reviewed by David J. Bauman
Imagine if the brothers Grimm had a modern sister. Think of Sondheim’s lyrics from Into the Woods expanded to include the stories of Alice in Wonderland and the Cheshire Cat, along with Peter Rabbit‘s wife. If you can envision all of this, you’ll be just at the beginning of preparing yourself for the darkness and humor of Marjorie Maddox’s chapbook, Wives’ Tales.
In the first section, entitled “The Tales,” we meet a cast of fairy tale characters including Goldilocks, the Three Bears, the Wolf of Little Red Riding hood fame as well as the shepherd’s wolf from “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” But these and others come a bit colored and skewed from how we usually view them. Here we learn “The Truth about Mother Goose,” that “She is no peasant woman . . . she is a fine-feathered horror.”
In “Golden Hair” we are presented with multiple chilling versions of the curious trouble maker, by date, the final one almost of our own era:
She’s never read Miss Manners,
understood Gloria Steinem.
She has a love-hate relationship with bears.
Maddox travels even further back in fairy tale lore to 1636, Italy in “Sleeping Talia” to meet a “not-so-noble-nobleman” who takes advantage of a sleeping princess.
This time awake, you kiss
back, welcome him
in. You are fifteen. You are not
The lines are dark and haunting as the Prince’s true bride has plans of revenge.
The moon is someone you know, laughing.
The moon is watching the royal hunters. They are watching
you, how night unravels into more dark. Their arrows split
your children’s breathing.
For another princess we discover, “It was not the pea.” She had “dropped hints about the test / to some dull page” and the legend began from her own telling. “Where is that line / that marks the lie and crimps the back? / Each memory is hard, the darkness round.”
Whereas the wives in the first section are often secondary characters and villains, the ones in section two, “The Wives,” take center stage and counterbalance the bumbling husbands like Peter Pan and another Peter we’ve read about:
Keeps me very well? Hell
should be so orange. My hands
smell of it. Bits of shell
beneath my nails. I can’t
turn around, brea, breathe, He yells
Even Peter Rabbit and Pete Rose—Okay, so they’re not all fairy tale characters—show up, flanked by wives who illuminate a side of each that posterity has overlooked. “Peter, sense / is not your strength. The kids / dream of bullets, blood and traps,” says Mrs. Rabbit. Mrs. Rose levies the stern critique, “For years you saw your Reds as green, / your bat as gold,” and takes no back-talk, insisting, “This is my league.”
The entire chapbook with its dark humor and somber tones makes for a serious romp around Never Land and Nursery Rhymes, with unique perspectives and surprising insights. Marjorie reveals truths of the everyday through oneiric lenses. Consider the poem “Lorre, “ which contemplates the psyche of another non-fiction character, actor Peter Lorre, who portrays old-school black and white movie villains. It’s hard not to hear these words from his own wife directed at ourselves:“You say you can’t escape / yourself, the hundred shapes you’ve taken . . . Depraved is what you dream of.”
David J. Bauman’s poems have been published in places like 2 Bridges Review, Barely South Review, San Pedro River Review, and Contemporary American Voices. He’s a recipient of the University Prize from the Academy of American Poets, and his chapbook Moons, Roads, and Rivers was published by Finishing Line Press. He manages a small branch library in Wilkes-Barre, PA, where he edits Word Fountain, the Literary Magazine of the Osterhout Free Library.