Transformations: Poems

Transformations: Poems

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

Anne Sexton breathes new life into sixteen age-old Brothers Grimm fairy tales, reimagining them as poems infused with contemporary references, feminist ideals, and morbid humor. Grounded by nods to the ordinary—a witch’s blood “began to boil up/like Coca-Cola” and Snow White’s bodice is “as tight as an Ace bandage”—Sexton brings the stories out of the realm of the fantastical and into the everyday world. Stripping away their magical sheen, she exposes the flawed notions of family, gender, and morality within the stories that continue to pervade our collective psyche.
Sexton is especially critical of what follows these tales’ happily-ever-after endings, noting that Cinderella never has to face the mundane struggles of marriage and growing old, such as “diapers and dust,” “telling the same story twice,” or “getting a middle-aged spread,” and that after being awakened Sleeping Beauty would likely be plagued by insomnia, taking “knock-out drops” behind the prince’s back. Deconstructed into vivid, visceral, and often highly amusing poems, these fairy tales reflect themes that have long fascinated Sexton—the claustrophobic anxiety of domestic life, the limited role of women in society, and a psychological strife more dangerous than any wicked witch or poisoned apple.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504034357
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 04/05/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 111
Sales rank: 365,048
File size: 18 MB
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About the Author

Anne Sexton (1928–1974) was a Pulitzer Prize–winning American poet born in Newton, Massachusetts. She attended Garland Junior College for one year and briefly worked as a model. She married Alfred Muller Sexton II at age nineteen, and in 1953 gave birth to a daughter. Shortly after, she was diagnosed with postpartum depression. When Sexton attempted suicide after the birth of her second daughter, her doctor encouraged her to pursue her interest in writing poetry, and in the fall of 1957, she enrolled in a poetry workshop at the Boston Center for Adult Education.
Like Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, W. D. Snodgrass (who exerted a great influence on her work), and other Confessional poets, Sexton offers the reader an intimate view of the emotional anguish that characterized her life. The experience of being a woman was a central issue in her poetry, and though she endured criticism for bringing subjects such as menstruation, abortion, and drug addiction into her work, her skill as a poet transcended the controversy over her subject matter. Sexton’s poetry collections include To Bedlam and Part Way Back, All My Pretty Ones, Transformations, and Live or Die, which won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1967. In 1974 at the age of forty-six, Sexton lost her battle with mental illness and committed suicide.

Read an Excerpt



By Anne Sexton, Barbara Swan


Copyright © 1999 Linda G. Sexton
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-3435-7



    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:
    Alice, Samuel, Kurt, Eleanor,
    Jane, Brian, Maryel,
    all of you draw near.
    at fifty-six do you remember?
    Do you remember when you
    were read to as a child?
    at twenty-two have you forgotten?
    Forgotten the ten P.M. dreams
    where the wicked king
    went up in smoke?
    Are you comatose?
    Are you undersea?
    my dears,
    let me present to you this boy.
    He is sixteen and he wants some answers.
    He is each of us.
    I mean you.
    I mean me.
    It is not enough to read Hesse
    and drink clam chowder
    we must have the answers.
    The boy has found a gold key
    and he is looking for what it will open.
    This boy!
    Upon finding a nickel
    he would look for a wallet.
    This boy!
    Upon finding a string
    he would look for a harp.
    Therefore he holds the key tightly.
    Its secrets whimper
    like a dog in heat.
    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.)


    No matter what life you lead
    the virgin is a lovely number:
    cheeks as fragile as cigarette paper,
    arms and legs made of Limoges,
    lips like Vin Du Rhône,
    rolling her china-blue doll eyes
    open and shut.
    Open to say,
    Good Day Mama,
    and shut for the thrust
    of the unicorn.
    She is unsoiled.
    She is as white as a bonefish.

    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 stepmother had a mirror to which she referred —
    something like the weather forecast —
    a mirror that proclaimed
    the one beauty of the land.
    She would ask,
    Looking glass upon the wall,
    who is fairest of us all?
    And the mirror would reply,
    You are fairest of us all.
    Pride pumped in her like poison.

    Suddenly one day the mirror replied,
    Queen, you are full fair, 'tis true,
    but Snow White is fairer than you.
    Until that moment Snow White
    had been no more important
    than a dust mouse under the bed.
    But now the queen saw brown spots on her hand
    and four whiskers over her lip
    so she condemned Snow White
    to be hacked to death.
    Bring me her heart, she said to the hunter,
    and I will salt it and eat it.
    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.

    Snow White walked in the wildwood
    for weeks and weeks.
    At each turn there were twenty doorways
    and at each stood a hungry wolf,
    his tongue lolling out like a worm.
    The birds called out lewdly,
    talking like pink parrots,
    and the snakes hung down in loops,
    each a noose for her sweet white neck.
    On the seventh week
    she came to the seventh mountain
    and there she found the dwarf house.
    It was as droll as a honeymoon cottage
    and completely equipped with
    seven beds, seven chairs, seven forks
    and seven chamber pots.
    Snow White ate seven chicken livers
    and lay down, at last, to sleep.

    The dwarfs, those little hot dogs,
    walked three times around Snow White,
    the sleeping virgin. They were wise
    and wattled like small czars.
    Yes. It's a good omen,
    they said, and will bring us luck.
    They stood on tiptoes to watch
    Snow White wake up. She told them
    about the mirror and the killer-queen
    and they asked her to stay and keep house.
    Beware of your stepmother,
    they said.
    Soon she will know you are here.
    While we are away in the mines
    during the day, you must not
    open the door.

    Looking glass upon the wall ...
    The mirror told
    and so the queen dressed herself in rags
    and went out like a peddler to trap Snow White.
    She went across seven mountains.
    She came to the dwarf house
    and Snow White opened the door
    and bought a bit of lacing.
    The queen fastened it tightly
    around her bodice,
    as tight as an Ace bandage,
    so tight that Snow White swooned.
    She lay on the floor, a plucked daisy.
    When the dwarfs came home they undid the lace
    and she revived miraculously.
    She was as full of life as soda pop.
    Beware of your stepmother,
    they said.
    She will try once more.

    Looking glass upon the wall ...
    Once more the mirror told
    and once more the queen dressed in rags
    and once more Snow White opened the door.

    This time she bought a poison comb,
    a curved eight-inch scorpion,
    and put it in her hair and swooned again.
    The dwarfs returned and took out the comb
    and she revived miraculously.
    She opened her eyes as wide as Orphan Annie.
    Beware, beware, they said,
    but the mirror told,
    the queen came,
    Snow White, the dumb bunny,
    opened the door
    and she bit into a poison apple
    and fell down for the final time.
    When the dwarfs returned
    they undid her bodice,
    they looked for a comb,
    but it did no good.
    Though they washed her with wine
    and rubbed her with butter
    it was to no avail.
    She lay as still as a gold piece.

    The seven dwarfs could not bring themselves
    to bury her in the black ground
    so they made a glass coffin
    and set it upon the seventh mountain
    so that all who passed by
    could peek in upon her beauty.
    A prince came one June day
    and would not budge.

    He stayed so long his hair turned green
    and still he would not leave.
    The dwarfs took pity upon him
    and gave him the glass Snow White —
    its doll's eyes shut forever —
    to keep in his far-off castle.
    As the prince's men carried the coffin
    they stumbled and dropped it
    and the chunk of apple flew out
    of her throat and she woke up miraculously.

    And thus Snow White became the prince's bride.
    The wicked queen was invited to the wedding feast
    and when she arrived there were
    red-hot iron shoes,
    in the manner of red-hot roller skates,
    clamped upon her feet.
    First your toes will smoke
    and then your heels will turn black
    and you will fry upward like a frog,
    she was told.
    And so she danced until she was dead,
    a subterranean figure,
    her tongue flicking in and out
    like a gas jet.
    Meanwhile Snow White held court,
    rolling her china-blue doll eyes open and shut
    and sometimes referring to her mirror
    as women do.


      There was a day
      when all the animals talked to me.
      Ten birds at my window saying,
      Throw us some seeds,
      Dame Sexton,
      or we will shrink.
      The worms in my son's fishing pail
      said, It is chilly!
      It is chilly on our way to the hook!
      The dog in his innocence
      commented in his clumsy voice,
      Maybe you're wrong, good Mother,
      maybe they're not real wars.
      And then I knew that the voice
      of the spirits had been let in —
      as intense as an epileptic aura —
      and that no longer would I sing

    In an old time
    there was a king as wise as a dictionary.
    Each night at supper
    a secret dish was brought to him,
    a secret dish that kept him wise.
    His servant,
    who had won no roses before,
    thought to lift the lid one night
    and take a forbidden look.
    There sat a white snake.
    The servant thought, Why not?
    and took a bite.
    It was a furtive weed,
    oiled and brooding
    and desirably slim.
    I have eaten the white snake!
    Not a whisker on it! he cried.
    Because of the white snake
    he heard the animals
    in all their voices speak.
    Thus the aura came over him.
    He was inside.
    He had walked into a building
    with no exit.
    From all sides
    the animals spoke up like puppets.
    A cold sweat broke out on his upper lip
    for now he was wise.

    Because he was wise
    he found the queen's lost ring
    diddling around in a duck's belly
    and was thus rewarded with a horse
    and a little cash for traveling.
    On his way
    the fish in the weeds
    were drowning on air
    and he plunked them back in
    and the fish covered him with promises.
    On his way
    the army ants in the road pleaded for mercy.
    Step on us not!
    And he rode around them
    and the ants covered him with promises.
    On his way
    the gallow birds asked for food
    so he killed his horse to give them lunch.
    They sucked the blood up like whiskey
    and covered him with promises.

    At the next town
    the local princess was having a contest.
    A common way for princesses to marry.
    Fifty men had perished,
    gargling the sea like soup.
    Still, the servant was stage-struck.
    Nail me to the masthead, if you will,
    and make a dance all around me.
    Put on the gramophone and dance at my ankles.
    But the princess smiled like warm milk
    and merely dropped her ring into the sea.
    If he could not find it, he would die;
    die trapped in the sea machine.

    The fish, however, remembered
    and gave him the ring.
    But the princess, ever woman,
    said it wasn't enough.
    She scattered ten bags of grain in the yard
    and commanded him to pick them up by daybreak.
    The ants remembered
    and carried them in like mailmen.
    The princess, ever Eve,
    said it wasn't enough
    and sent him out to find the apple of life.
    He set forth into the forest for two years
    where the monkeys jabbered, those trolls,
    with their wine-colored underbellies.
    They did not make a pathway for him.
    The pheasants, those archbishops,
    avoided him and the turtles
    kept their expressive heads inside.
    He was prepared for death
    when the gallow birds remembered
    and dropped that apple on his head.

    He returned to the princess
    saying, I am but a traveling man
    but here is what you hunger for.
    The apple was as smooth as oilskin
    and when she took a bite
    it was as sweet and crisp as the moon.
    Their bodies met over such a dish.
    His tongue lay in her mouth
    as delicately as the white snake.
    They played house, little charmers,
    exceptionally well.
    So, of course,
    they were placed in a box
    and painted identically blue
    and thus passed their days
    living happily ever after —
    a kind of coffin,
    a kind of blue funk.
    Is it not?


      Inside many of us
      is a small old man
      who wants to get out.
      No bigger than a two-year-old
      whom you'd call lamb chop
      yet this one is old and malformed.
      His head is okay
      but the rest of him wasn't Sanforized.
      He is a monster of despair.
      He is all decay.
      He speaks up as tiny as an earphone
      with Truman's asexual voice:
      I am your dwarf.
      I am the enemy within.
      I am the boss of your dreams.
      No. I am not the law in your mind,
      the grandfather of watchfulness.
      I am the law of your members,
      the kindred of blackness and impulse.
      See. Your hand shakes.
      It is not palsy or booze.
      It is your Doppelgänger
      trying to get out.
      Beware ... Beware ...

    There once was a miller
    with a daughter as lovely as a grape.
    He told the king that she could
    spin gold out of common straw.
    The king summoned the girl
    and locked her in a room full of straw
    and told her to spin it into gold
    or she would die like a criminal.
    Poor grape with no one to pick.
    Luscious and round and sleek.
    Poor thing.
    To die and never see Brooklyn.

    She wept,
    of course, huge aquamarine tears.
    The door opened and in popped a dwarf.
    He was as ugly as a wart.
    Little thing, what are you? she cried.
    With his tiny no-sex voice he replied:
    I am a dwarf.
    I have been exhibited on Bond Street
    and no child will ever call me Papa.
    I have no private life.
    If I'm in my cups
    the whole town knows by breakfast
    and no child will ever call me Papa.
    I am eighteen inches high.

    I am no bigger than a partridge.
    I am your evil eye
    and no child will ever call me Papa.
    Stop this Papa foolishness,
    she cried. Can you perhaps
    spin straw into gold?
    Yes indeed, he said,
    that I can do.

    He spun the straw into gold
    and she gave him her necklace
    as a small reward.
    When the king saw what she had done
    he put her in a bigger room of straw
    and threatened death once more.
    Again she cried.
    Again the dwarf came.
    Again he spun the straw into gold.
    She gave him her ring
    as a small reward.
    The king put her in an even bigger room
    but this time he promised
    to marry her if she succeeded.
    Again she cried.
    Again the dwarf came.
    But she had nothing to give him.
    Without a reward the dwarf would not spin.
    He was on the scent of something bigger.
    He was a regular bird dog.
    Give me your first-born
    and I will spin.
    She thought: Piffle!
    He is a silly little man.
    And so she agreed.
    So he did the trick.
    Gold as good as Fort Knox.


Excerpted from Transformations by Anne Sexton, Barbara Swan. Copyright © 1999 Linda G. Sexton. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Transformations 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
knittingfreak on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I don't really know where to start with this collection of poetry by Anne Sexton. I liked it, but I'm not sure why or what to say about it. I'm a virtual poetry novice and don't really feel qualified to critique it. From the blurb on the back of the book, "The poems collected in this astonishing volume are reenactments, parodies, what Anne Sexton described as transformations, of seventeen Grimm fairy tales. . ." The first poem is The Gold Key. I've never heard of a fairy tale by this name, and I'm not sure if this is a retelling of a fairy tale or not. It almost seems to me as if this is an introductory poem by Sexton describing what she's going to do with the rest of the poems in the collection. See what you think.The Gold KeyThe speaker in this caseis a middle-aged witch, me --tangled on my two great arms,my face in a bookand my mouth wide,ready to tell you a story or two.I have come to remind you,all of you:Alice, Samuel, Kurt, Eleanor,Jane, Brian, Maryel,all of you draw near.Alice,at fifty-six do you remember?Do you remember when you were read to as a child?Samuel,at twenty-two have you forgotten?Forgotten the ten P.M. dreamswhere the wicked kingwent up in smoke?Are you comatose?Are you undersea?Attention, my dears,let me present to you this boy.He is sixteen and he wants some answers.He is each of us.I mean you.I mean me.It is not enough to read Hesseand drink clam chowderwe must know the answers.The boy has found a gold keyand he is looking for what it will open.This boy!Upon finding a nickelhe would look for a wallet.This boy!Upon finding a stringhe would look for a harp.Therefore he holds the key tightly.Its secrets whimperlike a dog in heat.He turns the key.Presto!It opens this book of odd taleswhich transform the Brothers Grimm.Transform?As if an enlarged paper clipcould be a piece of sculpture.(And it could.)I like the idea of the gold key as a metaphor, admitting the reader into new worlds through books and storytelling. Sexton transforms all of the most famous fairy tales, including Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Hansel and Gretel, and Little Red Riding Hood. She also includes some that are lesser known (at least to me), such as Iron Hans, The Maiden without Hands, The White Snake and others. For the most part, she begins each fairy tale with a poem about the fairy tale and then gives a version of the fairy tale. I apologize if that doesn't make much sense, but that's what she does. In many cases, these fairy tales are even darker than the original tales. Sexton also interjects much of her own feelings and life into the tales, as well. Sexton suffered from depression for most of her life and committed suicide in 1974 just seven years after winning the Pulitzer Prize. I read this book as part of The Year of Reading Dangerously, and I'm glad I did. Even though I haven't always been successful with my reading challenges, I'll keep joining them for this reason -- it forces me to read books that I would never have picked up otherwise. I really did enjoy this book of poetry even though I find it difficult to describe. However, after reading the foreword to this edition by Kurt Vonnegut I feel somewhat better about my lack of ability to describe these poems. He says, "How do I explain these poems? Not at all. I quit teaching in colleges because it seemed so criminal to explain works of art. The crisis in my teaching career came, in fact, when I faced an audience which expected me to explain Dubliners by James Joyce. I was game. I'd read the book. But when I opened my big mouth, no sounds came out." So, as you can see, I'm in good company.
veevoxvoom on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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.
andreablythe on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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.
paisley1 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Haunting, funny, naughty, compassionate retelling of fairy tales...beautiful and deceptively simple.
EdwardC on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
For my taste this book of Sexton's is far and away her crowning achievent. Each poem retells a Grimm's fairy tale. They are tender, cruel, laugh-out-loud funny, political, feminist, and often so so clever.
NativeRoses on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Brilliant, and, at times, erotic re-telling of standard fairy tales. You can't help but read them outloud. Sometimes funny or sad, often bawdy, very enjoyable and very highly recommended.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Wonderful! Anne Sexton adds a twist to already twisted tales. It is a collection of dark pieces both mocking and pitying "the problem that has no name." Ladies read this if being a princess no longer or never did suit you. Read it if you would prefer to be(come) the witch in your own stories.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago