Sunday, June 24

Fairy Tales

by E. E. Cummings
illustrated by Meilo So
Liveright/Norton 2004

I have Jules over at 7Imp to thank for pointing me this direction. She mentioned this collection in her review of Catherine Reef’s biography on Cummings and I was intrigued.

I had originally skipped the biography because I have a personal relationship with Cummings work that I have tried to preserve -- a preferred ignorance of the man and his life so that I could take his poems on and interpret them personally, without influence. Early on, at least as early as seventh grade, I had a sense that Cummings was one of those creative types whose work would lose its magic if the seams were pointed out. This feeling wasn't founded on anything more than a hunch and the violent reactions I witnessed from people over the fact that his poetry and name weren't capitalized or violated rules of punctuation. I felt protective of that for some reason, and I guess to some extent I still do.

So I was excited to see that my library had a copy of Cumming's Fairy Tales but when I got it home and opened up to the table of contents I froze: The titles of the four tales it contained all rhymed with each other. Something about that hit me wrong and I was overcome with misgivings. I could just return the book and let it go, knowing it was there to discover at another time and place, or I could put it aside and see if those misgivings didn't evaporate.

The misgivings were still there when the book was due but I renewed it and let it sit some more. A full month and I still had my misgivings. But I opened the book anyway.

First, this is Cummings, so all bets are off. What he would call a fairy tale bears more of a resemblance to the Rootabaga Stories of Carl Sandburg than anything we would normally call a fairy tale. That is, Cummings was an early 20th century modernist, small 'm', and it isn't likely that he would be visiting any enchanted places with fairies and whatnot.

Except that he does, right there on the first page of the first story, "The Old Man Who Said Why". Okay, so he uses the faerie spelling, but it's right there. A faerie, living on a distant star, eating silence and drinking light. One day the faerie is disturbed when all the other faeries of the nighttime sky come to him for help. It appears that the old man on the moon (yes on, perched atop a steeple of a church) is asking "why?" over and over again, clogging the skies with his persistent questioning. Finally the faerie travels across the sky to get to the bottom of things. With every inquiry the old man follows up with his child-like 'why?' to the point that the exasperate faerie finally threatens to knock the old man down to the earth if he says 'why' one more time. The old man cannot help it, he has to ask, and the faerie sends him tumbling.

Funny thing, as the old man tumbles he gets younger and younger until, just as he's about to hit the earth, he is as young as he could possibly be, at which point he is born.


I once heard a small child -- a very verbal 2 year old -- talk about how "long ago" she was swimming all the time and playing with all her toys and then one day she heard her mother tell her it was time to come home... and then she was born. We, all the adults who heard this tale, were totally blown away. Here was this little girl ambling on with such clarity about something we all assumed was and imaginary tale only to find that she had tapped into her pre-birth memories. I had always assumed that we were born with more information than our older selves could remember or retain but I hadn't encountered anyone use it as the basis for a "fairy tale" intended for children. It seems perfectly natural reading it, and Cummings plays a little trick with us by lulling the reader into this whole faerie story just so he can deliver this much larger concept of the man-child asking 'why?' just the way they will when they are young and full of the world around them.

Encouraged, I tried "The Elephant and the Butterfly." Here we have a butterfly that travels from its home in the valley up to the elephant's house on the hill. The elephant is a bit of a recluse, "doing nothing" and basically waiting for love to find him. The butterfly arrives, asks to be let in, and is a comfort to the elephant who wonders if the butterfly likes him "a little." The butterfly says "no, I love you very much" and they are off on a journey to the butterfly's house. When the butterfly asks why the elephant didn't visit sooner the elephant confesses that he didn't know the butterfly lived there. From that day forward the elephant promises to visit every day.


I was willing to let this one slide because I thought there had to be something more. Notes at the end of the book explain that the elephant is Cummings and the butterfly is his grandson, child of a daughter who never knew Cummings was her real father. In that light the story makes a little more sense, but it ends up being so personal that without that information the story doesn't hold up on its own. I think the book could have done without this story.

The third story, "The House That Ate Mosquito Pie", puts us right back on track. Another love story, true, between an empty house and a songbird but in this the courtship feels as sweet as it is unusual. To celebrate their cohabitation the bird is about to go out and collect mosquitoes to make a pie when she spies humans coming up the walk. The house and the bird stay still and motionless as the humans, uncouth slobs as they are, tramp into the house and begin to claim it for their own. Suddenly all the clocks in the house begin chiming, scaring the clods out of the house. Once vacant for good, the house and the bird celebrate their union with the aforementioned pie and they lived happily ever after.

And that, my friends, is practically Grimmworthy.

Finally, a tale that is perhaps the most Cummingsian, "The Little Girl Named I." Told as a conversation between the author and his young listener he spins a story of girl who is attempting to invite guests to a tea party. A pig and a cow and an elephant are all invited but in the end cannot make it for various reasons. Finally she meets another girl who would love to attend, a girl named You. And here's where the Cummings most adults know comes out to play, as You and I have a cozy little conversation as they settle in for their tea.

This is a story that benefits from a reading aloud, provided you get the dialog breaks down. The way they are typeset in this volume it's difficult to make out on the first cold reading of the first few lines, and Cummings doesn't use quotes or attributes for the storyteller and the listener, so it really does read like unmoored dialog from a play. At the end, when reading the dialog between You and I the quotes help clarify who is saying what but with careful reading they become unnecessary.

All in a day's work for e.e. No quotes when you expect them, there when you don't.

Aside from the one tale written for his grandson, the other three tales were written for Cummings' daughter Nancy who grew up never knowing Cummings was her father due to the intervention of his ex-wife's new husband. The 30 year's difference between the stories shows and, again, although they were originally published together in 1965 they really could have held their own with only the earlier three.

Was my trepidation warranted? Probably not.
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