A Guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects

A Guide to Folktales in Fragile DialectsA Guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects
by Catherynne M. Valente
published by Norilana books
168 pages
$22.95 hardcover, $14.95 paperback
Reviewed by Amal El-Mohtar
(This review first appeared at the SF site in 2008)

In Antoine Galland’s Arabian Nights, there’s a story called “Aladdin and the Magic Lamp.” In the story, Aladdin orders his Djinn to build a palace for the Sultan, and goes into great detail describing the woods and silks and gems to be used. He specifies, however, that he wants there to be one flaw in the whole, one window-frame of gems that is incomplete, in order to allow the Sultan the honour of finishing it. The Djinn complies with his wishes and builds the miraculous palace. Then, when the Sultan’s being led through it, feeling dazzled and dwarfed and humbled by his suroundings, his eyes light on the incomplete window, and he’s relieved to have found the flaw, the one tiny thing that can give his soul a break from the otherwise overwhelming awe.

That’s what reading Catherynne Valente’s A Guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects is like.

The collection gathers twenty-eight poems, many of which have been published in various print and online venues over the last three years, and includes Rhysling-nominated pieces such as “The Descent of the Corn-Queen of the Mid-West,” “The Child Bride of the Lost City of Ubar” and “The Eight Legs of Grandmother Spider.” In addition to the poems, the collection’s broken up by eight short, numbered “tale types,” prose pieces loosely modeled after the Aarne-Thompson system for classifying folktales. The stories are as riveting and unusual as one might expect from the author of The Orphan’s Tales, and the poems and prose play off each other beautifully.

These poems are as much about figures from myth and folklore as they are about transformation, longing and loss. Valente spins us across a landscape of Japanese gardens, perilous woodland, ancient deserts and frost-bitten seas; she gives us women and men and frogs and foxes struggling and engaging with life and death and quests and magic in language the beauty of which is difficult to bear. There are goddesses and child-brides, there are princes and giants and secret caves, there are warrior-women and forests made of library books. This is a collection of marvels that makes me want to review each poem and story individually, if only to point out exactly why I loved “A Girl with Two Skins” so very, very much, or why “Pasiphae” fell a little short, or how “Gringa” had me by the throat, or how I’m still waiting for the reading of “The Eight Legs of Grandmother Spider” that won’t leave me in tears. Establishing any kind of hierarchy of enjoyment amongst these pieces is not to choose which ones I liked or didn’t like, but to figure out which ones I loved a little less than the rest.

I’m playing the Sultan, here. Looking for imperfections in this collection is like looking for the deliberately-wrought flaw in a Persian carpet: it’s kind of pointless. You find it eventually, perhaps, nestled in the whorls and lines and intricacies, but you’re still going to catch your breath every time you look at the whole because it’s a marvellous wonder worthy of poetry. Therefore, in the spirit of establishing that Valente’s poetry is worthy of Persian carpets, I will say to you that in my copy, on page 42, in “The Child Bride of the Lost City of Ubar,” she uses the words al raml, which mean “the sand” in Arabic. The phrase she uses, however, is “the al raml,” which translates to “the the sand,” and is therefore redundant. I’m told that the redundancy will be fixed when the collection’s released, though, so any other Arabic-speakers seeking the Sultan’s relief while reading this book are pretty much out of luck.

To read Catherynne Valente’s poetry is to feel yourself slowly dismembered, to be pulled into a mirrorworld by gilt hooks and promises of honey only to find you’ve been tricked into a transformation, that your skin’s been stolen and won’t be given back before you’ve undergone a trial by ice or earth or fire or you’ve fallen helplessly into love. Even then, there’s no promise that the skin returned will be your own, or if it is, that it will be the same as the one you lost. Her poems enchant, enthrall and devastate, and this collection takes the astonishing skill she showed in Apocrypha and distills it, deepens it, sharpens it into a tool to carve stories out of language. If Sappho had written Ovid’s metamorphoses, she could not have done better than this.

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