moon poem



We decided the dog will travel back and forth with the kids.

Shark-toothed weeds edged the moon pool,

and your brow creased as though dreaming.

There’s no point talking, you said,

if we’re going to get emotional.


Last night she lay across the threshold

of my bedroom as lunacy struck and shed

its merciless light.


My plan is to stick to routines. I choose

the wagging tail for my journey between the towers,

the lolling tongue.



For a couple of months now I’ve noticed this same card popping up over and over in my tarot readings. It’s not a bad way to begin a new year: a youngling leaving the nest, setting out on a journey into the unknown, trusting to luck. But the Fool can be unsettling card, too. I mean, just look at that cliff.


I looked up the Fool in Sallie Nichols’ book Jung and the Tarot and really liked what I found.

The Fool, archetypally speaking, is something of a shit disturber. He’s a truth-teller, but he doesn’t usually make much rational sense. In fact, disrupting reason is one of his primary functions in literature, especially where reason is being abused by those who seek power (e.g., in King Lear). Nichols points to the flower children of the 60s and the deadheads of the 70s as exemplars of the Fool’s playful-yet-serious anti-establishment impulse.

According to Nichols, literary tradition teaches us three ways to deal properly with the Fool: 1. Admit him at court and seat him at the royal table. In other words, be tolerant but keep a close eye on him. 2. Set aside periods of universal permissiveness and revelry: Saturnalia, Fastnacht, Mardi Gras, Feast of Fools. 3. Freely admit to and laugh at our own foolishness whenever it’s pointed out to us.

What am I supposed to do with this trickster? How do I embrace his playful, deregulating force for myself without letting it devolve me into shambles? Well, music seems to have something to do with it. Dancing, maybe. Certainly laughter.

My friend Rahul informs me that in the Baghavad Gita, Krishna (God) is a player, in several senses of the word. He fools around, he flirts, he flouts conventional morality. He knows that life is ‘leela’ (a play), and we mustn’t become too attached to our roles. It’s all fun and games. This is why Krishna plays the flute.

Hey, I thought, reflecting on all this, it might be fun to make a Fool puppet sometime. Then I remembered that I’d already done that 20 years ago. I dug him out of his box:


best Deadwood quotes


I’m late to the rumour that Deadwood might become a movie. Late, and extremely excited. Watching this show I used to press pause every five minutes to write down my favourite lines. Shakespearean syntax + facedown-in-the-gutter profanity = goosebumps-inducing dialogue. Here are some of the g-rated gems:

Truth is, as a base of operations, you cannot beat a saloon.

Hereforth, in a calamity, I’ll be sure to send for Jane.

Short of burning it all down, you got to trust someone.

I’d as soon as try to touch the moon as take on what a whore’s thinking.

I’m the simple type of man that, seeing lightning, looks for thunder, and finding thunder understands it as part of the same storm.

I don’t collude and I don’t cahoot.

You coulda just said “Amen,” Reverend.

He may have checked out short a useful amount of blood.

You do not want to be a dirt-worshiping heathen from this point forward.

Wild Bill Hickok: You know the sound of thunder, Mrs. Garret?
Alma Garret: Of course.
Wild Bill Hickok: Can you imagine that sound if I asked you to?
Alma Garret: Yes, I can, Mr. Hickok.
Wild Bill Hickok: Your husband and me had this talk, and I told him to head home to avoid a dark result. But I didn’t say it in thunder. Ma’am, listen to the thunder.


PS: The character of Calamity Jane, played by the inimitable Robin Weigert, served as a kind of personal archetype for me a few years back. I wrote about it here.


good art is contagious: students make fairy tales


It’s that time in the semester when I eat, sleep and breathe fairy tales. The students in the two sections of my Fairy Tales & Fantasies class have had some practice, by now, at identifying the common bloodlines from one variant to another and discerning how the different cultural contexts affect the stories. Class discussion is lively and insightful, particularly for the 8:00am start time.

They’ve also been making their own fairy tales. The Fairy Tale Redux assignment, worth 1/3 of their grade for the term, asks them to pick a tale, any tale, and re-mount it in whichever way they think will best illuminate something new about the story and show off their creative skills.

It’s harder than it sounds. There are time limits, adaptation challenges, group work frustrations, technical difficulties–and I insist they write an Artist Statement that justifies their approach on a theoretical and aesthetic level.

Sara Jo is a philosophy major who signed up for my course because she’s interested in knowing more about deep story structures in human psychology and culture. She is a gift to have in class: deeply curious, intellectually courageous, highly adept at thinking and speaking on her feet.

For her FT Redux, Sara Jo focused on Rapunzel. She wrote a free-verse meditation inspired by a specific claim in the Grimm Brothers’ variant: that Rapunzel sings from her window in the tower, and her song is what first attracts the Prince passing by in the forest. And Sara Jo decided to illustrate her poetry with hand-drawn tarot cards that capture the archetypal significance of key motifs in the story. What more can I possibly say about this?? You need to see it for yourself, right here:

as sibyl, she sang

lesser-known tales: Little Louse and Little Flea

A little louse and a little flea were living together in a house and were brewing beer in an eggshell when the louse fell in and was scalded. Then the flea began to scream as loud as he could, and the little door to the room asked:

‘Why are you screaming, little flea?’

‘Because little louse has been scalded.’

Then the little door began to creak, and a little broom in the corner asked, ‘Why are you creaking, little door?’

‘Why shouldn’t I creak? Little louse has just got scalded. Little flea is weeping.”

‘Well, then I’m going to break my little water jug,’ said the maiden, and as she was breaking it, the little spring from which the water came asked, ‘Maiden, why are you breaking the little water jug?’

‘Why shouldn’t I break it? Little louse has just got scalded. Little flea is weeping. Little door is creaking. Little broom is sweeping. Little cart is racing. Little dung heap is burning. Little tree is shaking.’

‘Goodness gracious!’ said the little spring. ‘Then I’m going to flow,’ and it began to flow so violently that they were all drowned in the water–the maiden, the little tree, the little dung heap, the little cart, the little door, the little flea, and the little louse, every last one of them.

from Zipes, Jack (ed. and trans.) The Complete First Edition, the Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Princeton UP, 2014.

read more lesser-known tales

Mermaids: Hans Christian Andersen vs. Disney

Disney’s The Little Mermaid came out in 1990, a few years before most of my students were born. They all watched the DVD as tots, and so Hans Christian Andersen’s original 1836 story (on their required reading list) is a shock and, for many, a disappointment. Spunky Ariel, with her sassy seashell bra and her adorable sidekick Flounder, is leagues away from Andersen’s melancholy mermaid.

Hans C. A.’s tales tend toward the emotionally ambiguous. Think bittersweet. (Remember the Little Match Girl? She freezes to death while hallucinating herself in her deceased grandmother’s arms.) His heroines model servility and sacrifice, trading in their earthly woes for the promise of heavenly reward. mermaid

The unnamed little mermaid in Andersen’s story suffers horrific physical pain at her transformation, “as if a two-edged sword went through her delicate body: she fell into a swoon, and lay like one dead.” Every step on land is torture for her, “as if treading upon the points of needles or sharp knives.” In the end the prince marries another girl, and the mermaid dies. Luckily (?) her sisters cut off their hair for the sea witch (more sacrifice!) so that she’ll be permitted to join the “daughters of the air” and be granted an immortal soul after 300 years.

The-Little-Mermaid-BannerWhat Disney does with this twisted, soggy handkerchief of a story is restore a lot of the fairy tale tropes Andersen abandoned. The songs are Disney’s own contribution to the fairy-tale genre, but they fit right in with the oral tradition of the folk tale and its hearthside/market/festival tellings. From Disney we get the traditional talking animal helpers, who bring the skills of the trickster to Ariel’s aid. We get the dramatic power struggle in which the little guys, the nobodies, win out over the rich and powerful. We see a clear boundary between good and evil, and the meting out of justice in the end. And of course we get the happy ending! The wedding! The tearful “I love you, Daddy!” from Ariel.

Disney’s Little Mermaid is every bit as sentimental as Andersen’s version. But in an earthier, more human way–much closer to the way of the old stories.

lesser-known tales: The Hand With the Knife

But the little girl had an admirer who was an elf and lived in a hill near her mother’s house.Whenever she went by the hill, he would stretch out his hand from the rocky slope and offer her a knife that had miraculous powers and could cut through anything. She used this knife to cut out the peat and would finish her work quickly.

So the brothers crept after her and watched her receive the magic knife. They overtook her and forced her to give it to them. Then they returned to the rocky slope, knocked the way she had always done, and when the good elf reached out his hand, they cut it off with his very own knife. The bloody arm drew back, and since the elf believed that his beloved had betrayed him, he was never seen after that.

from Zipes, Jack (ed. and trans.) The Complete First Edition, the Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Princeton UP, 2014.

lesser-known tales: How Some Children Played at Slaughtering

They chose one boy to play a butcher, another boy was to be a cook, and a third boy was to be a pig…As agreed, the butcher now fell upon the little boy playing the pig, threw him to the ground, and slit his throat open with a knife, while the assistant cook caught the blood in her little bowl.

One of the councilmen, a wise old man, advised the chief judge to take a beautiful red apple in one hand an a Rhenish gold coin in the other. Then he was to call the boy and stretch out his hands to him. If the boy took the apple, he was to be set free. If he took the gold coin, he was to be killed.

from Zipes, Jack (ed. and trans.) The Complete First Edition, the Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Princeton UP, 2014.

on kissing frogs

Frog King2

Polling my students the other day, I was surprised to learn that only about half of them know the story of the Frog Prince. The golden ball down the well? I prompted. Let me eat from your plate and sleep on your pillow? Nope. The DVD release of the Disney library through the late 1990s and early 2000s ensured they’d all have Snow White and Little Mermaid and Aladdin in their blood, but a lot of the picture-book fairy tales seem to have passed them by.

In my novel Mad Miss Mimic there’s a scene where the main character is sitting happily in the parlour next to her handsome suitor Mr. Thornfax, and her aunt comments that she looks like the princess with her golden ball. “Wouldn’t that make me the loathsome frog?” Mr. Thornfax asks her.

Now I’m worried my YA readers won’t know what the heck my characters are talking about. This is one of my deepest fears: that my English Professorhood disqualifies me from writing anything people will actually enjoy reading.

And yet, I also really want everyone to know the story of the Frog Prince. In fact I think everyone should be familiar with this story and as many other as possible of these deep-roots stories of the western world.

In every edition of their collected tales, the Grimm brothers put the Frog Prince first. Their earliest edition of the story, called “The Frog King, or Iron Heinrich” is particularly groovy, for two reasons:

1) There’s no frog-kissing in it whatsoever. The transformation from amphibian to handsome prince happens like this: The princess is so grossed out at the thought of sleeping with the frog that she picks him up and hurls him against her bedroom wall. When he ricochets back onto her bed he’s gorgeous, and we’re told, “Well, now indeed he did become her dear companion, and she cherished him as she had promised, and in their delight they fell asleep together.” (Isn’t it great how so much bed-centered activity is contained in the gentle word “cherished,” here?)

2) Iron Henry! I mean, what is this guy even doing in this story? He makes an appearance only belatedly, after the happily-ever-after part. Henry was a servant so saddened by his master the prince being turned to a frog that he had three iron bands cast around his heart to stop it from breaking. After the transformation back, the happy couple hears a loud crack from the back of the carriage. “It’s really nothing but the band around my heart [breaking off],” Henry assures them. And because this is a fairy tale, where things happen in threes, they have to pull over twice more for the same reason.

frog king1

lesser-known tales: Riffraff

Early the next morning, as the sun was rising and everyone was asleep, the rooster woke the hen, fetched the egg, pecked it open, and together they devoured it. After throwing the shells on the hearth, they went to the needle, who was still asleep, grabbed him by the head, and stuck him into the innkeeper’s easy chair. Then they stuck the pin into the innkeeper’s towel. Finally, without much ado, they flew away over the heath.

Then he swore he would never again let riffraff stay at his inn, especially when they eat so much, pay nothing, and play mean tricks on top of it all.

from Zipes, Jack (ed. and trans.) The Complete First Edition, the Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Princeton UP, 2014.

illustration Elizabeth Fox