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A Poisonous Antidote: On Anne Sexton’s ‘Transformations’

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Transformations, Anne Sexton’s 1971 collection of poems, is a portal. The front cover, our entrance, is a drawing of a peasant and a raven, taken from the Brothers Grimm tale “The Little Peasant.” During a storm, a traveling peasant seeks shelter at a mill. The miller’s wife is home alone, and she gives the peasant food, drink, and apparently much more. The miller returns home, and his wife is frightened that he will discover her infidelity. The peasant diverts the husband’s wrath by presenting a raven wrapped in cowhide as a soothsayer.

The peasant is a trickster, one transformed. His wizened face is the proper entrance to this experience. Our exit is of the now-defunct, full-page author photograph variety: Anne Sexton sitting on a screened-in porch. She wears a white dress and sits in a wicker chair, holding a half-smoked cigarette. Sexton is curator, narrator; she who transforms. She opens the collection with a frame: “The speaker in this case / is a middle-aged witch, me.” She implores her readers to “draw near,” and asks, even at 56 years old, “Do you remember when you / were read to as a child?” She laments our adult loss of wonder and terror. She offers this book as a poisonous antidote.

Transformations feels so absolutely a product of the early ’70s. Poems from the book appeared in Cosmopolitan and Playboy. The experience of reading Sexton’s poems mirrors a child finding and scouring through Grimm’s tales in a wood-paneled basement during that decade. Huddled in a dark corner within a brightly-lit suburb, she sees another, older, darker world — while surrounded by board games, extension cords, and Christmas decorations.

Sexton dedicated the book to her daughter Linda, “who reads Hesse and drinks clam chowder.” It is the only book of poetry that contains a preface by Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut met Sexton at a party, and drew her a story diagram for Cinderella.

Sexton was already retelling the Grimm fairy tales, a manuscript that would become Transformations. Vonnegut has high praise for Sexton: “she domesticates my terror, examines it and describes it, teaches it some tricks which will amuse me, then lets it gallop wild in my forest once more.” “How do I explain these poems?,” he wonders. “Not at all.” Vonnegut’s preface reads like the gasp of an admirer, who seeks not to explain but to bear witness.

Sexton injects the modern world into Grimm’s fairy tales, but does so by inserting mundane references and contemporary mood. The result is poems with the architecture of archetype but modern anxiety. She inserts prefatory poems before the tales proper. Some prefaces, as for “The White Snake,” connect narrator to transformation: “I knew that the voice / of the spirits had been let in–/ as intense as an epileptic aura–/and that no longer would I sing / alone.” Others, as for “Rumpelstiltskin,” connect past to present: “He speaks up as tiny as an earphone / with Truman’s asexual voice.”

In Sexton’s re-telling of that tale, a miller says his daughter could spin gold from straw. The land’s king locks her in a room, where “she would die like a criminal…Poor thing. / To die and never see Brooklyn.” The modern creeps into “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” with the virgin’s “cheeks as fragile as cigarette paper.” Or when the queen “dressed herself in rags / and went out like a peddler to trap Snow White,” and wraps lacing “as tight as an Ace bandage” around Snow White. The marriage of legend with Limoges is quite surreal.

Sexton also documents the secret transformations that surround us. From “Red Riding Hood:”
The suburban matron,
proper in the supermarket,
list in hand so she won’t suddenly fly,
buying her Duz and Chuck Wagon dog food,
meanwhile ascending from earth,
letting her stomach fill up with helium,
letting her arms go loose as kite tails,
getting ready to meet her lover
a mile down Apple Crest Road
in the Congregational Church parking lot.
Other than the cleverness of her updates, Sexton delivers stirring lines. “Rapunzel” begins “A woman / who loves a woman / is forever young.” In another tale, the narrator notes “The unusual needs to be commented upon.” I have always thought of Anne Sexton in tandem with Sylvia Plath for this exact line. Sexton and Plath are often coupled because of their suicides, but they are connected in poetry through their spinning of the unusual. Consider Plath’s “Sow,” her ode to a “Mire-smirched, blowzy” marvel that had been “impounded from public stare, / Prize ribbon and pig show.” From “Pheasant:” “It startles me still, / the jut of that odd, dark head, pacing / through the uncut grass on the elm’s hill.”  Sexton’s poetry feels like it has consistently more thorns than Plath’s, whose movement toward myth felt more folk than dark.

I also return to Transformations because it is a God-soaked book. There are small touches, as when Hansel and Gretel’s mother “gave them / each a hunk of bread / like a page out of the Bible,” as well as an overall tone that reflects the detritus of Sexton’s Protestant upbringing. Her final book was the posthumously published The Awful Rowing Toward God. An epigraph to her earlier poem “The Starry Night,” is an excerpt from Van Gogh’s letter to his brother: “That does not keep me from having a terrible need of — shall I say the word — religion. Then I go out at night to paint the stars.”

Sexton corresponded for years with Brother Dennis Farrell, a Benedictine monk from California. Sexton’s letters are whimsical. She “wishes you’d convert my doubt to belief” but “knows you won’t cuz it ain’t that easy.” She had been reading The Way of the Cross: “I like it. I see it twice, through my eyes and through yours…I think of Mary…I wonder what she felt…What was she wearing? How long was her labor? Things like that…it is the poet in me that wants to know. The book is giving me a new insight and love and understanding of Jesus and of his humanity.” She even sent the monk a draft of a poem that she “dared not publish” for she wonders “if it insults Christ…for I will change the last two lines if they do not work.”

Farrell apparently fell in love with Sexton, decided to leave his monastery, and hoped to see her. Sexton responded in a long, recursive, passionate missive, but her rejoinder is firm: “Our letters…no matter how direct and human they may seem to you are not to be compared to a direct relationship.” In an earlier letter she indirectly warned that “people think poets are in touch with some mystical power and they endow us with qualities we do not possess and love us for words that we only wrote for ambition and not for love.” The monk had forgotten a poet’s letters of love are poems, not truth.

In the notes to Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters, Sexton’s daughter and Lois Ames explain that following the “gradual dissolution of her deepest relationships,” when Sexton’s “friends provided less and less support, she turned to God for comfort.” She would “read Xeroxed weekly sermons from a church in Dedham” and became friends with the pastor. Sexton was not a traditional convert. Her God was a personal revision of the Protestant God she had found so wanting.

That revision is reflected in the tone within Transformations. Vernon Young, in one of the first reviews of the book, called the poems “occasionally vulgar, often brilliant, nearly always hilarious,” and the complementing drawings “importunate and macabre; Gothic and placental.” Barbara Swan’s work is the perfect twin to Sexton:

I return to Transformations to be snatched back to the past. The most disturbing story-memory from my own childhood is the scene in Rumpelstiltskin when the queen’s messenger saw a fire burning in front of a little house: “Around that fire a ridiculous little man / was leaping on one leg and singing: / Today I bake. / Tomorrow I brew my beer. / The next day the queen’s only child will be mine.” I think it was the proximity of mundane life and legend, of joy and horror. Sexton inhales the Brothers Grimm and exhales something darker and newer, all while sitting in a white dress on a white wicker chair, smirking at us.

Praise the Colophon: Twenty Notes on Type

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Writers, praise the typographers and designers: our words are in their hands.

Bookshelves line the walls of my office. The room is small, and with the door closed, it feels comfortably claustrophobic with words. Lately my twin daughters pull books from the bottom shelves. They laugh while forming piles of prose and poetry. Transformations by Anne Sexton is splayed next to The Origin of the Brunists by Robert Coover, which smothers The Comedians by Graham Greene. My girls smile, then run away while I assess the wreckage. While returning the books to the shelves, I found Players by Don DeLillo opened to “A Note on the Type.” A colophon.

Colophons are sometimes the last words of books; the Greek origin of the word means “finishing stroke.” They are the end credits of literature. Colophons are the ticket out of the imagined world and back to the world of late trains and heating bills. Although often formal and informative, colophons are also peppered with personality. Handwritten colophons first appeared in 6th century manuscripts. The first printed colophon appeared in the second book printed by movable type, the Mainz Psalter, created by Johann Fust and Peter Schoeffer in 1457. The original colophon appears below, in Latin. Here is the translation by Douglas C. McMurtrie, from his comprehensive history: The Book: the Story of Printing & Bookmaking.
The present copy of the Psalms, adorned with beauty of capital letters, and sufficiently marked out with rubrics, has been thus fashioned by an ingenious invention of printing and stamping without any driving of the pen, and to the worship of God has been diligently brought to completion by Johann Fust, a citizen of Mainz, and Peter Schoeffer of Gernsheim, in the year of the Lord 1457, on the vigil of the Feast of the Assumption.

Three years later, the colophon for Catholicon, a 13th century Latin dictionary written by Joannes Balbus, asserts it was printed “without help of reed, stylus, or pen, but by the wondrous agreement, proportion, and harmony of punches and types.” Wonder. Harmony. Letters.

Players was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1977. Fifty years earlier, an essay “Cult of the Colophon” appeared in Publishers Weekly. Skillin & Gay’s Words into Type notes that “In the early days of bookmaking, the colophon appeared on the last page of the book and gave most of the details now shown on the title page,” which accounts for the word’s other usage “for publisher’s device, trademark, or symbol” — elements that have now migrated from the end of the book to the spine and title page. Think The Modern Library colophon of a torchbearer. Jay Satterfield notes the “colophon’s twentieth-century revitalization as a quality trademark was symptomatic of literature’s commodification, although it drew on a tradition of fine printing consciously detached from commercial interests by its aesthetic progenitors.” Usage of colophons “by trade publishers illuminates a modern melding of interests: publishing sought to maintain an air of disinterested dignity associated with art and literature, yet also yearned for sales potential modern commercialization promised.”

Knopf said “a good-looking and well-made book will never do its author any harm anywhere at any time.” He attracted some of the nation’s finest typographers, although in Beauty and the Book, her consideration of fine book ownership in America, Megan Benton shows how some of those typographers thought that the Knopf colophons were “contrived.” William Addison Dwiggins, who coined the term “graphic designer,” said colophons were “shop talk.” He thought that readers “don’t care to know and they don’t need to know.” Benton also quotes Carl Rollins, who thought colophons were appeals to a book “buyer’s vanity;” a form of “free advertising for the paper merchant, the edition binder, the man who cast the rollers, and the provenance of the pressman’s pants.”

Through her particular consideration of finer texts, Benton notes that 20th-century colophons served two purposes. The first appealed to the “growing number of bibliophiles who were knowledgeable or at least curious about the particulars of bookmaking.” From a marketing standpoint, colophons “shrewdly enabled publishers to point out the craft-based aspects of production that distinguished fine bookmaking from ordinary:” the eternal tension of the book as art and product.

Players begins with an unidentified character’s speech, but quickly fades into the preparation for an in-flight movie. As the plane’s lights dim and the piano bar becomes still, the passengers seem to realize “for the first time how many systems of mechanical and electric components, what exact management of stresses, power units, consolidated thrust and energy it has taken to reduce their sensation of flight to this rudimentary tremble.” How beautiful, really, that only “One second of darkness” is “enough to intensify the implied bond which, more than distance, speed or destination, makes each journey something of a mystery to be worked out by the combined talents of the travelers, all gradually aware of each other’s code of recognition.” An appreciation for type is acknowledgment that good design enables enjoyment. The “one second of darkness” that is the union of reader, writer, and designer creates a form of literary communion.

When asked about the “raw materials” of his fiction, DeLillo thinks small. “I construct sentences,” he says, with the ritual sense of the Latin Mass of his youth. He continues: “There’s a rhythm I hear that drives me through a sentence. And the words typed on the white page have a sculptural quality. They form odd correspondences. They match up not just through meaning but through sound and look.” DeLillo says he is “completely willing to let language press meaning upon me.” Press, of course. Letters pushed into the page. A mark, a tattoo, a scar. He concludes:
Watching the way in which words match up, keeping the balance in a sentence — these are sensuous pleasures. I might want very and only in the same sentence, spaced a particular way, exactly so far apart. I might want rapture matched with danger — I like to match word endings. I type rather than write longhand because I like the way the words and letters look when they come off the hammers onto the page—finished, printed, beautifully formed.
Remember that books are crafted. Remember that books are words, words, words.

When writing about books — a world within a world — I always feel as if I am writing to save something. I might attribute this salvific sentiment to the self-importance all writers suffer from, the feeling that we are saying something worth noting. Or the origin might be my Catholic sense, the wish to transform and transfigure. Either way, a comparably venial sin in the service of something greater.

I spoke with Leah Carlson-Stanisic, associate director of design for HarperCollins, who thinks the decision to include a colophon is an important one, “because book publishing isn’t just the making and selling of something for the sake of consumerism.” Colophons — and the spirit behind them — are particularly essential now “during an important transitional period in terms of technology and how it is ever affecting our world and my industry.” In that vein, the colophon is a way to “reference and remember” the typographical tradition.

I am less than a novice in terms of design. My experience is confined to one undergraduate course, a few months of introductory work with weeks devoted to typography. I remember zooming in on the contour of letters, and how that closeness felt like looking into someone’s eyes. Afterward, I browsed books in the university library. A bit embarrassed, I found a study room tucked in the upper floor, and nearly put my face in books. I was convinced that I had discovered something new.

I love the right-justified colophon of Knopf’s The Stories of John Cheever. It looks like a pared wing. Part of a George Herbert poem.

Carlson-Stanisic explained her method in selecting a typeface. Historical Fell or Tribute might be appropriate for a manuscript dated by time period: both “are heavy and ornamental.” If a manuscript “is dense with elements [such as] lists, dialogues, e-mails,” she selects a “clean font with very crisp, readable serifs, that has a variety of weights so that I can distinguish all of the elements.” And “I always want a font that has a beautiful italic. I am a snob that way.” Beyond content translated to form, Carlson-Stanisic stresses the need for clarity: “If you set the leading too tight, and the lines are too close together, the page will overwhelm you. I want to select a typeface that is proportional, isn’t too fine but certainly not bulky, and that doesn’t have anything too stylistically unique about it that certain characters stand out too much and distract.” Her ideal is “a beautiful workhorse with an elegant italic.” Her favorites: Fournier, Filosofia, Perrywood, Garamond.

William Addison Dwiggins, for all of his aforementioned reservations about reader interest in colophons, is noted in many. My copy of Circling the Drain, the only book by Amanda Davis, ends with a terse colophon.

Dwiggins returns in my copy of Thomas Mann’s The Black Swan, a discard from the VA Hospital in Lebanon, Penn. His own trademark at the end is a nice touch.

This colophon appears at the end of Crossing the Threshold of Hope. In 1993, Pope John Paul II had to cancel a planned live interview on Italian radio and television, but surprised the reporter by developing his responses into a full manuscript. Not every typeface earns the name of Dante.

I call for the return of colophons. The battle of the book is not to be won or lost in preferences of print or digital. The page will always remain. Letters will always remain. Colophons can send us back into books for another level of reading. If we love books, that second reading might be ecstatic in the same way good writing can lift us. Colophons are reminders that books are bigger than their writers alone. They are the measured exhale at the end of a satisfying experience. The sentence has end punctuation; the book has a colophon.

It is dangerous for a note on type to run too long, so even this appreciation must be truncated. The last words on type should go to a designer, so here is Carlson-Stanisic again:
Form and function is so important to us on every level — and people say that it is best when you don’t notice it — but I think design-oriented people will always stop to observe and appreciate it. There is something so sensual and so similar to the way we appreciate the curve of an arm on a well-designed chair, the elongated neck of a dancer, or the graceful curvature of a lower cased f set in Fournier italic. How could we survive without any of that beauty?

Surprise Me!