Anne Sexton's "Briar Rose". An Armor of Words.
I have discovered that the poetry that works better for me is the one that--albeit metaphorically--has its deepest roots in life. I was reading this poem by Anne Sexton again a few days ago and I was struck by the cruelty it depicts. It's not about Briar Rose, or Sleeping Beauty, indeed. It's more about girls having to deal and cope with abusive fathers. Anne's strength comes alive within an armor of words. Can words be abusive? Certainly not as acts. But, even if they cannot kill they can perhaps be of help in effacing the past.
Consider a girl who keeps slipping off, arms limp as old carrots, into the hypnotist's trance, into a spirit world speaking with the gift of tongues. She is stuck in the time machine, suddenly two years old sucking her thumb, as inward as a snail, learning to talk again. She's on a voyage. She is swimming further and further back, up like a salmon, struggling into her mother's pocketbook. Little doll child, come here to Papa. Sit on my knee. I have kisses for the back of your neck. A penny for your thoughts, Princess. I will hunt them like an emerald. Come be my snooky and I will give you a root. That kind of voyage, rank as a honeysuckle. Once a king had a christening for his daughter Briar Rose and because he had only twelve gold plates he asked only twelve fairies to the grand event. The thirteenth fairy, her fingers as long and thing as straws, her eyes burnt by cigarettes, her uterus an empty teacup, arrived with an evil gift. She made this prophecy: The princess shall prick herself on a spinning wheel in her fifteenth year and then fall down dead. Kaputt! The court fell silent. The king looked like Munch's Scream Fairies' prophecies, in times like those, held water. However the twelfth fairy had a certain kind of eraser and thus she mitigated the curse changing that death into a hundred-year sleep. The king ordered every spinning wheel exterminated and exorcised. Briar Rose grew to be a goddess and each night the king bit the hem of her gown to keep her safe. He fastened the moon up with a safety pin to give her perpetual light He forced every male in the court to scour his tongue with Bab-o lest they poison the air she dwelt in. Thus she dwelt in his odor. Rank as honeysuckle. On her fifteenth birthday she pricked her finger on a charred spinning wheel and the clocks stopped. Yes indeed. She went to sleep. The king and queen went to sleep, the courtiers, the flies on the wall. The fire in the hearth grew still and the roast meat stopped crackling. The trees turned into metal and the dog became china. They all lay in a trance, each a catatonic stuck in a time machine. Even the frogs were zombies. Only a bunch of briar roses grew forming a great wall of tacks around the castle. Many princes tried to get through the brambles for they had heard much of Briar Rose but they had not scoured their tongues so they were held by the thorns and thus were crucified. In due time a hundred years passed and a prince got through. The briars parted as if for Moses and the prince found the tableau intact. He kissed Briar Rose and she woke up crying: Daddy! Daddy! Presto! She's out of prison! She married the prince and all went well except for the fear -- the fear of sleep. Briar Rose was an insomniac... She could not nap or lie in sleep without the court chemist mixing her some knock-out drops and never in the prince's presence. If if is to come, she said, sleep must take me unawares while I am laughing or dancing so that I do not know that brutal place where I lie down with cattle prods, the hole in my cheek open. Further, I must not dream for when I do I see the table set and a faltering crone at my place, her eyes burnt by cigarettes as she eats betrayal like a slice of meat. I must not sleep for while I'm asleep I'm ninety and think I'm dying. Death rattles in my throat like a marble. I wear tubes like earrings. I lie as still as a bar of iron. You can stick a needle through my kneecap and I won't flinch. I'm all shot up with Novocain. This trance girl is yours to do with. You could lay her in a grave, an awful package, and shovel dirt on her face and she'd never call back: Hello there! But if you kissed her on the mouth her eyes would spring open and she'd call out: Daddy! Daddy! Presto! She's out of prison. There was a theft. That much I am told. I was abandoned. That much I know. I was forced backward. I was forced forward. I was passed hand to hand like a bowl of fruit. Each night I am nailed into place and forget who I am. Daddy? That's another kind of prison. It's not the prince at all, but my father drunkeningly bends over my bed, circling the abyss like a shark, my father thick upon me like some sleeping jellyfish. What voyage is this, little girl? This coming out of prison? God help -- this life after death?