Transformations by Anne Sexton

It’s National Poetry Month! Did you know that? It’s also Once Upon a Time time and there’s also a really awesome challenge going on called Clover, Bee and Reverie that celebrates poetry, so I figured that this was the perfect time to read Anne Sexton’s Transformations. As a teenager, I was obsessed with the poetry of Anne Sexton. I still can’t tell you exactly what it is about her that I love, but her poetry has always rang true to me. I guess it’s that she saw life with an honest eye. And I like that. It was never sugar coated, and while that could be depressing, it’s the truth. And I just love her spin on words. Somehow, I managed to have never discover Transformations until I met Ana (Nymeth) and she told me about this book. And now I’ve finally read it.

This is my new favorite collection of Anne Sexton’s. I’ll say that right off the bat. What she’s done here is transformed 17 of the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales into her own. But she’s done much more than that. Each poem is titled the same as the original tale, Cinderella, for example. Sexton goes on to tell the tale of Cinderella in her own beautiful poetry, always staying true to the original Grimm tales. As you know, these are far from what Disney has taught us over the years and they work beautifully with Sexton’s sometimes dark, sometimes edgy, sometimes humorous language. So in that sense, she is literally transforming Grimm’s tales into a poem of her own.

But there is another transformation taking place here as well. Before each retelling of the tale, there is another poem that Sexton shares with us. A poem that is not so much a retelling of the tale, but a relation to the tale. I’ll give you an example. Perhaps my favorite poem of the collection was Rapunzel. We’ve come to know Rapunzel throughout the years as the story of the beautiful maiden held hostage in the tower who lets down her hair so that the handsome prince can climb up and rescue her. “Rapunzel Rapunzel, let down your hair” and then he saves her, right? That’s the image we’ve all learned. But that’s not the true tale. We often forget that Rapunzel was put in the tower by her mother who never wanted anyone to touch her or see her. She would throw down her hair so that her mother could climb it and once her mother came up, Rapunzel would hold her and her mother would cry in her lap. When the prince discovered this, he used the same tactic to get into the tower calling for Rapunzel to let down her hair. Rapunzel did so and they spent the evening in happiness in the tower. But Rapunzel’s mother on finding out about this cut off all of Rapunzel’s hair and took her into the forest. When the prince discovered the tower empty after falling for a trap laid by the mother, he threw himself from the tower, blinding himself. Eventually he is healed and they do end up together. But it is a much darker tale than what we are taught. And it’s very much a tale about the dangers of obsession.

Sexton takes the obsession and transforms it into an absolutely beautiful tale of female bonding between two women before giving us the tale of Rapunzel, the fairy tale itself. And this is the pattern of the whole book. First, her own interpretation, her own transformation, then the poetic translation of the tale itself. Her is her transformative poem before Rapunzel. I fell in love with this:

A woman
who loves a woman
is forever young.
The mentor
and the student
feed off each other.
Many a girl
had an old aunt
who locked her in the study
to keep the boys away.
They would play rummy
or lie on the couch
and touch and touch.
Old breast against young breast…

Let your dress fall down your shoulder,
come touch a copy of you
for I am at the mercy of rain,
for I have left the three Christs of Ypsilanti,
for I have left the long naps of Ann Arbor
and the church spires have turned to stumps.
The sea bangs into my cloister
for the young politicians are dying,
are dying so hold me, my young dear,
hold me…

The yellow rose will turn to cinder
and New York City will fall in
before we are done so hold me,
my young dear, hold me.
Put your pale arms around my neck.
Let me hold your heart like a flower
lest it bloom and collapse.
Give me your skin
as sheer as a cobweb,
let me open it up
and listen in and scoop out the dark.
Give me your nether lips
all puffy with their art
and I will give you angel fire in return.
We are two clouds
glistening in the bottle glass.
We are two birds
washing in the same mirror.
We were fair game
but we have kept out of the cesspool.
We are strong.
We are the good ones.
Do not discover us
for we lie together all in green
like pond weeds.
Hold me, my young dear, hold me.

They touch their delicate watches
one at a time.
They dance to the lute
two at a time.
They are as tender as bog moss.
They play mother-me-do
all day.
A woman
who loves a woman
is forever young.

Beautiful, isn’t it? And if Anne Sexton’s words and the subject matter weren’t fascinating enough, there’s an amazing introduction to this book by Kurt Vonnegut AND throughout the book, each poem is beautifully illustrated by Barbara Swan. All together this was just such a wonderful book and I can see myself dipping into this one over and over again into the future.

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8 Responses

  1. I’ve never read the original Repunzel but reading your description makes me realize just how NOT-changed Zel was from the original. I thought it was very loosely based on the fairy tale but apparently I was wrong. Repunzel definitely isnt my favorite fairy tale. I’ll come back to read the poem. I’ve been up for almost 24 hours and I can’t get past the first sentence before I lose focus. I need my focus to try poetry! 😀

  2. I’m so glad you loved it, Chris! I knew you would.

  3. This sounds really good, especially given that it uses old fairy tales as the backdrop. I’m certainly interested, and the example you use is great. Since you enjoyed this you might enjoy Catheryne Valente’s book, A Guide to Folk Tales in Fragile Dialects. I am almost finished with it and it is poetry of hers that tell similar dark, interesting fairy/folk tales. So far it has been very good.

  4. I’m reading this one sometime soon, and between you and Ms Nymeth, am very excited about it. Thanks 🙂

  5. I got this book out of the library after Ana reviewed it, but never got around to reading it (shocking, I know :P). Anyway, you just made me realize that I really need to check this out again…and make it a priority when I do!!!

  6. I like Anne Sexton’s poetry, but I hadn’t seen this book, so now I’m inter-library loaning it for myself — can’t wait! Thank you for this post!!!

  7. Wow — beautiful. I haven’t read Sexton in years and now I’m sorry about that.

  8. I’m reading this book of poems right now! I just read this poem last week. It’s an interesting take on Rapunzel. Every Sunday I read two or three, and then let them sit in my mind. They are dark, and disturbing and honest, aren’t they? Plus incredibly moving. I find I have to go back to the beginning after I finish the last line, because they are so deep that the first line does tell you more. If that makes sense! I’m glad you are enjoying them – we both have Ana to thank! I bought a copy because of her review (2?) years ago. Thanks, Ana!

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