The Grim Truth of Folk and Fairy Tales: The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison by Maggie Smith

Kate Fox

North Adams, MA: Tupelo Press, 2015. 65 pages. $16.95.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

Maggie Smith navigates the parallel worlds of fantasy and reality in her latest collection, The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison, mapping those points where language functions either as a bridge or an abyss between the two. Drawing upon folk and fairy tales passed down from several sources—many with common and familiar themes—Smith draws a darker, more truthful narrative from the “Happily Ever After” tales we have come to know through the Brothers Grimm and Disney.

As Jack Zipes reminds us in his introduction to Pantheon’s 2006 release of The Complete First Edition: The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, the brothers collected the tales from all manner of storytellers—many of them women—and sanitized them over the years, eliminating matricide, incestuous relationships, out-of-wedlock pregnancies, fratricide, familial jealousies, and a host of other unsavory topics considered unsuitable for children.

Smith returns to these murkier versions in many of her poems to tease out the deeper lessons embedded there. For example, in “Seven Disappointments (1),” the tale of “The Seven Ravens” becomes a context for giving advice to the mother in the story:

Do not rush to baptize your daughter
in the well. Do not send your seven sons
with a jug. . . .

. . . I’ll tell you
how it ends: Your daughter will learn
the truth. She will search for her brothers

and bring them home. Maybe this is what
you wanted. But do not give her bread,
a pitcher of water, a little chair. Her guilt
is beyond hunger, thirst, weariness.

And these things will do no good in a world
where children, despite their commonness,
are a delicacy. . . .

What Smith realizes, as the tellers of these tales did before her, is that children, in spite of their innocence, are not ignorant—nor are they immune to—the realities of the world. They are privy to them on a personal—sometimes intimate—level exactly because they are vulnerable, “a delicacy.” They believe what they’re told, but they also experience what surrounds them, an impersonal reality that can sometimes unexpectedly turn deadly.

In “An Island at the Movies,” Smith highlights this uncomfortable truth by adopting the voice of a child who convinces her younger sister to crawl into a sewer pipe by telling her about the fantasy world she’ll find inside: “My sister crawled inside, and the darkness sort of / ate her. . . . / When she stopped / calling Polo, I ran home and said I hadn’t seen her. . . . / I wanted to believe / the fable I told myself—that the missing and dead / were together somewhere, . . . / with no phones for telling us they’re all right, . . . / That she crawled toward a pinhole of pink-gold light. . . . / That what I’d promised was real. . . . ”

This theme of “telling”—what we are told and what we are not told—recurs most strongly in a series of eight “Apologues” interspersed throughout the collection. Each Apologue, which begins and ends with a common opening and closing line drawn from traditional folktales, addresses the reader in a progression of endearing, diminutive, and telling nicknames: “Little Torn Shoe,” “Little Bead of Mercury,” “Little Gilded Key,” “Little Patch of Bloodstained Snow,” “Little Fruit Fallen from the Heavens.” The speaker in “Apologue 1” begins: “In the land where all is forgotten, where no one remembers anything,” and goes on to declare, “Little Gold Pin, many things we tell / our children are kind but not true. The reverse is also true.”

As the poems progress, the speaker goes further, choosing truth over kindness: “This is what no one tells you. . . . there’s darkness you’ve never seen. . . . Vulnerability can turn a body inside out. . . . ” (“Ohio”); “No one is out of danger.” (“Village Smart”). “ . . . [W]e must depend on these bodies that rot. . . . / When the body’s gone we have nowhere to live” (“Apologue 7”). The speaker reminds us throughout these poems of our own mortality, from which no enchantment or spell can save us.

Smith’s poems return to the dark heart of fairy tales, where the listener, “Little Key on a Velvet Cord,” is told “bad things happen, no matter how good you are.” Men transform into predators, children get lost, mothers play favorites or abandon their children, love comes at great cost, and “No one was preserved” (“The List of Dangers”).

Yet there is something strangely familiar and comforting in these poems. Perhaps we are conditioned to respond to the sure voice of “Once Upon a Time,” its ability to unbuckle us from the present where we lie abed or sit curved in a loved one’s lap, and its power to transport us safely into the travails of others’ lives without suffering the consequences—yet. As the speaker declares in “Fundevagel,” “Maybe as long as we are / touching, nothing can harm us.”

These poems acknowledge that the well may be poisoned, but it is a deep well, and it has given itself the power of speech. It can warn us. In that warning, given freely to “Babes in the Wood,”—all of us children who will be lost to darkness and death, Smith unearths the deepest moral from these tales: that we can face the truth (“The trees turned dark and took me with them”), speak it to one another, and through some mystical, magical, enchanted gift, still survive.

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