Anne Sexton’s Ominous Fairy Tales: Part One, Snow White

 

“The speaker in this case
is a middle-aged witch, me-
tangled on my two great arms,
my face in a book
and my mouth wide,
ready to tell you a story or two.
I have come to remind you,
all of you:

Do you remember when you
were read to as a child?”

So begins Anne Sexton’s book Transformations,  a dark and prophetic retelling of fairy tales. True to the Brothers Grimm, she did not balk at gory details, but rather added her own peculiar and twisted endings where the characters live not so happily ever after. Anne Sexton took on many topics with her unique brand of “Confessional” poetry, but her fairy tale interpretations are perhaps the most interesting.

Into the Forest Dark

Most fairy tales, before they were Disney-fied, were pretty terrifying. Don’t forget their origins. They were told by Medieval grandmothers in thatched cottages who had a vested interest in notifying the children of all the evil and malicious things that lurked before them. Death, plagues and hunger were rampant, not to mention wild animals, thieves and kidnappers.  Children had good reasons to be scared. It was a dangerous business, going outside your door. Fairy tales could act as a sort of guide to warn them and toughen them to the fact that life would not be easy.

Anne Sexton’s life was not easy either, fraught with mental illness, an abusive childhood and finally ending in suicide at age forty-six.

Fellow poet and editor Maxine Kumin has said that Anne Sexton read and referenced fairy tales like most writers read the Bible or Greek myths. She was always attracted to the work of Andersen, Perrault and the Brothers Grimm. She herself had been read to as a child by her beloved grandmother.

In Transformations, Sexton takes these tales and revises them for the 20th century, warning the reader of modern day evils.  The princesses and heroines, rather than living happily ever after, end up in the quagmire of trappings that include jealousy, egotism, mediocrity, old age, and just plain bad marriages.

I’ll be looking at several of these poems over the next few days. Stay tuned as I explore Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, The Twelve Dancing Princesses, and more. But first up — that innocent ingenou with skin white as snow and hair black as coal, who decidedly had an aversion to apples…

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs 

Beauty fades, but dumb is forever. Furthermore, no one escapes the ramifications of vanity… There is an evil queen, a fragile virgin, a hunter, some helpful dwarfs and, of course, a handsome prince.

“Once there was a lovely virgin
called Snow White.
Say she was thirteen.
Her stepmother, 
a beauty in her own right, 
though eaten, of course, by age, 
would hear of no beauty surpassing her own.”

“Beauty is a simple passion, 
but, oh my friends, in the end
you will dance the fire dance in iron shoes…”

The evil queen is so jealous, she orders her huntsman to track down Snow White, kill her and bring back her heart for the queen to eat.  But the huntsman cannot bring himself to kill the girl. Instead he kills a boar and brings back that heart.

“The hunter, however, let his prisoner go
and brought a boar’s heart back to the castle.
The queen chewed it up like a cube steak.
Now I am fairest, she said, 
lapping her slim white fingers.”

This is the first of many times Snow White will escape death.  She then ventures further into the forest where “the birds called out lewdly and the snakes hung down in loops, each one a noose for her sweet white neck.”

Eventually she comes upon the cottage of the seven dwarfs, and all should have gone well. Except the evil queen returns, still seeking to kill Snow White who makes the dumb mistake of opening the cottage door. Thus she falls prey to the queen’s poison dress and comb. After saving her twice, the dwarfs warn her not to open the door to strangers, but Snow White just can’t seem to learn her lesson.

“Snow White, the dumb bunny, 

opened the door
and she bit into a poison apple
and fell down for the final time.”

The dwarfs put her in a glass coffin. A prince, passing by, sees the coffin and decides he must have the beautiful creature inside it. While his men carry the coffin home, Snow White’s body is jarred, causing her to spit up the poisoned apple. She then awakens.

Of course, she marries the prince. But what will be her final fate?

“Meanwhile Snow White held court, 
rolling her china-blue doll eyes open and shut
and sometimes referring to her mirror
as women do.”

The poem bleakly suggests that Snow White will become exactly like her evil stepmother, a vain and aging one-time beauty, haunted by, and beholden to her own reflection in the mirror.  The entire poem can be read HERE.

And finally, here is a lovely word/ music/ pictures rendition of this poem. (Running time 7 minutes.) Hope you like it!

 

 

 

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Snowe and the Dwarf

 

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In my youth I remember my parents fawning over me.  “Oh, such a pretty little girl,” they said. “Skin white as snow, hair black as jet, lips red as berries.”  They even named me ‘Snowe’.  That ‘e’ on the end was, I suppose, their creative twist.  They always considered themselves somewhat avant-garde although in reality, before the pageants, we lived in the squalor of a  trailer park, supported solely by government food stamps and my father’s seemingly permanent unemployment checks.

I was eight years old when my parents first decided it would be a good idea for me to enter the Little Princess Glamour Pageant.  At age eight, I was perhaps a late bloomer, but that was the year my parents became avid fans of children’s beauty pageants, after having persuaded my Uncle Billy Jack to hook up a pirate cable station in our trailer.  After a while, even Uncle Billy Jack thought their obsession with children’s pageants  was quite bizarre and unhealthy.  Billy Jack attempted to unhook the cable, but once it was up and running, he could not seem to undo it no matter how hard he tried.  My mother just smiled, hands on her hips as she watched.  “Who’s the fairest, who’s the fairest?” she’d scream to the TV, often playing a game with herself to predict the winner.  The TV reception was  fuzzy but still, it gave my parents plenty of ideas.

Finally, they bought a thrift store dress, some cheap rhinestone jewelry and entered me in the pageant. I had no say in this matter.

dress pd

As it turned out, I won first place. My parents drooled over me and drooled even more over the $10,000 prize money I pulled in. This began a long journey of what I call my ‘Pageant Years’.

I became known for my trademark look; pale as a corpse, coal black hair, blood red lips.  I was almost a child vampire and I suppose my exotica impressed the judges. I was never allowed to go out in the sun, for my mother feared any bronzing of my skin or lightening of my hair would alter my appearance and end my winnings.

As I got older, my mother fussed and worried about keeping me ivory white.  She took to bleaching my skin with sponges soaked in Clorox.  They burned like a wasp’s sting and made me smell like a chlorine pool. My mother also darkened my hair with shoe polish.

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At the age of twelve I was taken to a disreputable doctor who injected my lips with Botox and some type of stain to keep them permanently red.  He charged an exorbitant amount of money for this procedure.  The red lip dye affected my taste buds.  All food became cardboard to me.  This may have been just as well, as my parents then put me on a diet of wheat germ and vega-thaw to keep my weight down.  “The swimsuit competition is IMPORTANT, Snowe,” my mother said. “We can’t have you getting chubby now, of all things!”

pageant pd

At age fourteen I was taken to a plastic surgeon for breast enhancements and liposuction. By then my mother was worried that my skin had lost its little girl elasticity, and my father thought my breasts were not developing fast enough.  The surgery rid my thighs  of every ounce of cellulite.  My new breasts ballooned like enormous silicone melons.  My parents then hired a personal trainer. He was a Nazi taskmaster who did all but crack a whip at my back to keep me ‘fit’ and ‘nubile’.  I performed a four hour daily workout routine which included weight training, calisthenics and long distance running.

As a result of my low caloric intake and this constant exercise, my body hardened to a mass of muscle.  I never menstruated.  My mother thought this was a good thing. The monthly blood flow, she said, would only make me a ‘hag on the rag’.

All this hard work and body alterations apparently paid off, for in my competitions I had no rival.  My exotic looks made the judges’ heads spin around. I won  title after title.  Miss County Cuteness.  Miss Bodacious Beauty.  Miss Gorgeous Girl. Miss Pretty as a Picture. And the silly lists went on. With all my winnings we abandoned our trailer and my parents bought a mansion on the ritzy side of town.

By the time I was sixteen I was quite tired of this ridiculous routine.  I was no more than a trained dolphin, entering competition after competition.  How I longed to get away from it all!   And so, when Cadbury’s Colossal Carnival came to town, performing for one night only, I saw it as a perfect chance for my escape.

Because my parents kept such a careful watch on me, I normally would not have been allowed out at night, but  Uncle Billy Jack helped me.  He thought up an ingenious scheme of mixing sleeping tablets in my parents’ cocktails on the night the carnival arrived.  It worked wonderfully.  By 7 pm both of my parents were in the land of nod. Sprawled on their fluffy couches they snored loudly as their vast home entertainment system flashed image after image.  (Mostly beauty pageants.)  Billy Jack gave me a ride to the carnival in his pick-up truck.  I really wanted him to have a better car, but my parents, as my legal trustees, kept all my winnings to themselves.  I had not seen a penny of it. I did not even know how much I had earned.

The carnival itself was magnificent! Ferris wheels and tilt o whirls, spinning reels of neon lights as the zipper and Pharaoh’s Fury rocked back and forth.

ferris-wheel pd

There were concession stands of funnel cakes, hot dogs and pretzels. I bought a pink cloud of cotton candy but then cursed my stained lips as the bland wisps of sugar melted in my mouth, tasteless as water.  How I longed to be normal!  I sadly realized I could no longer remember what ‘normal’ was.

Nonetheless I would not let this ruin my escape plan! I silently admitted, with some sheepishness, that I actually did not have a plan. But I knew I could not go back home.

Lights flashed and harpsichord music blasted.  Barkers beckoned, “Step right up!” and arcade rifles blasted. Girls walked with armfuls of teddy bears. Gypsy women in dazzling clothes told fortunes as the merry-go-rounds spun and the bumper cars bumped. In the center of all this chaos was the big top, an enormous tent where the real entertainment was about to begin.

First up were the elephants, next the clowns and then the tigers with their trainer.  I watched as they jumped through hoops of fire. I pitied these animals; for they were no better than myself, trained performers, put on a treadmill to entertain the crowd.

Next came the freak show. A bearded lady proudly displayed her two faces, one with a thick growth of hair, the other smooth, feminine, elfin.  Two sides of a same but much different coin. There was the Frog Man, his body literally covered with warts. Then a petite contortionist shut her body up like an umbrella, folding limbs like bent spokes until she actually fit into a tiny  glass jar.  I had never seen anything like it.

circus freak

 

Last of all came the troupe of dwarfs. They tumbled onto the stage, dancing, cartwheeling,  even swinging on a trapeze.

dwarf pd

Directing them was one who I knew must be the leader. His name, I would find out later, was  Gilgamesh .

Despite his small stature, Gilgamesh was magnificent.  His tumbling and dance skills were matched by no other.  Even from where I sat I could see the sinew of his arms, the curve of his calves. My stomach fluttered as I watched him. His complexion was ruddy, with a mane of red hair and a thick neck protruding from his square shoulders.  He had short firm thighs and small but wide feet that reminded me of a Hobbit.

I had not met many men before, save for those hideous pageant hosts.  Oh, they were annoying, those hosts!  Fake smiles, moussed hair and cheesy jokes.  But now. Here before me, THIS was a man of the earth!

A tree trunk of flesh, gnarled elbows, deep hard eyes that spotted me from across the ring.  This was a real man, and never mind his dwarfism!  To say it was love at first sight sounds trite, but  Gilgamesh  captured me.

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At the show’s end I decided I must meet him. I pushed my way backstage, shy as I was, forcing myself every step.  I did not know what I’d even say to him. Yet when we met he was oddly gracious. He thought I wanted an autograph and was genuinely surprised to find I wanted no such thing.  Somehow I knew, I sensed it would be him who could bring my freedom.

The carnival was leaving town that night and I begged  Gilgamesh  to take me with him.  He cocked his head, looked at me as if I were a sad  puppy.  I explained every detail of my life at my parent’s house, the terror of the pageants, the alterations that had been forced upon my body.  Finally he said he could not refuse me.  As the roustabouts packed gear, Gilgamesh and I sat under the stars, speaking of all our hopes and dreams and fears.  I felt as if I had known him forever.

It was during this conversation I found myself growing increasingly hungry. The cotton candy had been nothing, a spider web of sugar within me.  Gilgamesh, upon hearing the roar of my stomach, promised he had the perfect thing for me.  From his pocket he produced an apple. It was large, red and ripe, so big it was a basketball in his small hands.

It had been years since I had eaten an apple.  My mother had always been so worried about my sugar intake, even fruit was not allowed.  Gilgamesh  held the apple to my lips and I eagerly bit in.

It was then the dye that had been implanted in my lips seemed to dissolve.  I could taste the apple!  For the first time in so many years I could taste the sweet tartness, the faint flavor of earth. It was delicious.  Ravenously I gnawed until there was nothing left but the core. I then continued to eat, swallowing every bit, seeds included.  I could not stop myself. I then felt my cheeks go hot.

The train was  leaving.  Gilgamesh  said I could ride with him in his bunk.  As captain of his troupe he had the largest room. “No luxury,” he said, “But I believe you will be comfortable.”  I laughed and informed him I had been raised in a trailer park.

Once we’d boarded the train he directed me to the bathroom.  It was there I came upon a small mirror on the wall.  Glancing into it, I could not believe my eyes.

Who was the woman I now saw in the glass?  To be clear, she was a woman, not a  child.  My skin was flushed and bronzed, not at all like someone who has been kept from the sun all her life.  My lips?  They were normal. Normal size.  No longer blown out of proportion with Botox. No longer  blood red, but a natural color of peach pink. Was I now normal?  My hair, although still dark, was a creamy shade of brown, free of the shoe polish dye.  I smelled my own arms. No bleach or chlorine. I smelled only my skin and sweat and the green soap I had pumped from the bathroom spout.  I smelled like a woman.

I joined Gilgamesh in his bunk. Tenderly, skillfully, he kissed my lips. His fingers found their way to my breasts, no longer silicone but now soft mounds of flesh and nipple, small enough to be cupped in his tiny hands.

In time Gilgamesh and I would be wed.  My menstrual cycle would  begin and move naturally with the phases of the moon.  I would become the mother of his children.  In time Uncle Billy Jack would find a skilled lawyer who would help me regain my pageant winnings from my parents. Gilgamesh  and I would then leave the carnival, purchase our own farm, and take some of the show animals with us, freeing them as well from this life of bondage.

But for now it was enough that he held me, cradled me in his knotted arms. I shed tears  and buried my face in his chest. The train rumbled on through the summer night.  I never entered a pageant again.

snow white 4

 

This post is in response to the daily prompt Youth