Book Review

Grimmly Yours, Disenchanted and Disgruntled

Michelle Hartman's poetry collection

What is it about fairy tales that people find fascinating?  Perhaps the message of “happily ever after” serves as a wonderful counterpoint to the mundane awfulness of a reality in which we really don’t win the lottery, don’t find $50,000, and are soundly rejected by True Love.  Or perhaps the message of “nasty little people always get their comeuppance” delights our desire for harsh justice.  What happens, though, when the usual plot goes awry?  One result is Michelle Hartman’s poetry collection, Disenchanted and Disgruntled (published by Lamar University Press, 2013).

Hartman’s collection is a cynic’s view of fairytales, a skewering of those syrupy happy endings of perfect man/perfect woman, match-made-in-heaven relationships.  Add a goodly dose of backstory to fairytale characters (remember the talking frog prince?), some helpings of headline reality, and let the enchantment begin.

The book has 3 sections:  Fairytales, Myths, and Reality.  The first poem in Fairytales, “The Grimm Age,” plays on the famous Grimm Brothers, and their collection of tales including that familiar, magical phrase, “Once upon a time.”  Those 4 words recall readers to their childhoods, when possibilities were without number.  But Hartman just as quickly subverts that call to memory by defining the phrase precisely and situating it into grim reality. Hopeful anticipation becomes adult realization that there are “no dwarves, talking horse, well or frog / no fancy dress, glass slippers, carriage or castle”.  The ending lines: the “only man to make magic / with your body / will be a mortician” emphasize how fairytales cater to images of eternal youth, beauty and perfect relationships; impossible ideals for mere mortals whose experiences of sorrow, heartbreak, and death show in their aging bodies and on their wrinkled faces.

The ending poem in the Fairytales section is a rollicking, modern version of Snow White.  The speaker’s Texas twang rolls out the story of “Snow”, bringing to mind friends swapping stories and scandal as they tackle their barbeque:  “Girl, you mean to say you ain’t heard about Snow White? . . . /She follered that angel up to Dallas / Whar she found that gal living with seven men — / and not regular men mind you – they’s / what you call little people.  Girl, / it makes my skin crawl.  That’s all I’m saying about that.”  Outrageous fairy tale meets outrageous Texas storyteller – a funny combination that exposes Snow White and the Seven Dwarves to realistic gossip and a parent’s perception of other people’s children.

The Myths section explores ideas such as the myth of the happy family, sacrifice, and rituals.  What if the smiling family in the faded photo were only mugging for the camera even as they thought of “Jake got out of the pen / three years ago  can’t hold a job / Aunt Rose died in 75 / breast cancer / Marion in 82 – alcoholic / Libby married no-count /mechanic from Tulsa” (“Used People”)?  Or, what if Cinderella were truly bitter about her incarceration with the wicked stepmother and stepsisters, and commanded, “when I leave here / they can burn the sack cloth and distribute the ashes” (“when I leave here”)?  The question of ‘what if’ becomes a dark undercurrent when the poet addresses the crucifixion in “Jesus, interrupted”:  “what if you wanted to travel / but your people need you / to die – participating or not / what if you were not / the one foretold, simply / the one available”.  In the Myths section, the poet adroitly flips beliefs like cards, showing the reader first one side, then the other side.  That, the poet seems to be saying, is how life is:  one begins with friends, taking a nice stroll, reaching a certain point, “Then, loaded with packages you glance / back, where others used to be / but they have gone on with their lives / and you are too far ahead / to return” (“That’s how life is”).

The last section, Reality, includes darker activities that society seems to ignore.  For instance, in “gunshots and heart attacks”, the speaker ponders what really happens at a motel:  “girls pressed / into prostitution / lovers separated / suicides” – definitely not activities one likes to think of when sleeping on a motel bed.  There are, however, other poems that introduce whimsical perspectives. One such poem, “Reading poetry responsibly,” is a short, how-to guide for poetry readers:  “Know your limits / unlimited poetry reading can lead to run away emotions, rash / exploration of conscience and possible contact with a heretofore / denied inner child.”  And, of course, just as other products warn to ‘Never Swim Alone’ or to always ‘Drink Responsibly,’ the poem urges readers to “Never read poetry alone. / Have someone whose political and religious leanings are the same as / yours and who can be trusted to take the book away when you begin / to show signs of cognitive thought.”

Hartman’s Disenchanted and Disgruntled is, in turns, funny, morbid, sad, dreamy and thoughtful – thoroughly human and a little offbeat, just like a quirky friend who makes us smile despite bad news.

Special thanks to Boadicea Robertson for her contribution.

Literary: Transforming with Poetry

Poetry. Don’t avert your eyes. Don’t start thinking of something else. Don’t believe that poetry has to rhyme, fit a certain rhythm or meter, or even that poetry is “too hard to understand.” Poetry is playing with the music, imagery, and abstraction that is language. Poetry puts words on a tightrope and makes them dance without a safety net, relying on the poet’s ability to balance the tension between “too much” and “too little.” Poetry goads our sensibilities and skewers our stereotypes. But enough about poetry in general; let’s take a look at some current poetry. Specifically, the poetry of Michelle Hartman and Ann Howells.

Michelle Hartman is the current editor of the online poetry journal, Red River Review.

Michelle Hartman
Michelle Hartman
In her soon-to-be published Disenchanted & Disgruntled (Lamar University Press), Hartman’s poems tackle the female imagery within fairy tales. Hartman states that “most of the alternative fairytale poems I’ve read focus on philosophy or horror. But I think the focus should be on the victimization of young girls – a toll that has become a financial satisfaction to companies such as Disney.”

Quite a few people have grown up with Disney versions of fairy-tales and are none the wiser of the darker, bloodier originals of, say, Grimm’s fairy-tales. For example, in Disney’s version of Cinderella, the stepsisters’ actions in trying on the “glass slipper” and subsequent punishment veer sharply from the Grimm’s version. In the Grimm’s earlier version, one stepsister cuts off her big toe and the other stepsister cuts off her heel in order to fit into the shoe. But, both times as they ride away with the prince, a dove sings about the “blood in the shoe” (apparently, the prince didn’t notice that detail). The stepsisters’ punishment occurs when they escort Cinderella to her wedding– the dove flies down and pecks out their eyes. Disney fairy-tale films “are so popular that they have practically obliterated their sources . . . . [and] Romance takes over. The girl’s best hope for survival is that ‘Some day my Prince will come’ “ writes Joan Gould in Spinning Straw into Gold (2005, p. xx). Although many of Disney’s earlier fairy-tale films have an evil and wicked stepmother as a protagonist, a missing or disinterested father, and a prince or other male figure cast as the ultimate hero for the damsel in distress, Hartman acknowledges that Disney’s “recent offerings . . . portray a more self-empowered female protagonist.”

Two of Hartman’s poems use the “ ‘damn fairy tale frog’ that has led so many women astray. There are two perspectives here: one of surrender to the helpless, ‘I need a man to save me’ mode of living, and the second portraying a more powerful woman.” Hartman adds, “I think what I want to stress is that there are only two things you can safely do with a talking frog: stomp it or sell it.”

The following poems are excerpted from Hartman’s forthcoming book of poetry, Disenchanted & Disgruntled, to be published by Lamar University Press.

“Looking for Mr. GoodFrog”

Introducing herself
by first name
in meeting
of hollowed-eyed
gaunt jittery
princesses
an epiphany
hands wart-strewn
dry, cracked shook
as she spoke
depicted descent

slow sliding
first frog
then one frog – at a time
diseases passed
by low-rent amphibians
swamp trekking – job loss
family intervention
feverish need
just one more press
of lips
one more plunge
into euphoric possibility

senseless victim
of enchanted excesses

“a final note”

peach-toned fingers of sunlight
flee the sky before
roll of navy blue onslaught
footlights go up in the pool
nervous frog star wannabes
turn up for their
off-off -Broadway performance

cricket and cicada orchestra
swells into opening prelude
a small frog starts
wash it, wash it
as three baritone bulls blast out
I’m stoned

chocolate, chocolate
Greek chorus chimes
cadence melding into natural charm
just before it becomes routine
a timid tenor floats to mid-stage
in dulcet tones he sings of prince
turned to frog
at witch’s wicked whim
he warms to his tale
makes nearby doves cry
hits crescendo
tiny webbed feet folded
o’er his heart

a boulder smashes
bits of tenor splatter
nearby rocks—
so many wandering notes—
princess wipes her hands together
walks away muttering
nobody likes a whiner

The second poet, Ann Howells,

Ann Howells
Ann Howells
is a board member of Dallas Poets Community and editor of their journal, Illya’s Honey. She has been published in Red River Review, Concho River Review, Borderlands, Avocet, Sentence, Plainsongs, and Sulphur River Literary Review, among others. In 2001, she was named a “Distinguished Poet of Dallas” by the Dallas Public Library, and in 2005, her poem “La Resistancia” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her following poem, “Initiating My Daughter,” speaks of fairy-tales, but also emphasizes the power of transformation that happens when a “girl-child” becomes both “Snow White and Rose Red, / virgin and goddess, / woman.”

“Initiating My Daughter”

Before your childish body
rounds and softens,
before some smooth-skinned boy
rocks your equanimity,
as night’s bright crescent
pierces the Eastern sky—
we curl in the porch swing,
lap robe tucked around our feet.

Moonflowers twine the railing,
lucent, blue-sheen faces tipped
as I explain little winters
that come before spring, before rebirth:
womb damp, lush with fern—
cushioned bower, life cradle
where once I cradled you.

Before you outgrow fairy-tales
still half-believed,
before the first blood spills—
I whisper mysteries in your ear,
your eyes wide with wonder
that you, girl-child, are pilgrim
in this ancient rite.

Before you turn in seasons,
before you pull and press the tides,
know you hold life
behind your flat belly,
clasp miracles in your hand—
Snow White and Rose Red,
virgin and goddess,
woman.

Transformation is again evident in Howells’ next two poems, “Mother/Daughters” and “Those Girls from K Street.” In the former, the speaker is a grown woman, come to visit her mother. While the mother is portrayed as ailing in some way (perhaps just ailing of old age) and focusing, like a very young child, only on her own wants, the grown daughter’s thoughts reveal the complexities of relationships between elderly parents and grown children. The transformation that children become adults and their parents become childish with old age is unspoken, but hangs in the air with the poem’s last stanza. In Howells’ poem, “Those Girls from K Street,” the speaker is still a young girl, restrained by the authority of “Mama says . . .” that ends each stanza. But, as the speaker and her sister watch other, less-restrained girls exuberantly play active games, “Mama says” diminishes as a controlling force. The speaker seems to tremble on the edge of transformation within the last stanza, remarking on “red lipstick and snug sweaters,” and claims a rite of passage for herself and her sister with the last line, “We want to be just like them.”

“Mother/Daughters”

I take my mother’s hand
warm and firm beneath the sleeve
of a new bed jacket,
kiss her cheek.
She is receiving today
in her sitting room
ensconced amid plump pillows
in her comfortable rocker.

You haven’t been to see me
in such a long time.

She displays the fresh manicure
my sister has given, ignores
the covered basket on my arm,
gestures, Your sister came twice
last week—she brought me flowers.

Not flowers, I think, a plant
forced into bloom against its will—
paperwhites they’re called—narcissus.
Here, Mama, this was so delicate,
so beautiful, it reminded me of you.

How could my sister have presented it
with a straight face?

Then, I smile brightly
Here, Mama, I thought these
would be a nice mid-winter treat
and full of vitamin C too!

I proffer the basket, napkin-lined,
brimming with tart, fleshy, over-sized
raspberries

“Those Girls from K Street“

Chains of four or five, attached
hands-to-waists, soar past,
shouting and squealing.
Knees pump, skate keys dangle
at their necks. Down 14th and up K.
Mama says they’re rowdy;
Mama says they’re wild.

Sister and I, noses to the pane,
watch them crack the whip,
scare pedestrians from the curb,
jeans rolled to the knee, baggy
shirttails fluttering behind.
Mama says they’re trouble;
Mama says they’re rude.

At the corner store, we watch them
jump rope—double Dutch—one rope
turning left, one right. They run in
at a crouch, leap side to side
for ever-so-long without missing.
Mama says they’re low class;
Mama says they’re trashy.

Cinderella dressed in yellow,
peroxide-streaked ponytails bounce
with quick, hot-pepper jumps.
They wear red lipstick and snug sweaters,
crack their gum, drink Dr. P from bottles.
Mama says they’re cheap;
Mama says they’re common.

We want to be just like them.

The transformation of a child into adult, an idea into a piece of art, an observation into a general truth – all appear in poetry. All we have to do is decide to read the poetry that is available to us.

Special thanks to Michelle Hartman and Ann Howells for their contributions.