Book Review: Wives’ Tales
Reviewed by Kathleen Kirk, EIL Poetry Editor
In fairy tales, as in life, there is always so much I don’t understand. Ah, that is probably the point—interpretation, choice—and I keep missing it. Fortunately, many poets have revisited and reinterpreted fairy tales, and I get many chances to try again. In an epigraph to her collection Wives’ Tales, Marjorie Maddox quotes C.S. Lewis: “But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.” Indeed I am, and a particular charm of Maddox’s chapbook is that many of her speakers, or wives in the old wives’ tales, are also “old enough.”
In “Pan,” we know the wife will get tired a man who can’t grow up. Peter Pan is a syndrome, after all. But the music of the poem keeps the love alive:
You listen still to shells,
the tinkering of bells,
I love the sound of that! And I love the weary yet cheery confession when she’s outgrown him:
…Sure, you and I
can sew a shadow, hook
a captain, but look,
our bones are old.
If only he would grow up, or could, but the poem fades out…in literal ellipses….
Part two of this book, The Wives, is full of cleverness and fun. There are so many Peters! Peter Pan, Peter Rabbit, Peter Piper (in a tongue twister of a poem), Peter Lorre, the apostle Peter (the rock, and Peter/Petros means “rock” or “rock-man”), Peter the Great, and, of course, Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater. It’s also got to be a feminist pun, yes? I like “Abelard” and this Héloïse, her terrible, ironic awareness: “your absence still / caught between / my legs.”
And in part one, The Tales, I love “Looking at Glass,” mixing together various fictional characters and their encounters with glass or mirror. Alice is there, in the very first line, knowing you “step in and become / not what you are but what you think / you want”; Snow White “in her glass coffin,” Beauty of Beauty and the Beast, the Chesire cat. I came to Wives’ Tales having just read The Mirror Thief, by Martin Seay, a novel wavy with its knowledge of mirrors and glass making, and this poem’s last lines stick their landing: “Which way to go depends on the angle / of light and mirror.”
And, goodness, my absolute favorite here is “The Truth About Mother Goose.” She’s no simpering sweet Goody-about-town but an actual goose, “a fine-feathered horror / with wings that whip like a twister.” She’s big, she’s bold, she’s dangerous.
Six foot and plump as a pillow,
she plodded up and down our streets,
cracking the sidewalk like a spinal cord.
She scares the hell out of me.
Here are some links to other poets, books, and artists inspired by fairy tales:
Image: Rapunzel by Alice Zilberberg