In 1902, W.B. Yeats—according to his unused preface for Ideas of Good and Evil—told James Joyce that he had based his recent plays “on emotions or stories that I had got out of folklore.”[i] Yeats also imbued the folk tradition in his Red Hanrahan stories in The Secret Rose, and collected Sligo County oral tales in Celtic Twilight. Joyce called Yeats’s practice “deteriorating” but borrowed and revised Irish myth himself, first in a short story, “Clay,” and most notably in Finnegans Wake.
Yeats’s Red Hanrahan character is an itinerant Gael poet, an amalgamation of historical precedent and folk legend. Hanrahan fits Maria Tymoczko’s concept of pseudotranslation: “a literary work that purports to be a translation but in fact has no original.”[ii] The malleability inherent to oral tradition and the subsequent coloring of character and description across generations makes fables particularly appropriate to such pseudotranslation.
Sarah Goldstein, in her appendix to Fables, notes inspiration from, and modification of, selected fairy tales, from the Brothers Grimm to selected European traditions. Regardless of the genesis of these prose poems and vignettes, Goldstein’s vision and approach is wholly new. Her work in this collection is more than translation and transcription: Fables contains poems that whisper tradition but fully stand on their own.
Goldstein resists the mere modernization of folklore that might mar a lesser book. The pieces are devoid of proper nouns, settings are clearly pastoral but not particular, and the supernatural background of the tales remains comfortably other. Think the pastoral-focused films of Ingmar Bergman: the ethereal Smultronstället, the haunting Jungfrukällan. The book begins with a one-poem “Grim” section, where metamorphoses abound, and the iconic animal of the collection, a bird, is introduced.
The title section of the book fills the bulk of the collection, with numbered, independent fables connected by recursive description and diction. Certain elements return, including sometimes orphaned, often displaced children; the supernatural, Hawthornian forest; and anthropomorphic animals. Goldstein leans into her narratives, leaving the reader convinced that matter has been chiseled away, likely to the benefit of cohesion. One piece begins: “The girl comes clambering up the hill from the meadow to the house, whispering the message into her hands.” Soft sentences for soft speech, and Goldstein counters with strange imagery: “Her mother is on the floor in the corner, curled with her fingers in her mouth. The rabbit her father tossed on the counter for stew has awakened, and they watch as it lurches toward the window.” The argument that Fables resides closer to poems than prose exists within these lines. Goldstein has clearly hoped the reader will savor these words, and that goal is reached. Well-placed commas turn the sentences, moving represented subject into action. The resurrected rabbit escapes, and cat-killed mice join in the rebirth, as they “now stagger across the rough-hewn floors.”
The appeal of fable has always been in these quick offerings, the possibility of magic without explanation, the uneven ending. Add to that mix a requisite darkness. A later poem begins: “After enduring many years of abuse, the children decide to do away with their father.” Fright is presented as commonplace, and a girl’s suggestion that “a burned corpse is harder to identify” is offered without emotion. A few poems forward, other girls “hold each other’s hands and wade into the shallowest part of the pond, shivering violently,” training their “underwater breathing.” Goldstein does not shy from surreal violence elsewhere: foxes and coyotes gain revenge on a boy for hanging a goat, and three other boys find a burned house, including “charred remains of two horses that were tied to a tree.”
Of the final sections, “Ghosts” is the most intriguing. Gems include the return of an avian touch: “Has a bird ever flown too close to you?” A close bird might be the result of its “warp and swerve around these restless forms,” the vague presence of spirits. Birds, so easy in flight, are also easy hosts for these ghosts, since “an animal has no means of self-analysis.” And humans? We are less attractive, since “our souls weigh so heavily upon” the foreign form. Goldstein is able to song her characters into possession, and even her direct sentences—“Wait for the crows over dark rows of corn”—are delivered with gentle consonance.
Fables is also noteworthy for its contributions to the organic conversation of narrative form. The collection might be considered a book of prose poems, but strict definitions only muddle the power of the stories. The works certainly build toward a final line, and yet the profluence of the narrative builds in epigrammatic snippets, crafted with laudable precision. Goldstein opts for the sideways glance, the unfocused focus. What is not told to the reader is enticing: when “dogs of the town lie in a heap and cough, shuddering with every breath,” an entire architecture of apocalypse remains in the silent background. The power of fable, and Fables, has always been folks' ability to give blurry shapes to concrete fears, to convince the listener that the corners of the supernatural can be flushed with light just as easily as they have been shadowed dark.
[i] Ellmann, Richard. James Joyce. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford, 1982. p. 102.
[ii] Tymoczko, Maria. The Irish Ulysses. Berkeley: U of California P, 1994. p. 342.
Nick Ripatrazone is the author of Oblations (Gold Wake Press 2011). His writing has appeared in Esquire, the Kenyon Review, West Branch, Colorado Review, the Mississippi Review, Puerto del Sol, Notre Dame Review, Southeast Review, and Beloit Fiction Journal.
Tarpaulin Sky Press: 2011