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  • Outside the Inside of the Box:The 2013 Lion and the Unicorn Award for Excellence in North American Poetry
  • Michael Joseph (bio), Donelle Ruwe (bio), and Craig Svonkin (bio)

JonArno Lawson. Down in the Bottom of the Bottom of the Box. Illus. Alec Dempster. Ontario: The Porcupine’s Quill, 2012.

The jury found themselves distracted this year by of all things blurbs: how they credential a text, or close down critical judgment, possibly even betray a sense of doubt.1 We found ourselves reflecting on the purpose and utility of the blurb. Does the presence of (name of beloved poet) on the back cover give a certain cachet to the text, even if his or her comment seems lukewarm? Do comments covering a back jacket from top to bottom like credits on a movie screen signal rapt enthusiasm or desperation on the part of the publisher? Does a stamp of approval by a charitable foundation mean that readers can pat themselves on the back for contributing to society and connecting with the greater good? And what do any of these things have to do with the quality of the verse or with the possibilities of engaging imaginatively with a book of poetry? Whether we were swayed by the blurbs or not, we found that the books, themselves, defied the conventional markers of literary power and authenticity. Books that demanded to be admired for the gravity of their subject or the bold originality of their treatment, and thus confronted us like the mirror in Snow White with the demand that we declare our whole and unprecedented regard, struck us as less interesting than books that asked more modestly to be enjoyed for their poetry.

Perhaps no book epitomizes this problem better than Ron Koertge’s Lies, Knives, and Girls in Red Dresses, a collection of downbeat fairy tale retellings in free verse. A poet of some accomplishment, Koertge is generally [End Page 327] praised for his compassion and irreverent humor. The design of the book is stunning, the cover adorned with artist Andrea Dezsö’s powerful papercut of a monstrous wolf, its gaping jaws closing in on a seductively dressed Red Riding Hood, racing as fast as a girl might in (alas!) heels. Blurbs from literary stars such as Billy Collins and Gregory Maguire bedeck the back cover, as if to announce that the literary world has jumped to its feet in unanimous applause. Lucky the reader with a ticket to this smash hit, one thinks. Tellingly, while the blurbs praise the book’s originality, subversiveness, gruesomeness, etc., none of them says it’s good. One soon learns why: it’s not. The imagery in Koertge’s dark fairy tales is shocking in its bleakness, but the poetry is generally listless, festooned with sad details reminiscent of the ghostwritten accounts of abusive celebrity relationships or the portentous confessions of paid guests on reality shows.

Fairy tales are seldom a haven from care, but here nobody comes to any good. Cinderella is a cock-tease, her sisters finish blind and lame; Rapunzel despondently reflects on the brutalizing love-making of the prince; Hansel and Gretel, darling little sociopaths, dream of revenge upon their dad; the Frog Prince is a cliché in tights and his princess a brainless idiot; the Robber Bridegroom is brutally dismembered while the Miller’s daughter, refusing men, “prefers / to live alone and teach Feminist Theory & Practice / at the local community college” (54); Rumpelstiltskin literally tears himself in two (“Servants whisk the splayed body away” [57]); and The Little Match Girl, true to the original, drops dead on the street. This is grim stuff, kids. Grimmer than Grimm.

While one finds moments of humor, the dominant mood is anxiety, mitigated chiefly by horror. Aside from the pleasure that may be had in watching old fairy tales being messed up, we imagine most readers will discover little to engage them beyond watching Koertge struggle to meet the challenge of making each retelling more repellant than the last. In their 1986 song “Don’t Let’s Start,” They Might Be Giants wrote “Everybody dies / Frustrated and sad / And that is beautiful.” The judges found the same sense of an imminent...