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.