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>The Twelve Dancing Princesses

August 5, 2010

>After going through stacks and stacks of photos and papers from my parents’ house with the help of my children, my memories of what it was like to be me while I was living there have become less certain. Sketchy stories I’ve told the children were fleshed out by actual manuscripts I’d left behind, while images of myself at various ages seem to bear as much relationship to actual photos as a mirror image does to a funhouse-mirror image. The process of relating memories to keepsakes reminded me of Anne Sexton’s volume entitled Transformations, in which the poem “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” appears. (It helps if you’ve read the Grimm’s fairy tale already.)

If you danced from midnight
to six A.M. who would understand?

The runaway boy
who chucks it all
to live on the Boston Common
on speed and saltines,
pissing in the duck pond,
rapping with the street priest,
trading talk like blows,
another missing person,
would understand.

The paralytic’s wife
who takes her love to town,
sitting on the bar stool,
downing stingers and peanuts,
singing “That ole Ace down in the hole,”
would understand.

The passengers
from Boston to Paris
watching the movie with dawn
coming up like statues of honey,
having partaken of champagne and steak
while the world turned like a toy globe,
those murderers of the nightgown
would understand.

The amnesiac
who tunes into a new neighborhood,
having misplaced the past,
having thrown out someone else’s
credit cards and monogrammed watch,
would understand.

The drunken poet
(a genius by daylight)
who places long-distance calls
at three A.M. and then lets you sit
holding the phone while he vomits
(he calls it “The Night of the Long Knives”)
getting his kicks out of the death call,
would understand.

The insomniac
listening to his heart
thumping like a June bug,
listening on his transistor
to Long John Nebel arguing from New York,
lying on his bed like a stone table,
would understand.

The night nurse
with her eyes slit like Venetian blinds,
she of the tubes and the plasma,
listening to the heart monitor,
the death cricket bleeping,
she who calls you “we”
and keeps vigil like a ballistic missile,
would understand.

Once
this king had twelve daughters,
each more beautiful than the other.
They slept together, bed by bed
in a kind of girls’ dormitory.
At night the king locked and bolted the door.
How could they possibly escape?
Yet each morning their shoes
were danced to pieces.
Each was as worn as an old jockstrap.
The king sent out a proclamation
that anyone who could discover
where the princesses did their dancing
could take his pick of the litter.
However there was a catch.
If he failed, he would pay with his life.
Well, so it goes.

Many princes tried,
each sitting outside the dormitory,
the door ajar so he could observe
what enchantment came over the shoes.
But each time the twelve dancing princesses
gave the snoopy man a Mickey Finn
and so he was beheaded.
Poof! Like a basketball.

It so happened that a poor soldier
heard about these strange goings on
and decided to give it a try.
On his way to the castle
he met an old old woman.
Age, for a change, was of some use.
She wasn’t stuffed in a nursing home.
She told him not to drink a drop of wine
and gave him a cloak that would make
him invisible when the right time came.
And thus he sat outside the dorm.
The oldest princess brought him some wine
but he fastened a sponge beneath his chin,
looking the opposite of Andy Gump.

The sponge soaked up the wine,
and thus he stayed awake.
He feigned sleep however
and the princesses sprang out of their beds
and fussed around like a Miss America Contest.
Then the eldest went to her bed
and knocked upon it and it sank into the earth.
They descended down the opening
one after the other. The crafty soldier
put on his invisible cloak and followed.
Yikes, said the youngest daughter,
something just stepped on my dress.
But the oldest thought it just a nail.

Next stood an avenue of trees,
each leaf made of sterling silver.
The soldier took a leaf for proof.
The youngest heard the branch break
and said, Oof! Who goes there?
But the oldest said, Those are
the royal trumpets playing triumphantly.
The next trees were made of diamonds.
He took one that flickered like Tinkerbell
and the youngest said: Wait up! He is here!
But the oldest said: Trumpets, my dear.

Next they came to a lake where lay
twelve boats with twelve enchanted princes
waiting to row them to the underground castle.
The soldier sat in the youngest’s boat
and the boat was as heavy as if an icebox
had been added but the prince did not suspect.

Next came the ball where the shoes did duty.
The princesses danced like taxi girls at Roseland
as if those tickets would run right out.
They were painted in kisses with their secret hair
and though the soldier drank from their cups
they drank down their youth with nary a thought.
Cruets of champagne and cups full of rubies.
They danced until morning and the sun came up
naked and angry and so they returned
by the same strange route. The soldier
went forward through the dormitory and into
his waiting chair to feign his druggy sleep.
That morning the soldier, his eyes fiery
like blood in a wound, his purpose brutal
as if facing a battle, hurried with his answer
as if to the Sphinx. The shoes! The shoes!
The soldier told. He brought forth
the silver leaf, the diamond the size of a plum.

He had won. The dancing shoes would dance
no more. The princesses were torn from
their night life like a baby from its pacifier.
Because he was old he picked the eldest.
At the wedding the princesses averted their eyes
and sagged like old sweatshirts.
Now the runaways would run no more and never
again would their hair be tangled into diamonds,
never again their shoes worn down to a laugh,
never the bed falling down into purgatory
to let them climb in after
with their Lucifer kicking.

I’ve always thought that particular tale was a sad one, and I like the way Sexton manages to articulate why.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. August 5, 2010 6:10 pm

    >Me, too. Most of those Grimm tales had a bad ending – at least for someone. Women are supposed to get what they want (a husband)in them (if they're good) but have to give up their freedom in exchange. I very much doubt the "happily ever after" endings.

  2. August 5, 2010 7:44 pm

    >I love this poem – the whole of Transformations, really.

  3. August 5, 2010 8:04 pm

    >It is a sad tale. My favorite story was a Hans Christen Andersen story called the Little Match girl. I'm pretty sure the reason I loved it so much was because my version had beautiful watercolor drawings in it. I also loved The Princess and the Pea (my mother says I am the princess). But yes, I love this poem. You keep doing this, I'll end up looking like a more normal English undergrad.

  4. August 5, 2010 11:36 pm

    >I thought that fairy tale was marvelous, though not the ending; the Anne Sexton poem is marvelous altogether. I like it in fairy tales how most of the world is a blur, with a few absolutely sharp, clear images–the worn-out shoes, the diamond leaves. The Twelve Dancing Princesses is particularly evocative that way, I think.

  5. August 6, 2010 1:17 am

    >I was somewhat obsessed with Transformations in college, but hadn't read any of those poems in years. Thanks for posting.

  6. August 6, 2010 12:48 pm

    >Freshhell, the twelve-year-old in me is still giggling at women who are supposed to get what they want…in them.Nymeth and Harriet, the whole volume is really good. I first read it when I was 22 or 23, as a grad student.Elizabeth, I loved the sad fairy tales, too–The Little Match Girl so often has beautiful illustrations and my favorite (prophetically, I'm afraid) was always Andersen's Little Mermaid who paid for her legs by feeling knives every time she took a step.So glad that you're liking some of the poems!Jenny, yes, I love those few clear images. The sponge under the guy's chin was always an image that stuck with me, as it evidently did with Sexton!

  7. August 10, 2010 9:18 am

    >What a fantastic poem and yes so sad, who doesn't want to go out dancing until late?

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