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Transformations by Anne Sexton

Transformations (1971)

by Anne Sexton

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“He turns the key.
It opens this book of odd tales.
Which transform The Brothers Grimm.
As if an enlarged paper clip
Could be a piece of sculpture.
(And it could.)”

-from The Gold Key

I am reading Transformations as part of The Complete Poems, but feel it should be discussed separately as it differs from this poet's usual style of confessional poetry. Although that is not quite true, as each of these fairy tale retellings does have a few stanzas of introduction that are modern reflections upon the larger theme, more similar to her usual work. In them topics such as deception, insomnia, remembered youth, insanity, and even incest are discussed. Each one is tied to the traditional fairy tale that follows in a thought-provoking new way, relating it to modern day issues or concepts (some of them dark or even Freudian). That was interesting.

After the introductory lines the fairy tales mostly stick to the script and are quite funny. Sexton possesses a real wit. In Red Riding Hood the wolf becomes for the reader “a strange deception: a wolf dressed in frills, a kind of transvestite”. In The Frog Prince she describes the princess’s revulsion as the frog, perched on her dinner plate “sat upon the liver, and partook like a gourmet”. So icky, yet fun to imagine! There is also humor throughout as the author wonders aloud over some questionable plot lines. For example, when Red Riding Hood sets off to visit her ill grandmother with a bottle of wine and cake, Sexton says:

“Wine and cake
Where’s the aspirin? The penicillin?
Where’s the fruit juice?
Peter Rabbit got chamomile tea.
But wine and cake it was.”

Despite her humor many of the poems do have an undercurrent of darkness running through them. Partly this is due to Sexton’s faithfulness to the original Grimm’s Fairy Tales which can be gruesome in some of their details. Early versions of these tales are often more edgy and even shocking to one who knows only Hollywood adaptations. So when Sexton’s dark side comes out it is not entirely out of place. I’m especially referencing the book’s final poem, Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty). Here is a haunting description of a girl who seeks escapism from incest by going into a coma-like sleep. She never truly recovers even after being awakened by the kiss of the prince, and suffers insomnia thereafter that requires “the court chemist mixing her some knockout drops”. An uncomfortable interpretation of the fairy tale to be sure, but entirely brilliant in its execution.

I’ve read some of this poet’s other confessional poems and found them difficult to read (although I’m not ready to give her up just yet!), but I really loved this collection. I would encourage others who aren’t quite sure about her other work, or anyone who enjoys mythology and folk tales to read Transformations.
( )
  averybird | Dec 28, 2015 |
When I was small I spent many afternoons buried in my big book of Grimm's fairy tales. These poems recalled those days, except filtered through a lens of black-light posters on the walls and Jefferson Airplane spinning on the turntable. I imagined Anne Sexton situated in this tableau, reading these tales aloud, wreathed in smoke from the incense cone burning nearby. This copy also came from the library and smelled strongly of grandmother perfume, resulting in a bizarre juxtaposition of sensual stimuli. The scent overwhelmed and distracted, even as the words dissolved like bits of paper on my tongue. ( )
  S.D. | Apr 4, 2014 |
Anne Sexton retells seventeen Grimm fair tales. Essentially, each story is the same, except they are not. Sleeping Beauty pricks her finger and wakes up 100 years later with a Prince's kiss. Red meets a wolf who cross dresses in her Grandmother's cloths and then gobbles her up, only to be released later by a passing hunter. And so on.

What makes each retelling unique to Sexton are two things. First, each poem/tale is first introduced with a kind of preface, the author's poetic commentary that introduces the tale she's about to retell. Secondly, she uses modern flare to the metaphor used to describe and detail the tales. The thirteenth witch in "Birar Rose" (Sleeping Beauty) has "eyes burnt by cigarettes" and her "uterus is an empty tea cup". Snow White has "china-blue doll eyes" and Cinderella "walked around looking like Al Jolson."

The lines are simple and clean, plain lines, like the original tales she's retelling, but reading them you find there's something more, as though you've just spotted something out of the corner of your eye while walking in the woods. It's wonderful, and I want to keep it always, so that I can come back to it again and again. ( )
1 vote andreablythe | Apr 16, 2010 |
In this collection of poetry, Anne Sexton retells seventeen Grimm fairy tales.

I adore fairy tale revisions. I gobble it up as fast as I can. I especially love revisions that are darker and more sensual than the original tales (although that’s hard to do; the original Grimm stories were pretty bleak stuff). Anne Sexton’s poems certainly fit that bill.

She has a pattern. She usually starts each poem with a prologue about general life which then segues into the actual tale. Thus, in each poem, there are actually two stories: the frame and the tale-within-a-tale. It’s a clever use of meta narrative and works really well with the collection’s theme of fairy tales.

Sexton’s language is tricky, sharp, and utterly memorable. She has such perfect metaphors that each one of them is a little masterpiece in and of itself. Her fairy tales are both a homage to the original Grimm versions but with a mixture of the modern and the personal. They bite, and that’s a good thing.

Also worth mentioning is Kurt Vonnegut’s fantastic preface. He explains poetry better than I can. ( )
1 vote veevoxvoom | Oct 11, 2008 |
The winner of the Pulizter Prize for poetry, this short collection contains 17 poems based on tales from The Brothers Grimm collection. It includes classics such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Rumplestiltskin, Rapunzel, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel and Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty). Each poem is prefaced with a short, almost seperatepoem, that looks at the tale in a more modern setting. The main body of the poem is her actual re-telling of the tale.

Dark overtones to most of the poems, they are dry and witty with insightful comments from Sexton along the way. They are a very intimate look inside the mind of the author with much of her personal thoughts exposed on various subjects along the way. I don't read much poetry generally but this made me want to pick up more and in paritcular some Slyvia Plath who has a similar background and personal history.

My favourite was Little Red Riding Hood which has a section on moder decievers that made me think. It's quite sad reading the poems however knowing that she killed herself 3 years after this collection was first published. There are lots of references to therapy, depression, ECT (electro convulsive therapy) and medication which strike the reader all the more for knowing what happens next. Overall a beautiful, dark collection of fairy tale inspired poems all lovers of poetry and fairy tales will enjoy. ( )
1 vote Rhinoa | Jun 15, 2008 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 061808343X, Paperback)

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).

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:17:26 -0400)

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