Briar Rose, she presents the idea of a father's inappropriate love for his daughter, and "protecting" her from harm, in the form of the knights.

Knowing about Sexton's past, its not surprising to see these themes as the foundation for her writing. She was a long-time sufferer of extreme mental illness, possibly bipolar disorder. Sexton believed herself to be the victim of sexual abuse, although no proof of this existed other than controversial hypnosis sessions with her therapist. Also not surprising was Anne Sexton's death. After a meeting planning for the publication of her manuscript, The Awful Rowing Toward God, she returned home and committed suicide. Over a year prior to this meeting and her subsequent death, she had claimed that she would not allow the manuscript to be published until after her death (Source).

Aside from the darker images, Sexton succeeds at infusing humor into the pieces. Two of my favorite of her more comical images come from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, "The dwarfs, those little hot dogs,..." and "...Snow White, the dumb bunny,/opened the door...". And as a mother who has more than once attempted to bite my sons' pudgy little baby cheeks, I was amused at Sexton's portrayal of the mother from Hansel and Gretel as being a cannibal;
Little plum,
said the mother to her son,
I want to bite,
I want to chew,
I will eat you up.
It is certainly an amusing read. My other personal favorites are Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Twelve Dancing Princesses, and Cinderella

A selection from The Twelve Dancing Princesses:

If you danced from midnight
to six A.M. who would understand?

The runaway boy
who chucks it all
to live on the Boston Common
on speed and saltines,
pissing in the duck pond,
rapping with the street priest,
trading talk like blows,
another missing person,
would understand.

The paralytic's wife
who takes her love to town,
sitting on the bar stool,
downing stingers and peanuts,
singing "That ole Ace down in the hole,"
would understand.

The passengers
from Boston to Paris
watching the movie with dawn
coming up like statues of honey,
having partaken of champagne and steak
while the world turned like a toy globe,
those murderers of the nightgown
would understand.

The amnesiac
who tunes into a new neighborhood,
having misplaced the past,
having thrown out someone else's
credit cards and monogrammed watch,
would understand.

The drunken poet
(a genius by daylight)
who places long-distance calls
at three A.M. and then lets you sit
holding the phone while he vomits
(he calls it "The Night of the Long Knives")
getting his kicks out of the death call,
would understand.
To continue reading this poem, or for a complete collection of Anne Sexton's work, visit American Poems.

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