Fairy Tales in Electri-City

Fairy Tales in Electri-City
by Francesca Lia Block
Published by A Midsummer Night’s Press, 78 pages
Reviewed by Amal El-Mohtar

Fairy Tales in Electri-City is Francesca Lia Block‘s third collection of poetry, and the first one I have read. I have thoroughly enjoyed her prose, especially in The Rose and the Beast, I Was a Teenage Fairy,  and the first couple of Weetzie Bat books, and was very excited to read her poetry; I figured that so brilliant a prose stylist, whose words are petals and fruit flesh on the page, must be something else again as a poet. I expected luminous images, sharp and startling lyricism, and, given the title, a focus on the magic of urban places, like a more fantastical instance of what David O’Meara did for Ottawa with The Vicinity.

This collection was not what I expected.

The blurb on the back says the following:

Elves and centaurs, nymphs and fauns inhabit this new collection of magical, erotic poems about a girl yearning for and searching for love in present-day Los Angeles.

I think it is crucial to the enjoyment of this collection to understand that all these poems are telling the same person’s story with incremental changes in between. Not having read the back before I started in, I enjoyed the first poem, for which the collection is titled, thinking that its narrative was a stand-alone; I liked some parts better than others, and thought that its style, while not the lyrical imagism I had expected, was suited to its fairy tale content in being quite matter-of-fact storytelling. Electra is born into a magical city; her father dies; she dreams herself two children and a beautiful home; she longs for romantic love, suffers in seeking it, and learns to live with the pain of its absence.

But while “Fairy Tales in Electri-City” impressed me in its own right, many of the poems following it did not. I found myself thinking this is so repetitive; these images are so conventional; this tone is so conversational it is almost prose, certainly more prosaic than her books of prose! But by the time I hit “The Garden Speaks,” I began to understand that this book could actually be read as one long narrative poem. It’s as if Block’s poetic unit is not the line but the poem; where I am used to a line of poetry containing multitudes, affecting me in the way a whole song does, Fairy Tales in Electri-City is a narrative poem the lines of which are made up of narrative poems, and the effect lives in between them.

As it turns out, the first poem is a roadmap to the whole: the collection is divided into sections, titled “Electra,” “Beasties,” “The Eldritch,” “Love’s Songs,” and “Change: the Fairies’ Tales,” which explore in more depth each of the major movements of “Fairy Tales in Electri-City.” Characters recur, often startlingly, and the poems in each section are often revisions of the stories presented in the poems preceding them. A centaur seems a saviour until he is not; an elf seems like the answer to a prayer for a soulmate until a later poem pronounces him otherwise. And it is this narrative that draws me in more than the language of the poems themselves, as you see this beautiful woman trying to make her search for love fit into the tidiness of a fairy tale over and over, only to see it outgrow and outspill those stories to become something different each time.

This is not to say that individual poems are not also beautiful. My favourites are “The Huntress” and “The Garden Speaks,” but most of them have a passage or two that shine out particularly fiercely, especially italicised passages where someone in the poem speaks.

The physical object that is the book is beautiful as well: it has that pleasing, perfect-bound tidiness and tiny-ness which I’ve enjoyed from A Midsummer Night’s Press before. There were a few typographical errors in the text, but not enough to impair my enjoyment or distract me from the experience of reading. Elisa Lazo de Valdez’ cover image – a woman’s silhouette, antlered and smudged against a white background beneath a strip of upside-down cityscape, is gorgeous and well-suited to the contents.

Ultimately this collection is much more than the sum of its parts, and the whole it makes is moving, tender, and fierce, both by turns and all at once.

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