30 New Fairy Tales
This project is more of an editing adventure in order to salvage (and retool) a very old stack of poems (with some added new ones). I was very short on time this year and this opportunity presented itself as a way to still participate in NaPoWriMo 2021 by editing one poem every day, just like Scheherazade. These poems (and all fairy tale poems past Transformations) owes a debt of thanks to Anne Sexton who wrote the masterpiece of a mashup between the world of fairy tales and grim(m) reality.
So I've been writing and thinking about Scheherazade for quite a long time. I once had a pretty fine collection of Disney storyteller records as a kid (technically they're still with me in the garage) and a slew of other storytelling records like Aesop's Fables, Dr. Seuss, and two Disney albums about the 1001 Arabian Nights. And Scheherazade always fascinated me in a somewhat trepidatious way. She was surely a beautiful, brave and very smart cookie. But what a horrific position to be in, I always thought; but didn't it turn out to be symbolic for how I often feel myself. Or do I only feel this way now because her story has always been lingering in the back of my imagination? In any case, she's part of me now. I've been working on a series of Scheherazade poems for over 20 years now. I'm calling her subset of poems in this series 'The Scheherazade Six' and here is the first one, recapping the original predicament.
The Cerebral Wiles of Scheherazade
after "The 1001 Arabian Nights"
(April 1, 2021)
After one hastily-considered late night of feminist bravado,
Scheherazade took on the Sultan King,
a dragon thrashing in the sheets of his vulnerable kingdom,
using rage as reason on account of his first wife's deceivery.
Scheherazade took him on to save her sex, to circumvent
his bruised-heart's willingness to punish all women—
the bitterly unfaithful whole as exemplified by one-by-one—
by murdering a new procured wife every morning-after.
Scheherazade entered his long list of betrotheds
after three years of beheadings, and was crowned
the starlet of the day, and yet was unexpectedly saved
each dawning by cliffhangers of impromptu tales,
by keeping her husband wrapped up
in his own curious nature night after night,
blissfully tangled in her dramas and sagas
and the soap opera of Sinbad's re-sailings.
This was three hundred and sixty-three days ago.
Now she stands under the Moorish doorframe
of another twilight, a widower's peak, arched and complex,
not knowing if she has the energy to entertain him one more day,
to hold his attention like a child to a butterfly.
She hesitates a moment, caught up in the gargantuan task—
to save her head, to save the realm, to tip over
his precarious chalice of prejudices.
Scheherazade stands behind the curtain, composing herself,
not knowing if she has the fortitude
to please him—please him—please him,
to pleasure him for the rest of her life.
Does she love him?
Does she love him at all?
Because if she doesn't she will be caught up in a snare
between survival and the self.
And if she does she will be ensnared in the catch
between survival and the self.
Standing in the vestibule of another Arabian night,
she remembers the pleas of her father, the chief vizier,
the man who traffics the Sultan's women.
She thinks of her sister and all her sisters.
And of all the stories left to tell.
This is a new one from 2020. I was reading a haunted house novel over Covid and there was a tower in it and this got me thinking about the Rapunzel story and how not all towers are filled with women. Some have men in them. And what about those women on the outside, instead of huntsmen (who seem to be the particular lotharios of fairy tales)?
(April 2, 2021)
The tower is not just for Rapunzel.
You've been there. Was it lonely?
Or were you shoulder-to-shoulder
I never realized I was pacing the grounds
to ruts with a key chained to my breast.
But I have climbed the stairs for years,
over and over again and I open the door
to a mad gale rushing past my dresses,
utter fury disheveling my manicured tresses.
And so I sit there on the floor
where for so long you were.
I sit in the quiet ever after
while the woods outside grow up
and away from the lonely tower
like green cascades of hair.
This is a very old one, initially the first prologue poem to the 20+ year-old set. It was actually titled 'Prologue.' But I don't think it's a good first step for these poems. Today I reworked a lot of the phrases, taking out as many as I've added so it's about the same length. I also reworked some modifiers, deciding old allusions didn't mean the same to me now. I almost rearranged the ending but then realized I'd lose that accidental rhyme that happened. So I put it back. The semi-colon joke is for Christopher (who defiantly maintains this requirement in his does-he-fit list).
(April 3, 2021)
I thought we'd evolved beyond the paradigm
of love in rage and hearts ablaze;
but there's a dragon in my dressing room,
sitting like a gentleman with his wicked,
smoking grin. Same ole, same ole
smell of burnt heart meat.
What should I do with him now:
slay him with the acidic arrows of wit
or try to make him feel bad for burning
the hems of my dresses?
We just stand here measuring each other up
like a tailor and a seamstress.
He tells me I'm a princess but ehhh...
there's trouble there. I start to feel
a burn in the marrow. I think
about all the things that must fit:
that smelly old shoe, meet the parents,
cats or dogs, appreciation of the semi-colon,
and will my hand suit his spongy paw?
And will it even matter,
after my heart is dripping off his claws?
I'm not really happy with this one. It needs more work down the line, a very old poem that I overhauled quite a bit today. The original story contained the prince's mother, which was very interesting but the poem then went in too many directions. Mothers-in-law draw focus, as they should. So out she went this morning and the poem was tweaked back to its original intent, to be about the dangers of discernment. And the prince doesn't need a mother for that. I still feel the poem starts out strong but doesn't know how to resolve. I always want to dance around the topic and then spin out. I did strip out some of the more smart-alecky lines because Anne Sexton was much better at that, although the anachronisms I kept in because they're just too fun to leave out.
The Prince of Peas
after "The Princess on the Pea"
(April 4, 2021)
Before we had beauty contests
with podiums and media catapults,
it was hard to know who the real princesses were—
real as in genuine, legitimate,
bona-fide, five-star, honest to God.
And even your hermetic kind of Prince
worries about his standing among his peers.
Some say trophy wife but it's really more than that,
a choice as delicate as two peas in a pod.
So one stormy night a disheveled woman
arrives at the palace gates
introduced by the butler of thunder.
Her satin dress is clinging wetly to her breasts—
and let's not get into the sure-enough of that.
(Let's just go with what you like).
The prince circles her three times
and formulates a plan to test Lady X
with peas. Our prince collects peas.
That's why we call him the Prince of Peas.
He keeps trays of peas and a pea patch
which overruns the courtyard of his castle.
He's a very discerning connoisseur of things,
like with jazz records, but peas.
"The pea is the key," he and his friends agree.
Any follower of Mendel will tell you
about good breeding and taste,
palatability forecasting, the tease in the expertise,
the almighty, clairvoyant pea.
To test faithfulness, the Persian Everlasting
or the Perennial Pea; to test disposition,
the Blue Pea or the Sweet Pea;
to test worldliness there are many varieties:
the Continental Group, the Explorer, Galaxy
or Jet Set Groups; to test beauty,
the Butterfly Pea or the Darling Pea;
to test devotion, the Hart-Leaved Flame;
and for resilience, the Desert Pea,
the last of which the prince chooses,
hard and uncooked, for the flat board
beneath twenty-three feather mattresses
of this prospectus princess.
Then, nine hours later, the prince inquires
how the factor-unknown slept last night.
The lady grimaces over her scrambled eggs.
How sore she feels, how stiff she is,
how she's rather used to sleeping on softer things,
not a bed of stones! And the prince is satisfied.
She is delicate after all, the real McCoy.
(Imagine all the breakfasts to come,
all that's left for discontent:
the Steak Diane, the thread count,
The Prince of Peas pins a purple pea flower
to her wedding dress, even a magnifying glass
unable to perceive the traces of powdery mildew
growing on the purple bloom, a tiny little rot
of unknowns feasting on his theories of truth,
that love is much more fastidious than even this,
more delicate than the breakable, overcooked pea.
This is a brand new one, most of which came to me of a piece while I was driving to physical therapy last December. I typed out the handwritten notes in January in Cleveland and tweaked it a tiny bit today. It's an odd visitation type of poem on a topic I don't think about much, Peanuts.
Good Grief by Lucy Van Pelt
(April 5, 2021)
“Heart and time have a beef
because grief is a heart
that is perplexed in the past
and the body's gone into the present.
This is heartache’s tug of war.”
So says, Dr. Van Pelt;
and you have to admire the entrepreneurship
of putting up a desk in a field
and then a sign which is to say
the point of the desk.
It’s pure genius.
“You must prevent the heart
from being kicked.
Oh, but the sailing, sailing, sailing.”
“Your brown heart
is just as much air as time.”
“He runs at you.
He runs at your heart
with all his Linus glow.”
“Run through the field.
Square the yard.
Prepare for the feeling
of the tight ball
breaking into the fertile lawn.
spin though the ruin,
spin bone and marrow
from the sorry mud.”
This is the only previously published poem in the set. It was published by the journal Mudfish over a decade ago. I've always been fascinated by this very scary scene in The Shining, the whole blocking of it, how Shelly Duvall is pushed up onto the pedestal. It seems so metaphorical for misplaced trust. Dealing with a madman is also in Scheherazade's wheelhouse too. I changed one word today.
Scheherazade on the Landing
after "The 1001 Arabian Nights"
(April 6, 2021)
“You’ve had your whole fucking life to think things over
What’s a few more minutes gonna do you now?”
Jack Torrance in The Shining
She enters into some cockamamie scheme, like marriage, with someone
and it’s like a custodianship of the haunted Overlook hotel.
She can handle the emotional distance.
Scheherazade’s got her own thing goin’ on.
So she doesn’t care if all work and no play makes the Sultan a dull boy.
It’s just his aggressive condescension she finds hard to take;
the sarcastic tone he assumes when he backs her into a corner;
the way he says light of my life as if it’s not really so light at all;
The way he steals her time to think;
The way he promises he doesn’t want to hurt her
with the bat he’s swinging in his hands
as he backs her up the stairs toward the monstrous hanging carpets,
backs her up onto the precipice of the landing
while she’s frantically flailing her arms in an effort to protect
a pumping heart in a glass box against a man with a bat.
This is the beginning of the end, right here–
her lover coming up with madness, primal animal madness:
his love. Why does it play this way over and over again,
that trek up the stairs to destroy what he loves?
How is it that he has become the mortal enemy
of his own glass heart?
I love this story. I had a Hans Christian Anderson record I loved and I listened to this story over and over again, wishing each time the story would end differently, like maybe it was a problem of my prior interpretation or maybe the record had a hidden alternate ending (like another groove track the needle could fall into). Nobody helps the little match girl as she dies. And this is what I focused on during the massive rewrite of this poem today. The original poem basically just retold the story with a kick more pointless melodrama. There's also an element of Cher's twitter controversy lurking in the new version and my own culpable wishful thinking.
after "The Little Match Girl"
(April 7, 2021)
I believe it like a fairy tale,
that I could be the hero of the story,
a man of action and benevolence.
Strike a match and do the deed.
But the story always ends
with a little girl dead on the street
and has been ending this way
for over one-hundred and seventy-five years.
But I believe it like a fairy tale,
that I would grab the girl from meanness
and find some magic, fur-lined boots
for her bare feet. Let's just say,
for the sake of argument,
that her name was Georgie,
the little match girl with winter
in her lungs.
In the story she burns her future
with today's match.
And the match spits back.
But I want her peace like a pack of fairies
decorating the long table with a feast;
and so Georgie is always in my arms
as we walk around the table
to see the roast goose and warm bread.
But in the story, this is just another day
running down to a faceless twilight
when the bully cold twists down.
I want her life back like a fairy godmother
sitting in a soft gray chair by the fire,
a long-lost relative with arms outstretched.
This match we burn is quantum physics,
a small light blossoming into another realm.
It is my belief in these things
that I will rub her small cold hands together
and hold her to my breast
and feel her small cold nose in my neck.
In the dream I give her all my warmth.
But then the match goes out
and she is dead on the street.
This wasn't the poem I was going to post today. The next one in line was a poem based on The Wizard of Oz, but this poem forced its way in line. I had meant to complete it later this month and all I had to start with was the title. And I was already pouring over the mess that was the other poem, (in fact, these rewrites are taking much more time than I anticipated), thinking of ways to redo it. But I laid awake last night thinking about this one instead. It's a brand new poem, assembled for the first time today, partly in the doctor's waiting room this morning.
Whitney Houston Is a Fairy Tale
(April 8, 2021)
"How do you color a sound?"
- Marilyn McCoo
Whitney Houston was a fairy tale
in the not-so-long ago,
with requisite little fairies
floating about her while she sang
on the bridge of her glowing palaces.
Whitney Houston was a promise of romance
for many suburban maids, all that was
lace and petticoats of the day,
sprites and elves and handlers to spare.
But as a matter of fact, fairy tales
often turn grim after the balls are quiet
and the slippers come off.
Sometimes princesses imbibe.
Sometimes she acts like a wicked step-sister
when she gets lost in the ways of the castle.
Sometimes a princess doesn't know
how to be who she is under all the frocks.
Sometimes a suitable prince
can never be found.
Sometimes the townspeople gossip
when the princess confides most times
with another princess.
Always part of the kingdom was upset with her
and never the same parts at the same time.
She was too much of a princess.
She was not enough of a princess.
She was no princess at all.
Sometimes the fairy godmother
turns out to be a bridge troll in a suit.
Sometimes the princess dies ungracefully
with her tiara floating in the bath.
Sometimes the princess loses her friends.
Whitney Houston was a fairy tale all right
for a string of non-sequential moments,
an enchantment made of melody
and the irrefutable wand of thrones.
The last few days were brutal writes/rewrites so I needed an easy one today. This one was mostly done many, many moons ago. Another sad one. As long as it is, I took quite a bit out. That Hans Christian Anderson...the maestro of the tragic, unrequited love story.
The Irresponsible Wagers of Lovesick Mermaids
after “The Little Mermaid”
(April 9, 2021)
This is a story that starts on the pins and needles of a starfish.
A mermaid is born, curious in opening shells,
seamless underwater like bird in slow motion,
her mind unfurling like the purple waves of a jellyfish,
its vibrant edges and detailed points—this is her voice,
like the ripples of radar far and wide across the sea.
From the beginning, all our bets are on the mermaid—
the world is her oyster, so to speak.
But she is finished exploring her own personal palaces.
Under the water-blown trees, she sits profoundly sinking
in a blue-dust wanderlust: restless to breathe oxygen
and heartsick to be among the stars and the seagulls.
But our bets are on the mermaid, still. How could she lose?
She’s got spunk and a voice and hair so soft and wild.
What’s not for the moon to love?
She spends her time picking through the treasures of shipwrecks,
dodging the crush of groaning, dissembling titanics—
some vessel too big for her, maybe—
in hind sight—yes, too big—
but some disorder lovely and dangerous all the same—
like a storm—or someone half seen—
like a prince through a porthole—
and something tips over in the small pond of her heart,
like a small stone sinking to the bottom.
She can save a drowning Prince
and with her fingers on his whiskery shipwrecked face,
she resuscitates him...as they say, with a kiss.
We know nothing about this unconscious Prince, by the way,
nothing well enough to gauge our prospects with the story so far.
But at this point our bets are still on the mermaid,
swept up as we are in the perils of love and exotic sea adventures.
We long that he will live because she longs that he will live.
She leaves him revived but asleep on the beach,
deep in the depths of his own unconsciousness.
And soon nearby maidens converge on him like birds on a starfish.
We would like the mermaid to cut her losses at this point.
This Prince is fine with those maidens who have taken over.
He thinks they have, in fact, put him back together again,
sad little egg. Modesty wins you nothing, little mermaid.
But the mermaid has become fixated on the dry world
with its brain-spinning oxygen and she confuses love
with peace and immortality. And now we’re worried.
Our bets are looking shaky.
In the grim depths of the sea, inside a forest of bones,
the mermaid finds a sea witch who casts spells.
The water-witch offers to make our mermaid human,
and therefore more palatable for our prince.
She offers a small ‘coming out’ of water
for a fee, a small nonrefundable fee.
Our bets are hanging on the wash line about now.
Jesus, how much do you want to be Cinderella?
Would you give up your voice for it? Your point of view?
The mermaid sings her one last song and bows her head,
like a gesture of trust to the fates.
And she actually loses her voice. That's the bargain.
(Who thinks this is a good idea?)
The witch literally cuts out her tongue
and makes one last proclamation,
(and here’s where we know we’re in trouble):
if the prince marries another,
the little mermaid will die and become sea foam,
unknowable–nothing but sea waste.
The mermaid goes back to the castle
to some pretty speechless fanfare
and new in his entourage she can watch her prince.
And he loves her. And here we take great heart!
And we breathe a big sigh of relief! After all,
all good fairy tales must end this way, right?
Must render our hearts, like a package
carried carefully over a treacherous landscape,
to the end, in one safe piece. He loves her…yes,
like a childhood friend.
Not like a queen.
He will marry, instead, one of the pretty maidens he thinks once saved him.
That's the story.
Now we're the sad little eggs.
Mermaid, looking back
do we think you were simply
at the wrong place at the wrong time,
a fish out of water?
The prince marries the maiden and they dance all night,
unaware of the mermaid’s heartbroken mortality.
Does she rethink her steps
all the way back into the sea?
The water-witch logic sort of makes sense now;
A voice is a soul, no?
In the end, the ocean swallows her.
Time for us to let go, dear readers,
as she relinquishes into foam.
We cannot speak of our gamble now.
The foam dissipates.
She is nothing we can speak of anymore.
And somewhere in the pond of our little hearts,
a stone sinks to the bottom.
I've been waiting to get to this one, a kinder Hans Christian Anderson tale where at least nobody dies. Although as a kid I often wished this story would end differently, too. This poem is brand new.
The Shepherdess and Her Life Coach
after “The Shepherdess and The Chimney Sweep”
(April 10, 2021)
Who wouldn't want to leave a horn-headed goat-man?
Look, life in the mahogany cabinet was not for you.
And you owe nothing to the man-of-the-mountain
His title speaks for itself. You tell me about his anger,
his manipulations, the gaslighting.
I think you made the right decision there.
Plus the eleven porcelain wives he already had...
So do you realize how far you've come?
How you made it this far by crook and by ladder?
And the Chimney Sweep, what about that guy, huh?
He faced down your grandfather, remember that?
That didn't sound easy. And then with resolution
you both trudged down the leg of the table and across the floor
and you both crawled slowly up the long, dark chimney.
Just think how dangerous that was for a porcelain fellow.
And was any of this his idea? In all fairness.
Remember how you said you wouldn't be happy until?
That was a little manipulation, wasn't it?
You have to take some personal responsibility here.
Everyone got very upset downstairs. Things broke.
You can't keep crying on his shoulder like this.
I mean it looks like he'll let you but...
have you talked about what he wants?
It doesn't sound like he's fully behind going back.
So what stories are you telling yourself
about the big wide world? Is it the exposure?
Is it the starting over? You say you just can't stand it.
Well, let's unpack that: what can you stand,
what can you depend on? Does your grandfather
and the potpourri downstairs and BillyGoatGuy,
do they have your best interests at heart?
Remember how you couldn't stand that?
Maybe you could compromise?
Maybe you could live on the roof?
At the edge of flue?
Take it one gale at a time?
Is it really too much? Is it really too big?
And could you ever really go back?
The table is never the same table.
Things broke and the past is in three pieces now.
Yes, the future is big and wide. This is true.
Could you be stronger than you think?
Could you just look at that
sweet, breakable Chimney Sweep over there
and the canopy of stars all around him?
Scheherazade, a Portrait
after "The 1001 Arabian Nights"
(April 11, 2021)
She poses Mona-Lisa like on the big bed
with its ornate platform of carved wood,
her red lips equivocating, fine lines
around her eyes showing the strain.
The tightness there is where
the paint cracks into a map
of sleepless years. Her neck is stiff.
Her fingers twist a vague trinket.
But her eyes are bright as diamonds
when she tells the Persian tales of Sinbad the Sailor.
Her veil is strewn on a pillow,
embroidered scrim curling in the dry air.
Her blue patterned dress melts into the textiles.
The textiles melt into the wall.
You can see the Sultan's shadow
in the bathroom beyond a beaded door.
He is thinking of her soft shoulders
and her very wide hips.
And her eyes are bright as diamonds
when she tells American tales of Indiana Jones.
There is bird in a cage sitting on an egg,
a portrait of an old man on the left wall,
wine in a glass carafe on a table,
coconuts, aloe wood, a rainbow
of thick tassels everywhere.
There's a bowl of emeralds,
and a ruby cup filled with pears.
They say she's very verbal. They say
she can spin her way out of sure doom.
And that her eyes are bright as diamonds
when she tells the Turkish tales of Keyser Söze.
This is from January 2021, while I was in Cleveland taking care of my sick parents. I was experimenting with run-on sentences or mashing two sentences together and starting new ones without periods. And initial caps confusing things further. And my mother and I were watching The Crown together as we do every year and the show is up to the Diana years. I was pretty young and impressionable when Charles and Diana got married and my grandmother asked me to stay over at her apartment and get up in the middle of the night to watch their wedding, which I had zero interest in at the time but wanted to please my grandmother. Strangely, that experience started a tradition I've felt I've had to continue through funerals and weddings and documentaries and soap operatic Netflix shows. My mother has always been into it so it's something we can do together.
To The Prince of Thes’aurus
(April 12, 2021)
The thing I want to say to you is—
When a princess dies in a car crash
It changes you
When a princess dies in a car crash.
You become a pragmatist.
When a princess dies after plummeting
Down 120 feet of embankment
It alters all accounts
When a princess plummets off a cliff.
You become a theorist.
When a sovereign Queen is beheaded
It gives one pause
When one loses her head.
You become a modernist.
Look up synonyms for fairytale
When the prettiest heads roll
Out of cars and over cliffs.
When a princess dies in a Paris tunnel
Under the twinkling lights of concrete and romance
You unhook the ruffles
Look that golden pan
Dead in the face
And turn to the joys of work.
The thing I want to tell you is this—
This was a major overhaul today and, as depressing as the original story is, I was dreading coming to this rewrite, but I can't put if off forever. I had a big book of World's Best Fairy Tales that I would thumb through as a kid, folk tales from all over the world. A lot of the tales were about domestic violence, which seems odd to me now. And the illustrations were often vaguely sexual, as were the story particulars (unlike the tamer version linked below), like this story with a big-breasted woman harnessed at the waist to a thick girdle of iron from which trailed an industrial-sized chain-link leading through a hole in the floor. I did a version of this poem after re-reading the story again at 33 years old and was really disturbed by it. Now again at 51 the story has taken a whole new disturbing meaning with the phrase "gang of trolls" which was the old title. I was also influenced today by reading "Instructions" by Neil Gaiman, the lines of which struck me like video game cues.
The Game of Trolls
after "The Witch in the Stone Boat"
(April 13, 2021)
The game starts with you on a boat
in a large, lawless, world wide sea.
You are surfing along
looking for something interesting.
This ocean is full of pirates and disrupters.
You come upon a ship with a beautiful woman.
She's holding a baby.
Next to the ship is a witch in a boat.
The boat seems to be made of stone.
It makes no sense but this is what you see.
The witch climbs onto the ship and grabs the baby.
The woman screams but she can't seem to move.
The witch pulls off all the woman's clothes
and pushes her naked into the boat.
The boat sinks down into the water.
The witch puts on the woman's clothes
and her face changes into the woman's face.
You don't do anything yet.
You're just trying to figure out how the game works.
So apparently this drowned woman
was a Queen and the witch has done identity theft.
The King can't tell the difference.
You have a choice.
You can follow the witch and the King or the boat underwater.
You decide to follow the boat to see if the naked woman is dead.
You're just curious.
So the boat drags the naked woman to a cave
where the witch's brother lives
with a gang of trolls. He gives her a pheasant's dress
and ties her up with a chained corset.
He then try to force a more physical relationship
but she talks her way out of it. She cries a lot.
To punish her, he leaves her in a dungeon
with rats and toads and the gang of trolls.
They spend hours wearing her down
with insults and threats.
You don't do anything yet.
You don't see any weapons to grab
or badges to earn yet.
You decide to backtrack to the King and the witch.
The King is sleeping with the witch
even though she's very crabby and cruel to the baby.
But wait, the chain is barely long enough
that the damsel in distress can crawl through a hole in the floor
to visit her baby. A shocked nurse watches her do it.
She begs the nurse to send for help.
What do you do?
What do your power levels say?
You thought you were going up through higher levels.
But this whole time you've been sinking lower.
You are pissed off and don't see the point of the game anymore.
Finally, you turn a corner and come to a test,
an exam from where you can't proceed
unless you score enough points.
There are three questions:
1. What is the cautionary tale of this story?
2. Have you been damaged somehow while playing this game?
3. What kind of hero would best serve this damsel in distress?
But wait...since this is an FPS game, all you can do is point and shoot.
You can barely grab fuel packs, let alone carry women around.
So you shoot the king, the damsel and the witch,
take selfies with the dead and send them to their relatives.
The game starts with you on a boat
in a large, lawless, world wide sea.
You are surfing along
looking for something interesting.
After yesterday's poem, today we need something light! I loved this story from Ancient Greece, although my storyteller was Marlo Thomas and Alan Alda, who turned it into a feminist tale on the Free to Be...You and Me album. Did I mention I once told Rosey Grier to his face I always thought he was a singer because until I was 40 I knew nothing about football and loved his song on this album so much? Anyway, this story guided me when I stopped running. I've given it a minor overhaul from it's original retelling draft, where I focused on the oranges. I was really into writing about oranges at the time.
after "Princess Atalanta"
(April 14, 2021)
Because there seemed no equality
in a royal marriage, Atalanta started running.
And you know what they say
about girls who run—they stay single-
So focused on the buzz of the drive,
the hum of motion, she felt to stay still
was harrowing. But due to the power
dynamics of the King, she was forced
to compromise and agree to marry
any man who could beat her at her game.
And Atalanta does not trip or stumble.
Atalanta does not fall for love.
And you know what they say
about fast girls—they have a reputation
for always getting away.
The king declares that to lose means death,
head on a stake, public humiliation.
And so the braggarts drop out
and then the stalkers and the fixers.
And after some fruitless attempts
by some thought-leaders of track,
(everyone thinks they're the one),
Atalanta becomes a famous fugitive.
Eventually they all give up;
there are plenty of other perky girls.
Except for a man named John
who arrives in town with three
golden apples in his pockets.
By now Atalanta has become smug
and insular and you know what they say
about wallflowers—they know
where all the exit doors are.
She gives John a risky lead-on
like a hare teasing a tortoise.
And instead of running ahead of her
John lets the first golden apple fall.
She passes it, dazzled a bit
by some strangeness in its color.
How foreign is the fleshy sphere of sun,
something never seen before
in the land of Greece, a vibrant
pumpkin of summer, the color
of a dull want, solid sultry orange.
Atalanta runs on until another one
rolls across the trail. This time
the smell of it slows her down,
sweet citrus prurience
making her vaguely hungry.
and picks up the puckered thing,
hard and taut. Is she fooled by stuff?
Is this the apple of Eve's downfall?
She throws it down into a cloud
of dust and runs full-panic
to recapture the race.
Then she hears another small thud
of fruit on dirt. She stops again
and punctures it with her thumb
and forefinger. She pulls at the skin
and the clear juice runs down
her arm in a stream of light.
The race stops when it becomes clear
no one is running anymore,
John not exactly winning
but not having his head taken off.
You know what they say
about girls who stay in bed too long:
they make love like they make friends.
Maybe he has blue eyes, maybe he's charming,
maybe he offers a souvenir
only a winner would offer:
a laugh, a lullaby, a vitamin, a boost.
They look at it in their hands:
not a diamond, not a drug, not a promise,
but a little caper, a riveting story,
an orange sphere of now.
Here is another disturbing story from the book World's Best Fairy Tales. I can't find an online version of this gem but the book says the story is Celtic, not to be confused with the Scottish story "The Sea Maiden." Its theme is domestic violence, that basically after all the hardships a young man overcomes (its own ironic violence) to bring the sexy sea-creature home, he blows it in one night. Not a great story to internalize while in the single-digits but there I was. This story was both heartbreaking and horrifying to me for some reason I can't quite nail down. I wasn't exposed to violence at home, aside from two older brothers trying to break each other, but I've often wondered if the fear this sparked in me didn't predate to something past life. In any case, I didn't change much about the 30+year old poem other than to smooth it out, add a few steps for an even ten, and to take out all references to Tommy Lee and his many wives which now seems quaintly dated (although the reference to tattoos is a small lingering remnant). I have a definite memory of writing this poem in my old playroom in my parents' basement. I must have started it while visiting over Christmas while I was at Sarah Lawrence.
How to Serenade a Sea Maiden in 10 Steps
after “The Young Man and the Sea Maid”
(April 15, 2021)
Step 1: Play a musical instrument. Unless you plan on a figurative serenade, this is a crucial component of courtship by this method. No need to be a virtuoso. Even pitiful attempts to pull this off will be viewed with endearment. And drums count. For other methods, please reference "How to Debate a Sea Maiden in 12 Steps" (lawyers), "How to Groom a Sea Maiden in 15 Steps" (personal trainers and hairdressers) or "How to Score a Sea Maiden in 32 Steps" (financial advisors).
Step 2: Coif. The sight of you does not have to calm the sea but it should bring many sea maidens to the hems of your shore. They will be mesmerized by your theatricality and your tattoos.
Step 3: Don’t try to grab sea maidens willy-nilly. Be patient like a blue marlin fisherman. Be tricky while they shake their heads and plunge into the sea. You will obsess over this.
Step 4: For advice, visit the wise woman on the hill. For some reason, this woman will never be your mother but might be your ex-wife. She will tell you how to seize a sea maiden before she knows what’s what; how, when day turns to night, you should serenade her on a moonlit beach and persevere through all her cunning tricks:
- when she turns into a wild dog and bites you,
- when she turns into a serpent and strangles you,
- when she turns into a fire and burns you.
Eventually it will all dump into the courts.
Step 5: If this kind of melodrama does not bother you, hunker down like a bird watcher and you will win the sea maiden and be rewarded with incredible sex.
Step 6: But your maiden will not speak, at least not the words you need to hear. You will obsess over this. You will holler and threaten to throw the sea maiden into the fire.
Step 7: In frustration you will strike her in the mouth to make her speak those words you want to hear. And when you do this, she will disappear back into the sea, back into her past life or the tabloids. You will be devastated and you will try to stop her… because you can’t stop yourself.
Step 8: But the spell will be broken no matter what you do.
Step 9: You will beg for her forgiveness in particular and everyone’s forgiveness in general. But forgiveness is all she has left to give so she probably won’t be giving that. This will keep you haunted by the sea.
Step 10: So you will have to start all over.
Scheherazade Tells a Secret
after "The 1001 Arabian Nights"
(April 16, 2021)
Let me tell you a secret about telling stories.
Turns out it's not the story really,
just like its not about beauty
or wisdom per se.
I mean if that wasn't the case
you could read him the tabloids
and he wouldn't know the difference.
Turns out it's the telling.
Which means it's the raconteur.
The story is you all the time,
even the horrific ones.
Someone else, another story.
Turns out it's not the funny parts
or the ironies or the suspense.
It's the can-you-believe-its,
It's the arm-in-arm, a pinch
of the cheek, my pinning a flower
to the lapel of your coat.
Turns out there's no small amount
of chemistry and alchemy.
Turns out it's also marvelously organic
like sunflowers and honey.
It needs you more than words can say.
Turns out this is why you can't tell stories
to a canyon. The emptiness
just hands it right back.
Turns out even I can get lost in it
where the thread winds out
and silence hangs like a noose.
But even that too shall become a story.
Years ago I did some Choose-Your-Own-Adventure stories online for a website called Ape Culture and I always intended to do an Elizabeth Taylor story with her many husbands as branching-off pages. But I never got around to it, partially because of my ambivalence about Elizabeth Taylor. She was someone my mother was fond of (not me!) and I always thought she was a little bit over-the-top (says a Cher fan). But I almost lost my parents together last year and at that time I committed to creating their life story as a mash-up with this Elizabeth Taylor Choose-Your-Own-Adventure story to illustrate both the similarities and differences in their relationships. During the course of researching the project I learned quite a lot about Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton and my respect for them rose considerably. Richard Burton did actually dub Taylor the Princess of Pontrhydyfen after bringing her home to meet his extensive and Taylor-wary family. She did win them all over and the whole episode smacked of modern fairy tale. So here it is. I started it at 10:15 this morning from scratch.
The Princess of Pontrhydyfen
(April 17, 2021)
You knew the seven dwarves would come up
at some point. I mean there are even seven siblings
although two of us are girls. And then
she was raised in a veritable castle
with a full-tilt stage-mother, literally from the stage.
A sufficient example of overbearing as wicked.
She's also a raven-haired, pale beauty
just like the one in the story, only
she wears her glass coffin on her finger.
Then there are the conspicuous magical objects:
the ubiquitous mirror, the poor decisions
around food, the London coma, the money.
And oh, those breasts! No briar-rose buds those!
They say this one stays up all night.
The only difference is the deference.
We seven resolutely supported the previous gal.
She was one of us, albeit upwardly mobile
and like Kylie Minogue, ultimately felt
her disco needed her more than Wales.
But this one is surprisingly good at belching
and vulgar scuttlebutt. She outdrinks us like a wench
and adores us all for adoring us one
and how can you not start to melt for that?
She will, in all likelihood, ruin him by the end,
the way we all long to be ruined,
like some hard piece of coal embraced into sand.
He jokes she made the mistake of running off
with the huntsman instead of the prince.
But we can see how she derails him.
She watches him with those eyes,
those worshipful and magic violet eyes.
And slowly we see him turning into a real prince.
This is an old poem, a bit of a conflation between Beauty and the Beast and Bluebeard (the ring of keys, one leading to a forbidden door where dead wives are interned), there's some trace connections between the two stories of newly-wedded mortal danger, strangely even more so in the Disney version. So 30 years ago upon realizing this, the poem became one about a kind of subterranean, percolating abuse and the perils of reading into magical signs. There's also the creepy insinuation that beauty brings out the beast, which is as unfair as it would be to say the ugly brings out the beast. Anyway, I started with the old poem as the base and tried to tighten it up. The original poem was also in second person and we've had enough of those already, so I changed it to third.
A Ring of Keys
after “Beauty and the Beast”
(April 18, 2021)
She's a beauty sitting by a large, stone fireplace
in a cavernous space. One in a million girls.
Warm and fed, she understands this castle
with its forms of draft loneliness and silence.
She can sympathize with its hidden passages
not too frightened by its colder cellar shadows.
She has a ring of keys.
From other floors and other rooms
she can sometimes hear the wails of banshees
and a startling, wood-cracking rage.
She tries to find the source of pain
but can only find empty rooms
behind every door with all her keys.
She'd feel alone but she knows he’s there
and she's seen him in her dreams,
a man locked in a spell.
Could she decrypt the castle puzzle
if only she could find the right key?
Is he disguised? Is he stuck?
She won't leave before she finds him
and she follows the howling fury
through the halls. They always
stop short, a dissipating locomotive
at the threshold of her door.
Is it reverse psychology?
Is acquiescence the key?
Beauty had things going for her.
Her father called her kiddo.
She had a relatively stable childhood,
no evil mother figure, no abusive siblings.
Sometimes she had money, sometimes she didn’t.
She learned a kind of incredulity
appropriate for life in the woods.
She's temperate which is its own kind of peril,
a lull that leaves her vulnerable to indecision.
On the one hand, it's a lovely madness,
particularly when the storm stops in an arc over her beauty,
the tenuous strings of cresting forbearance almost luminous.
It's a powerful gesture and she is not immune to it.
Or the idea of it.
It can make you feel powerfully loved.
On the other hand, this beauty is vague in its application,
impossibly unproven. Could the fallacy of its logic
be part of the key? How much would break the spell?
It's only in the darkness, she can see the light
and its collapsing feeling. A ring of keys
never meant for him at all. These keys
are her keys, the big sparkling one saying,
“You can leave anytime…”
Another older one based on a Hans Christian Andersen story. The original was much more faithful to the feeling of swanning. But then there was the breathtakingly awful show The Swan with its damaging and hackneyed-psychology and not letting contestants see themselves in mirrors for months. Although copious self-reflections do seem to be exacerbating all this modern suffering we're experiencing, the disturbing escalations of narcissisms all around us. In any case, the original poem felt spiritually vapid. There's probably no better story about modern swanning than Dr. Seuss' "Sneetches." Today, the little gray duck has become the martyr in all of us instead of the brilliant exception. So this poem needed a full rebuild today.
after “The Ugly Duckling”
(April 19, 2021)
Little duck though you are
the changeable unchangeable.
The lagoon of transfiguration,
where all sad ducks go.
Gray spirits who desire
freedom beyond the egg.
The better swimmer,
the longer neck,
the well-framed swan.
For the pushed, the bitten,
the bullied, the flawed glass
is never honest. The mirror
is a disabling pontificator.
The lake is a flattering quagmire
of endless looking.
It's the mirror that turns you
into a witch.
Only when you turn away
can you see who you truly are,
in searching the faces of all the others,
the geese, chickens, turkeys,
the wild ones.
The lens can only turn you
into an apparition of yourself,
into a lie
as you fastidiously build your peacock
or falcon, your apparatus
of a superlative self.
Last year I read there were dead bodies on top of Mount Everest. Of course I had to go looking for Google Images. One of them was dubbed Sleeping Beauty and her true story is beyond sad. The whole desire to climb a mountain seems like just depleted bravado to me, especially considering the climb's current decrepit state. Her story haunted me. So this poem kind of wrote itself at the time. I made some minor changes today.
The Neoprene Knight
after “Sleeping Beauty”
(April 20, 2021)
Sleeping beauty is sprawled in multicolor taffeta snowsuit
out in the open air—atop Mount Everest—
among the litter and the dead.
No one is coming to wake her.
It was a Prince Charming who put her there,
her face snow white and serene,
her hand frozen in a clutch.
For 100 years the dance of styles will change
from taffeta to chiffon to satin-velvet neoprene.
Were going to the ball; we're going underwater;
we're going up into the air; we're going to the bottom;
we're going to the top. I went puffed up with air
and came down weak for a peak at Sleeping Beauty,
to twirl and dip the princess and save her from her woes.
I heard her very last words were, “Don’t leave me here!”
and hundreds do. We want to cast a line at cocktail parties
or stoke a resume. We went to say, "I made it"
or "I walked among the dead in a long train
of protagonists." We went to say we survived.
A lot of the Scheherazade story focuses on the relationship between the sultan and his wife, but I often wonder about the sisters. Scheherazade brought her younger sister into the situation to instigate the first Storytime and I often wonder about her and what she might have done after that. Brand new poem.
Scheherazade in Foxholes
after "The 1001 Arabian Nights"
(April 21, 2021)
What about the sisters?
You think they weren't in the bathroom
talking about their survival?
You think they were discussing cliffhangers?
You think they were,
considering the phenomenal
threat of annihilation,
ever mulling over a betrayal?
Treachery begets treason
as the women march to the den.
They say there are no atheists
in foxholes. Are there sisters
in foxholes? Is there a sisterhood
where fox holes are concerned?
As they were putting on
their smart little hats
and brushing their hair,
do you think they were ever worried
about each other and how faithful
they would be?
Did Scheherazade ever think
What about Dinarzade?
You think she ever slept with the sultan?
After finishing yesterday's poem I picked a different poem for today. I wasn't even going to do a poem on this story I had decided. But again, just like with the Whitney poem, I woke up in the middle of the night and the lines put themselves together as if today was its day. This is a new poem based on the Grimm tale (with a dash of Tinkerbell).
The Blue Light
after "The Blue Light"
(April 22, 2021)
You can find the blue light
past the edge of town
at the bottom of a well.
When it gets dark,
go toward the volcanoes.
You can see one from the well.
But don't go when the witch is there
and don't ask her for help.
She will trick you
when you're most vulnerable.
Don't use it for revenge.
Don't turn the king's daughter
into a scullery maid.
You can pick up after yourself.
Don't use it for free labor.
Don't keep it in your window
or trouble will find you.
Keep it somewhere safe
and then—just know where it is.
Don't bail yourself out with it.
Don't wring prosperity from it.
Don't betray anyone with it.
Use it when you're lost
and don't know where else to go.
Use it with honesty and sincerity.
That's what makes it work.
Don't use it to manipulate
the king's daughter
into your house keeping.
But if you love her
this will help you
find your way.
This is another story I was dreading revamping for this project. It's an old poem that came with its own preamble 30 years ago, which was this:
"...based on the book “Dying to Get Married: The Courtship and Murder of Julia Miller Bulloch” by Ellen Francis Harris about a newlywed, St. Louis wife murdered by her husband. During his murder trial Dennis Bulloch’s claimed his wife was the one who demanded dangerous S&M rituals and that her death occurred accidentally during one of these rituals. Even though nothing in her prior history supported this claim, even though evidence from other women, including his ex-wife, verified Bulloch had been having sadomasochistic affairs with other women before and during his second marriage, even though he tried to falsely his alibi the night of her death, even though he didn’t attend his wife’s funeral and fled to Santa Cruz, California, to live under an assumed name after leaving a false suicide note to throw police off his trail, the jury believed his story. He was convicted only of manslaughter and served 4 years of a 7-year sentence. His case introduced the controversial “sex-death defense” into the justice system and his case has been called one of “the most serious miscarriages of justice in the annals of twentieth century American jurisprudence” (“Murder Cases of the Twentieth Century,” David K. Frasier). This story filled my hometown papers when I was sixteen and seventeen years old.
This crazy serial-killer fairy tale about a psychopath bridegroom fit so perfectly it even referenced the bride as a descendent of a Miller. I wish I could do the story justice, even now.
Thief of Hearts
after "The Robber Bridegroom"
(April 23, 2021)
This is not a fairy tale; I don't even know why it's in the books.
Although it does begin ubiquitously at the forest's chilling edge.
A miller’s daughter is threatened with the idea of becoming
an old maid, parcheesi, cribbage. She has the prerequisite
virtuousness for a story like this. She cares for her parents
until they die. She has always been a sheltered girl
and their dying wish was that she be taken care of
and maybe they should have been more specific;
language can be so vague that way and wishes
like incantations require precision. This girl
has no experience at all with those princes
loitering at the corner, their musk trailing out of taverns
and taprooms. She places an ad in the Ye Old Tyme News:
"Nice Girl seeking really nice guy, someone respectable,
good work ethic, patient, funny." And poof! A steer appears,
a member of all the right local societies,
good on paper if you held it up in the right light.
But this is not a fairy tale. She would have fear in her heart,
even a small acorn, in a fairy tale. She would have hesitated
at the brink of the forest, hesitated when he said,
“Come visit me on the eve of our wedding.”
She would have learned to be evasive.
"But I don’t know where you live so how will I find my way?”
“I live deep in the woods,” he would have insisted.
“I’ll lay down ashes for you so you will find your way.”
But she had no fear because she had never been to the forest
with her girlfriends on a Saturday night.
Those girls would have been more cautious,
would have left many hours early to have on their side
the element of surprise. They would have left
their own trail backwards with pebbles and stones.
But this is not a fairy tale.
For surely then the birds would have warned her.
She would have entered his house, deep in his woods,
knowing where she was vulnerable, passed the threshold
with an idea of who she was, like a doorway to the past.
She would have seen all the women before her:
the poison, the cask of blood, their corpses
and all those dismembered fingers of rings.
She would have seen promises of ashes blowing away
instead of burning up inside of them.
But not this. This is not that story.
Love was there or wasn't there, in different degrees of there—
the story changes from telling to telling.
She relented all her assets for him.
She gave herself away.
Two and a half months after the wedding,
firemen discover her burned, naked corpse
among the debris of their torched garage.
The Miller's daughter is bound to a rocking chair
with 76 feet of duct tape, asphyxiated by two rags
jammed down her throat.
Imagine all that smoke trailing from the turrets
and hot, red ashes falling on all the silent birds.
Growing up, we had a Just So Stories book in the house which I was ambivalent about. We also had an Aesop's Fables record which I loved because those stories had a good guiding principle at the end like "don't count your chickens before they've hatched" or "slow and steady wins the race." The Just So Stories were just fabulist naturalism to me. But watching the documentary Cher & the Loneliest Elephant, this brand-new mashup came to mind.
How the Elephant Got to Malibu
after "How the Elephant Got His Trunk"
(April 24, 2021)
The zoo is full of brutes and bullies
and like any mass media, swamped
with upstaging and cattiness
from the lion's roar to the deadpan reptiles.
But who can compete in the limelight
of a baby pachyderm who grows into a bull?
He's a mammoth target for the slings and arrows
of the elitist giraffes and the lying crocodiles
and the machinations of his entourage,
a retinue of hairless little monkeys.
Maybe he wants to ride the highways
or fly the skies, be famous among the famous,
sit framed in bougainvillea by a window
overlooking an infinity pool in the beachside manse.
A man named Amir teaches him how to ride
like a real biker in a buddy flick,
to walk the red carpet in front of a fleet
of paparazzi, fly first class in a private jet like a VIP.
A chanteuse even sings for him, command performance.
The kerfuffles and the brouhahas of her arrivals
flatter him like he's a mogul or a tycoon.
He can smell her coming nineteen kilometers away.
She smells of bergamot and neroli.
Today, he walks with the monks of Cambodia.
His long trunk stirring up dirt and tattle-tales
with the old menagerie, where the giraffe
and the crocodile and the hairless monkeys
make the TV news all over the world
with their tell-alls and analysis,
giving their take on who he was back when.
Well, we're to our last Hans Christian Andersen story and I'm sad about that. I enjoyed his stories so much this month I just bought his biography. In any case, as I said before, I wore my Hans Christian Andersen record out as a kid and this was probably one of my favorite stories, although I tended to conflate it with the Chimney Sweep story...maybe because they all ended up in a fireplace at some point. My original version of this poem had a happier ending as I gave them a post-life moment in the fireplace looking up to the sky. But this is really a sad story at heart and I let it have its pathos today as I edited.
after "The Steadfast Tin Soldier"
(April 25, 2021)
I saw you when you came out of the box—
an old world soul from an old world box,
one in twenty-five tin soldiers.
Made from fire and smelt to a hardness,
you were banged and dented and down one leg.
I know nothing about your life before this.
Your eyes are always straight ahead, impenetrable.
I see you sometimes when my eyes are straight ahead too.
I am made of paper, a ballerina with one leg back
and two arms stretched to the sky like an anthem.
You hide behind the snuffbox on the table, standing still
while the other soldiers are picked up and put away.
In the dark, the jack-in-the-box laughs at us
but he lives in a box where I can hear him cry.
Steadfast you. Steadfast me.
I saw the child put you up on the window shelf
where you could see the whole city.
And I don’t know why but then the wind took you
up into the air and out into the day. I didn't speak
and you didn't speak. Nobody cried out as you flew away.
We just stared straight ahead as our hearts were in our mouths.
For thirteen days I stood here in front of my paper castles,
my arms up to the sky. I listened to their parlor talk
and read the hats they made of the news.
I didn't know where you were. I didn't know how you plummeted
down rows and rows of windows, lost all your air
and hit the ground. When boys in the alley found you,
they stuck you into a paper boat and sent you down the gutter.
You felt unsteady in the waves but you were steadfast,
held on to yourself as you rolled into the sewers,
straight ahead into the dark tunnels, past the screeching rats.
Maybe you let out one small gasp when the paper boat,
soaked and gray, starting sinking. Maybe, alone in the dark,
you thought of me as you were swallowed by a big fish.
But I don't know this. Thirteen days later,
the same child who put you aside watches his mother
cut you out from the inside of a fish. Everyone applauds
and you stand back on the wood block, life’s glistening
on your hard tin veneer. I want to cry out too.
But I am not made to cry out. I am made of paper.
You stand in the middle of the room. We all stare at you,
nicked and worn, the darling of fate
and none of us dare to breathe. Steadfast.
And then suddenly, capriciousness picks you up again
and throws you into the fireplace. You stare at me
through the flames, your heart turning a glowing red.
And then the door opens and I am swept up by the draft,
a twirling pirouette of paper into the fire. My hair glows in the heat.
My paper dress curls up becoming a snow of ash at your feet.
I look straight into your eyes and you look into mine;
I am falling apart into your hands. We never say a word.
We just burn and burn. And then in seconds we are gone.
My notes alongside this poem: "WTF is this poem?" It was a hot, hot mess. It had a few lines about the movie as a movie and so I rewrote it along those lines. I admit some of the best years of my life were spent in Los Angeles; but I did encounter quite a few damaged colleagues who were escapees from the big studios, oddest ducks coming from Disney. These people always introduced difficulties into a process for the sake of difficulties (or pointless demonstrations of alpha-ness). One guy would make us all stay up all night on "standby" for a web publication and then change his mind at 5 am (probably when he woke up) the next morning, fully expecting us to show up at 9 am again to publish when he was finally ready. Another woman at a fundraising organization we used to call Big Barbie. She made this infamous declaration one day, "There are only about 100 important people in the world. The rest of us are extras." I have gotten a WORLD of mileage out of that quote among my friends. "Well, you know there's only 100 important people in the world..." The movie now feels like a parable for MGM, the lavish yellow brick road sequence, the array of witches, the man behind the curtain, the industrious, barely-differentiated little people...
Into the Forest of Flying Monkeys
after "The Wizard of Oz"
(April 25, 2021)
The lure of the sunny brick road
and all its ideas of happiness
naturally winds through the forest of monkeys.
It's bricks laid with backlot labors,
past the storehouses with their stocks
of fairy wands, tiaras, diplomas, medals
and one-of -a-kind ruby slippers
linked up in their various pairs.
The twilight woods have constellations
hanging off the cyclorama. The whole place
is like a a vault of scenes. Everyone has
what they come in with: a basket,
claws, a hard suit of defiance,
the element of straw-filled surprise.
But when the trees start throwing applies,
no one comes out smelling so nice.
The wicked witch arrives on cue
from some direction it hardly matters
and starts cackling about couture,
harassing the gardeners and bricklayers
and confusing the story with smoke and mirrors.
The great Martha Hamilton's union of monkeys
climb from tree to tree, grabbing what leaves they can.
Her cauldron's scum of fat
obscures the universe it trails.
We stay focused while she swipes left and right
because the witch is just a red herring.
It's the wizard behind the drop curtain.
He's the dream-maker sweating with his bank
of levers and switches.
The little people rust in their tears,
get tangled up on the cornfield pole
scare their neighbors to salve all the stings.
The wizard's not happy either.
As the mirror pans away,
he becomes smaller and smaller.
Everyone's dodging the flying monkeys
who riffle for baubles in everyone's baskets.
But you can find friends there,
the smart, the brave and the sincere,
and they will stay with you
all the way into the black and white.
There was an ancient biblical sheepherder verse I read last year that made an impression on me, (“My love has gone down to his garden/to the bed of spices/to feed his sheep in the orchards/to gather the lilies./I am my lover’s and my lover is mine./He feeds his flock among the lilies”), and I wanted to do a fairytale with that feeling but in a southwestern landscape. Today, this reminded me of the novel Heart’s Desire by Emerson Hough, a very underrated book about westward expansion. And then my great-grandfather often told this story about how as a cattleman he found it impossible to compete with the New Mexico sheepherders. He just wanted to get rid of those damn sheep, he said. “I guess I’ll just have to eat them all one at a time.”
(April 27, 2021)
A thousand years ago a sheepherder walked this valley
while his wife stayed home in a glen of cottonwoods
with their chickens and trees. She stayed all day
or maybe ten days or maybe one-hundred days
and maybe each day was a year.
Maybe she's still there.
Years have gone by and the great big rocks stand
for what we can bear, persevering like saints.
Princesses don’t find themselves in deserts.
You said so yourself.
To which I wonder then what is a princess really?
Is it something incarnate? Or is it a place?
It’s like asking where the wild west is.
This all reminds me of a story about a man
who came here a hundred years ago,
long before the train and the towns.
He came to find gold in White Oaks.
He had a fiancée back East
and he built her a big brick house.
And the house still looms in the valley
to this day but she never came.
And she probably never wanted to.
After all, it’s a harsh life this cloudherding.
There’s so much plenty back there.
And there’s hardly any plenty here.
His valley is now deserted
except for all the money in the hills.
The cemetery teems with an untraceable motion
like the grand central of nowhere.
This is a place where you feel things
that are not quite there.
The gossamer gist is palpable
and I am not one who never believed.
The magic spell either holds or relents.
You find the chalice or you don’t.
Fate does or it does not.
The land is as bewitching and enchanted
as they say and any princess worth her salt
and sweat and grit would tell you
to stay away if you can or know full well
when you come why you come.
The water demurs and the rivers run
privately marking their own concerns.
The coyotes call and call and call
all through the darkness. It’s like smoke
from a whiskey bottle when the old hermit appears.
What is real and not real?
You tell me the difference.
There’s a book in the canyon
no one has ever found. Legend has it
buried behind the ruins of a stone house.
The wind blows through the windows
like a conjuring. And the house will guard
those miraculous words forever.
As I go down the road, the sunflowers along the road salute
and suddenly I’m not a princess anymore but a King
and my great castle is all the grass of the high plains.
The antelope stand at the horizon waiting for me,
ready to call me back to the kingdom. I am that old
they are still there.
The rocks are warm and the sun is setting.
And love is unfathomably wide
like the sky with its crowds of ivory sheep.
We're winding down. This was the old finale poem of the first set, the catch-all for all the lines that didn't make it into full-fledged poems. I've taken out about six points and added six more back in.
Grimm’s Primer on Forever After
after Grimm’s Fairy Tales, various stories
(April 28, 2021)
- Learn how to sweep; you'll be doing a lot of it until your prince arrives–because your siblings hate you and the dwarves aren’t running a freaking charity house.
- If a prince disguises himself as a stinky pauper to find a worthy bride, this will bring about the most contemptible behavior in all womankind, (selfishness, greed, poor fashion choices), excepting that very special lady who will be utterly patient and stunningly beautiful. If she were ugly, the prince would be forced to settle for one of the pretty rude ones.
- Your father loves you but will not stand up for you in conflicts involving his new wicked wife. In fact, he will look the other way while she forces you to sleep in fireplaces, thereby getting cinders in your hair; or she will banish you from the house altogether because some demonic looking glass has her believing she isn’t as cute as you are.
3.b Your father loves you but will do scary things like promise you off to marry homicidal sultans or temperamental beasts or claim you can spin straw to gold. When you can’t even spin-up a copper, you'll be forced to turn over your first-born child for the help of a dwarf, (not one of the legendary seven), unless you can guess his silly name in three days. But wild animals hate injustice and will always help you in the eleventh hour. See point 7 below.
- Sometimes your father will invite fairies to parties but won't have place settings for them all, and so the one snubbed fairy will curse you in revenge. Pricked by a paper cut, you'll fall asleep for one hundred years. Thorns will overtake your citadel and after a little while some brave prince who is into lifeless princesses will not be able to pass up a good opportunity and will kiss you while you’re all unawares. You’ll wake up and thank him profusely for breaking the curse and taking advantage of you like that.
- Don’t take poisonous potholders from wicked stepmothers disguised as ugly peddler witches. If you do, seven dwarves will save you. But don’t do it again. Don’t take poisonous combs from ugly peddler witches. Okay if you do, the dwarves will save you again. But whatever you do, don’t take delicious, poisonous, red apples from ugly peddler witches. Trust me on this one. Dwarves become enablers after a while. It’s no good.
- The best revenge is happiness. This usually involves great displays of wealth for some reason.
- Wild animals always pitch in to help the little guy: acting like spies, passing on pertinent information and finagling formal wear for you to wear to the big fairy prom.
- Cinderella was inadvertently coy and ran home with only one shoe. This is not to say you should try this at home but studies show some princes seem to respond to the melodrama of a good, unassuming tease.
- Most princes don't appear to do all that much–other than saving you from your distress. He probably drinks a lot to ward off the mind-crushing boredom.
- Many princes aren't that smart either. If your sister cuts off her toe to make the Powerball slipper fit, he will probably marry her by mistake. By the time he figures it out, things will get pretty bloody. But then he’ll probably make the same mistake again with the other sister.
- Likewise, frog princes will keep pursuing very haughty princesses who trick them into fetching golden balls from deep wells, even after the princesses call them nasty, stinky, slimy frogs–which they are, but still it hurts–before eventually running back to Daddy. Eventually the frog turns into a handsome prince, which is a good thing because the haughty princess was getting tired of deflecting his advances but can’t be expected to marry a frog, balls or no balls.
- The world is full of ugly beasts, (bulls, frogs, stinky paupers), who only need love to be transformed into handsome princes. The world is also full of ugly witches who put spells on handsome princes, thereby turning them into ugly beasts. It has never occurred to anyone to try to love a witch on the off-chance she might have accidentally placed a curse on herself.
- If imprisoned in a tower, heed the famous hairdresser Jose Eber’s advice and "shake your head, darling." A prince will use your hair like a ladder to visit you once in a while. But he’ll take his own sweet time saving you from your tower prison. You aren’t the first kept woman in the world. In fact, he’ll take so long your captor will catch on, steal your hair, and throw you out into the woods. Then when he returns, she will kick him from the tower window and he'll fall into the thorns below and be blinded. Eventually you'll be reunited in the woods and your tears will heal him. You will forget about how he completely botched the tower rescue.
- You have to overcome issues with your stepmother. Stop taking her calls. Let the answering service get it. Your father has lousy taste in women. Blame his mother.
- "Salagadoola mechicka boola bibbidi-bobbidi-boo" is not a substantiated spell. But "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" is surprisingly powerful.
- Chimney sweeps make delightful alternatives to princes.
- Godmothers are extremely busy and overbooked. If you need immediate assistance, see point 7 above.
- Princes, kings, queens and evil stepsisters will be constantly judging your character while you will be made to put up with theirs.
- The wise woman always lives alone on top of a mountain.
- Your myth is all-powerful.
- Shoes are not the answer.
- Everyone sings when strolling through the enchanted forest. Everybody.
- Tinkerbell pays for your sins. So repent, damsel.
- You twinkle best when no one is looking.
- There has never been a story told about what happens after forever after. Because to this day, nobody knows.
The penultimate poem! One day left! I kept a somewhat dramatic poem for this spot, a poem that came to me all of a sudden one early morning last year, one of those out of the ether things. Freud (or Sue Johanson for that matter) might have a picnic with this one. But there it is...a very modern fairy tale with a dash of Indiana Jones and a little tip of the hat to “The Silken Tent” by Robert Frost.
(April 29, 2021)
He is as in a desert a man made of sand
staggering toward the twilight of another tent
between the high mountains and the deep canyon
where a stiff wind is blowing through the night
and she is still awake in a room of scarce light
but even the blankets of dark cannot cover
the lantern’s glow, where he comes in with a limp
and a face full of suffering, where he kneels down
from exhaustion and there is sweat and tears
before he says, “Please let me see the diamond”
but she was groomed to guard that diamond
by warriors and women, to defend its rippling core
and piercing edges, and he clasps his hand
on her shoulder and then drops his forehead into her lap
and whispers, “Please, I’ve come so far…”
Wow! The month is over already. It went by fast for a NaPoWriMo month. What an amazing adventure this turned out to be. This poem is one of the original Scheherazade poems, but I would say it was severely underdeveloped and probably could still use some work ever after today.
The Sovereigns Abdicate
after "The 1001 Arabian Nights"
(April 30, 2021)
In the end the Sultan King renounced his title
and they moved far away. After many tales
the Sultan realized people are complicated
and Scheherazade realized she was safe.
After 1001 nights they bought a Magnavox
with a cordless remote which they fought over,
Scheherazade preferring ice skating tournaments
and the Sultan unwilling to miss documentaries
of military history. He was still cranky sometimes
and Scheherazade slammed many doors.
They brazenly stole each other's leftovers
and feelings; but the awkward power dynamic
subsided and later they took many Road Scholar trips
and learned how to raise orange trees,
arguing over proper grafting techniques
and making fun of each other's scarecrows.
Through the windows the weather came and went
and the trees grew taller and in the end
they ate everything they ever made.
Index of Stories:
"1001 Arabian Nights"
"The Princess on the Pea"
"The Little Match Girl"
"The Little Mermaid"
"The Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep"
"The Witch in the Stone Boat"
"The Princess Atalanta"
"Beauty and the Beast"
"The Ugly Duckling"
"The Blue Light"
"The Robber Bridgegroom"
"How the Elephant Got His Trunk"
"The Steadfast Tin Soldier"
The Wizard of Oz