Here are 16 of the Grimm brothers’ folktales, retold, and an intro poem declaring that we readers are like a boy who, “upon finding a nickel / he would look for a wallet. This boy! Upon finding a string / he would look for a harp.” Then he–we–find a gold key that will open this book, where Grimm’s tales are transformed. And upon finding the tales, we look for a…?
Sexton recognizes what is ridiculous in these old tales and drily teases it a little in every poem. The dwarves who find Snow White: “those little hot dogs.” Red Riding Hood’s basket of wine and cake for her ill grandmother: “Wine and cake? / Where’s the aspirin? The penicillin? / Where’s the fruit juice? ” Cinderella: “walked around looking like Al Jolson.” Her prince: Well, “he began to feel like a shoe salesman.”
All of these familiar tales and their good-humored 20th-century detail are the magician’s feint, though, so that we’re smiling and looking away when the poems stab us in the heart and lance out from us a hot gush of naive, corrupted wishfulness.
Cinderella and her prince live happily ever after “they say,” like “two dolls in a museum case…their darling smiles pasted on for eternity…That story.” They say? That story? We’ll never believe again.
Red Riding Hood at the end munches cake, slurps wine, and “remember[s] nothing naked and brutal from that little death.” Those being among the last words of the poem, though, that’s what we’re left with. We’ll remember the naked brutality.
And Snow White? The one who was betrayed by a stepmother who “had a mirror to which she referred” while “pride pumped in her like poison”? The poem ends with Snow White’s wedding, of course, where she is already “rolling her china blue eyes open and shut / and sometimes referring to her mirror / as women do.” There is no hope here for even the smallest and sweetest-looking Disney princess.
Upon finding these folk tales, we look for a…what?
A moral, maybe? A happy ending? A big number in a major key? A punchline? A sense of justice? Those are the misdirection, and Sexton’s magic is that while we’re looking just there, what we get is one wry, magnificent wound after another right here.
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