Saturday, September 12, 2009

Anne Sexton: Transformations

Anne's Sexton's Transformations gave me the idea that every poem is a little toy: a plaything for its readers. I wanted to be a bad reader and put the toys in my mouth, careful not to swallow the words, but to let them roll on my tongue and against my cheeks; I wanted Sexton's language to bump around my teeth the way that small plastic bits of a Lego castle would if I shoved them between my lips.

It's no wonder I felt this way as the mouth is the most important of all body parts in fairy tales, and Sexton proves this in her revisionary poems as she retells the kiss, the themes of consumption, the imagery of food as both pleasureful and painful, the poisons that put the lovelies of these stories to sleep.

This collection is both disturbing and delicious; the poetry didn't leave me with one specific type of hunger, but it did have me thinking about ingestion, not only because of the food imagery that often appears in the tales that the poet re-tells, but also because in a lot of ways Anne Sexton must have taken each original story in: bite by bite in order to digest and then creatively regurgitate them.

The fairy tales that Sexton turns into poems in Transformations mostly stay true to the Grimm version, but what the poet brings in the re-telling of the tales are similes and metaphors that any writer would want to steal, IE: "They are tender as bog moss" from Rapunzel or the stanza from Iron Hans that I wish I could put in my pocket and claim as my own:
Take a boy on a bridge.
One hundred feet up. About to jump,
thinking: This is my last ball game.
This time it's a home run.
Wanting the good crack of the bat.
Wanting to throw his body away
like a corn cob.
And you'll move off.
Sexton reminds us that fairy tales are dark business, and that play-things are sometimes demented ways of re-creating life. The fear in these fairy tales comes from events that lead up to looming deaths, murder, loneliness, or great big want. The poet fools around with these themes in a way that almost becomes something like poking fun. This poking fun is most vividly demonstrated in Sexton's version of Cinderella, when she uses the repetitive end line of "that story." Every story is the same, isn't it? Sexton asks, but what tone does she use? Is it a sarcastic tone? Or does she ask a sincere question? I'd say a little of both.

When I was talking to my poet-friend about the book he posed a question along the same lines as the one posed above. He asked if Sexton is following the fairy tales so closely to their original context, how do the poems re-invent the fairy tales? "They don't," I told him, "At least I don't think they do." But what they do is to reiterate that storytelling is an ageless tradition; in this tradition we find that the elements are all based in similar foundations and emulsified by similar components: hopes, dreams, love, revenge, power. Each component represents some kind of rubber another a kind of glue. I told my friend that what I think Sexton does is to prove that language is the larger component that brings everything together: that the same old story is a different story when given a different body and a different voice.

Sexton uses the body of a poem for these tales in order to reveal that an attention to language makes a fresh version. Transformations is an experimentation with narrative in this way. The same old stories are embedded in every writer's creative process, but what makes each writers' version new or different is attention to voice and tone.

Sexton's voice tells her readers of "long, long ago" tales in a way that blends time together while also calling to mind that the poems were published in the 70's. Her Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs begins: "No matter what life you lead/ the virgin is always a lovely number." She uses such little premeditations to the verse to add flavor and give something of her own perspective to the old story. This method makes the poems all the more like playthings. My favorite of Sexton's premeditation belongs to Rumpelstiltskin which begins, "Inside many of us/ is a small old man/ who wants to get out." In both poems the poet plays with the topic of sexuality, which lassoed me in at the first lines.

Sexton does the opposite of what Disney did: she paid no mind to the idea of G-rating for her version of the fairy tales, but that's not to say that she is always straight forwardly lewd, no instead, she mostly slips the perversity in the way that one might add more sugar to tea that is not sweet enough: somewhat subtly dropping in the cubes, one by one. A good example of this is in Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs when she writes, "The dwarfs, those little hot dogs, walked three times around Snow White, the sleeping virgin." In some cases Sexton does tell a down-right "steamy" version, as in The Little Peasant: "Touch me, my pancake, and make me young." Or in The Maiden Without Hands, "He wanted to lap her up like strawberry preserve."

Transformations is a collection that embraces the dark side that breaths inside the same old story; it embraces the dark side and laughs with it, deep heavy laughs-- laughs that stem from what? The absurdity of a make-believe life. Yes, these poems are little toys that keep us both entertained, and just a little scared of what past lives we might find in them.

1 comment:

  1. Lovely, developed post, Teresa. I hope you'll bring up this issue of food. And I think it's worth talking about the relationship between story and language. Are we really just retelling an older story if we update it by using the vernacular to tell it? Or are we owning it, transforming it, in some deeper way? How would we make these tales 21st century tales?