Poetry for Fans of Folklore: Catherynne M. Valente – A Guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects

It’s been a great year for a Cat Valente fan. With two new novellas out (both of them fantastic!), I was more than happy. But I also had an itch for more so I picked up one of Valente’s older works, a collection of poetry and (very) short stories about one of my favorite topis: folktales.

A GUIDE TO FOLKTALES IN FRAGILE DIALECTS
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published: Curiosities, 2008
Hardcover:
166 pages
Poetry Collection
My rating:
6.5/10

Opening line: On your knees between moon-green shoots,
beside a sack of seed, a silver can, a white spade,
a ball is tucked into the bustle of your skirt:

A GUIDE TO FOLKTALES IN FRAGILE DIALECTS by award-winning author and poet Catherynne M. Valente is a delightful collection of poetry, short fables, and fairy tales that explore myth and wonder, ancient and modern, with an introduction by Midori Snyder.

This is not going to be a proper review because I am simply not equipped to say anything qualified about this book. I don’t read a lot of poetry and there’s exactly three poets that I can say I love (Robert Frost, John Donne, and C.S.E. Cooney). I have no idea how to judge whether a poem is “good”, all I can go on is whether I liked it or not. And the reasons for that vary – mostly it’s just a feeling. But if a poem is inspired by a fairy tale, chances are I’ll enjoy it even if it doesn’t rhyme.

That said, I found many things to enjoy in this book. The language wasn’t my favorite – which is weird, because I adore Valente’s prose especially because it is so lyrical and poetic! – but I think I’m just not the right audience for this kind of poetry. So I read the poems more for the “plot” and the emotions they evoked but didn’t fall into the language as much.

I am, simply put, more of a prose reader so it’s no surprise that I enjoyed the little stories between the poems more than most of the actual poetry. They are little snippets or pieces of folktales rather than proper stories, most of them barely two pages long, but they reminded me also exactly why I fell in love with Valente in the first place. She not only has a vast knowledge of fairy tales, mythology, and folklore from all over the world, but she’s also been questioning them in her writing since forever.
Nowadays, it’s not unusual to come across a “feminist spin on fairytale XYZ” but Valente has been doing that since the beginning of her career. She questions why Cinderella’s sisters and Cinderella should work against each other, whether Bluebeard’s wife is maybe okay being complicit with what he does, how a girl feels when she’s finally married her prince (and if maybe that was a mistake)… There’s a lot of food for thought there, in both the poems and the little stories.

I loved how these poems and stories nudged my brain to look at these well-known tales from different angles, to rethink what I’ve been told, but there’s also another theme that runs through the book like a red thread. Unsurprising to anyone who has read their share of fairy tales, they are often about terrible things happening to women and children. But in Valente’s Guide to Folktales, this gets amplified through the claustrophobic feeling running through each poem. She writes about women getting trapped by men, literally or emotionally, or being unable to escape their situation so very often that this book, despite its frequent feminist spins, gets a little depressing. That’s not a critique because Valente manages to describe these feelings of being trapped and powerless really well, but it’s a warning that this isn’t exactly a feel-good collection either.

One of my favorite poems, if not the favorite, was the one about Cinderella and her stepsisters as you’ve never seen them before. Again, it’s not a particularly happy tale but it encompasses the questions I’ve had about the fairy tale in just a few perfectly-chosen words:

Please, we are sisters;
out of the same striped pelt
did our father scissor our hearts.
Do this thing for me
your sister is afraid of the man
who loves her so much
he cannot remember her face.

“Glass, Blood, and Ash” by Catherynne M. Valente

As for inspiration, it’s not only well-known Western fairy tales, but also folklore and myhts from other places in the world. Valente does love herself some Greek underworld but she never shies away from looking across borders and seeing the rich cultures other places have to offer. I’m sure with a bit of background knowlege this book could be a treasure trove of Easter eggs.

I have no idea how to rate a book of poetry properly, so I’ll just go by my own level of enjoyment. And while this is far from my favorite Valente book, I did quite like it. It was an interesting glimpse into Valente’s earlier writing but despite its relative age, the book read very modern. It’s still relevant today and I’m sure fans of poetry will find it even better than I did.

MY RATING: 6.5/10 – Pretty good

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