Transformations by Anne Sexton


Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Anne Sexton morphs classic fairy tales into dark critiques of the cultural myths underpinning modern society.

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Anne Sexton was not a woman who seemed naturally inclined to write fairy tales. She was an alcoholic, suffered from several nervous disorders, and would eventually commit suicide – not qualities ever assigned to Mother Goose. Despite all this, in 1971, Sexton took the Brothers Grimm’s 18th-century fairy tales and reworked them into Transformations, a small book of confessional poetry. Transformations reimagined the Grimms’ tales with a heavy dose of black humor and irony; each fairy tale is preceded by an autobiographical piece, exemplified by these few lines before the introductory poem: “The speaker in this case / is a middle aged witch, me.” By firmly establishing herself as the narrator (never the protagonist), Sexton begins the deconstruction that she continues through the entire collection of poetry.

As skilled as Sexton is at twisting the fairy tale, the brutal social criticism is where Transformations truly excels. The Brothers Grimm are exhumed and put on trial with each word, their bigotry and cruelty laid out bare and bloody. It’s amazing what Sexton can do without changing a single aspect of a story’s plot. The horror of her poetic adaptions first arises from the confluence of genres and time periods; her “Americanese” might make her poetry viciously modern, but this just emphasizes how deeply the tales are haunted by outdated moral codes. For instance, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” constantly refers to the titular character as a thing rather than a fully-formed being, obsessing over her “cheeks as fragile as cigarette paper” and her “lips like Vin du Rhone.” Snow White is even compared to a doll, one whose eyes are “shut for the thrust of the unicorn,” drawing attention to her virginity while sapping her of actual agency. The cultural dissonance is off-putting, and Sexton’s brand of horror relies on never acknowledging this fact. She doesn’t even bother to offer “a kind of coffin” in the form of a happy ending.

And perhaps it isn’t hers to offer. – Terry

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).
Transformations by Anne Sexton
Epilogue BCB