Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Poetry Corner: Transformations

Early in my pregnancy, when the changes were subtle and undetectable, I compared the experience to music playing in the background: something you would tune into or out of many times over the course of a day, without fully realizing it. At the same time, actual music was taking on more weight: instead of having the ipod on and being half tuned in while I read, it took all my attention to keep up. Along with music, poetry seemed more interesting than anything else I was reading: against all the books and columns and blogs of deadly literal advise and polemics, nothing seemed more appropriate than the metaphoric. Not surprisingly, Plath's "Metaphors" has held on as a the ur-text through all eight syllables (and counting) so far.

Anne Sexton's classic 1971 collection Transformations is among other things a fascinating combination of the literal and the metaphoric. The back of my edition describes it use of fairy tales as "reenactments, parodies" but that doesn't seem quite right to me. True, there's a lot of humor in juxtaposing the stories to contemporary language and metaphors: the miller's daughter in Rumplestiltskin is a "poor grape with no one to pick./Luscious and round and sleek./Poor thing./To die and never see Brooklyn." Later, after she becomes queen, and tries to bargain with Rumplestiltskin for her child, she is "as persistent as a Jehovah's Witness." But the stories themselves are mostly told straight: dwarfs and Kings and death behave much as they're supposed to. It's the language and, especially, the more generalized openings of each of the poems, prior to the start of each narrative, that cast them in a their frame. Thus "Cinderella" begins: "You always read about it:/the plumber with twelve children/who wins the Irish Sweepstakes./From toilets to riches./That story," while "Rapunzel" begins with the witch Mother Gothel's apologia: "A woman/who loves a woman/is forever young." It's the sympathies and not the stories that bring in the revisionism. Interestingly, along with Gothel, Rumpelstiltskin, another child-stealer, also comes in for sympathy: "She offered him all the kingdom/but he wanted only this -/a living thing/to call his own./And being mortal/who can blame him?"

The so-called "confessional poets" have fascinated me for a long time. A lot of people seem to look at them the way a lot of people look at second-wave feminism: a necessary step, but incomplete, and certainly less sophisticated than what's come since. There are a lot of connections, of course, and Transformations especially resonates with the feminist criticism of the period, with "images of women" and the rereading of the existing canon. But for lots of contemporary readers and feminists it's all too blunt, too much about the body and babies and breasts, and did Sexton really have to write "The Ballad of he Lonely Masturbator"? But I don't think so: no social movement or body of work is perfect or even complete, but that doesn't mean that those of the recent past should be seen as relics or as stages on the way to where we are now, the way the fairly recent past is so often judged.

"A strange vocation to be a mother at all," Sexton writes in "The Maiden Without Hands." Even when children are not stolen, they are everywhere contested, made strange; they transform and are transformed. At its best, the project shares the ambition of the feminist classics of the period. The movement says, what has been is not what what will be, and the poetry says, what is is already not as it is.

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