Sarah Goldstein constructs a world defined by small betrayals, transformations, and brutality amid its animaland human inhabitants.
Sarah Goldstein, Fables, Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2011
"Departing from the Brothers Grimm to approach our own economically and socially fractured present, Sarah Goldstein’s Fables constructs a world defined by small betrayals, transformations, and brutality amid its animal and human inhabitants. We hear the fragment-voices of ghosts and foxes, captors and captives, stable boys and schoolgirls in the woods and fields and cities of these tales. Anxious townsfolk abandon their orphan children to the nightingales in the forest, a bear deploys a tragic maneuver to avoid his hunters, and a disordered economy results in new kinds of retirements and relocations. Goldstein weaves together familiar and contemporary allegories creating a series of vibrant, and vital, tales for our time."
“In the meadow of fairy tale, Goldstein unrolls ribbons of story that fly gamely and snap with brilliance. Truly worth gazing at.” — DebOlin Unferth
“Sarah Goldstein’s fables make me happy, and they'll make you happy too. They’re delightfully unnerving: small animals fare poorly; we’re bounced to what feel like the settings of the tales of the Brothers Grimm—huntsmen and witches wander the landscapes, a magic needle runs away, a finch mends lace—and then, wonderfully, there’s talk of retirement accounts and urban decay and the sad tale of a dude crushed under his truck whilst fixing its axle. And ghosts! And my favorite: the captives. One captor tells his captive, “you ought to put that voice of yours in a pillow.” Thank goodness Sarah Goldstein put her voice into Fables. Honestly, I’ve never read a debut this stunning.” —Josh Russell
"The title of Sarah Goldstein’s debut collection from Tarpaulin Sky Press, Fables, is deceptively simple. Even the cover, featuring artwork by Goldstein, is spare and unadorned. However, the compression and fusion that this story collection inflicts on the ancient form of the fable results in a world where the “dogs of the town lie in a heap and cough, shuddering with every breath,” advice comes in the form of “[h]ide your lover in a bale of straw. Cut her breath with a scythe and hang her in wire,” and any expected moral clarity is distorted in the “insensible forest” of Goldstein’s imagination. Indeed, the fables of Fables are anything but simple: Pastoral scenes are corrupted by cursed transformations, home and identity become sites of violence and confusion, and the line between the human and the nonhuman, marked by magic and brutality, is continually in flux, being realigned.
Arranged in five sections, the first and last acting as prologue and epilogue, Fables oscillates between stories, typically less than a page long, which may or may not take place in the same time, or even in the same world. This ontological haziness serves Fables, elegantly jolting the reader between realities and thwarting spatial and linear expectations. However, because each story is so brief and so much takes place from story to story, Fables is perhaps best read without discretion for beginning or end. Regardless, these stories illuminate themselves through their common interest in exploring the liminal spaces between human and nonhuman, natural and supernatural, and ripping open the differences to see what bleeds out.
In one story, a young couple fears some unnamed darkness in their home. The situation becomes dire as the woman “rubs her temples until the bone appears.” Then,
They throw poisoned bread up into the attic and quickly shut the door. They hear something trashing, moaning, spitting in agony, so violent that cracks appear in the ceiling. Dragging it out to the backyard the next night proves difficult. Doorways are sawed apart, every piece of linen in the house is enlisted to wrap and sop. Outside, they see curious raccoons and deer gathered in the brief sweep of the flashlights – drawn by what, she can’t imagine. Her bandaged head is throbbing. Their garage fills with smoke.
A tension between the known and the unknown, charged with a menacing ambiguity, pulses through Goldstein’s language. Antiquated elements (“poisoned bread”) mix with contemporary moments of horror (“the brief sweep of the flashlights”) to create a wholly new kind of fable, one with implications that are discomforting and threatening in their lack of resolution. In the introduction to the new anthology of contemporary fairy tales and fables, My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, Kate Bernheimer observes that “the proliferation of magical stories…is correlated to a growing awareness of human separation from the wild and natural world. In fairy tales, the human and animal worlds are equal and mutually dependent. The violence, suffering, and beauty are shared.” Such “violence, suffering, and beauty” are everywhere present in Fables as Goldstein empathizes with and animates the nonhuman natural world, often to unsettling ends. The “curious” natural world appears to be on guard, judging human action, poised for retribution. Indeed, the nonhuman world is continually on the offense in Fables, desiring, if not celebrating, the destruction of the human, but it’s not as if such retribution isn’t due. Fables is full of characters, from hunters to children, who abuse, neglect, and defy their environments.
But don’t assume these stories all take place in the forest. One story sets itself in a hastily abandoned neighborhood after an unspoken disaster where minion-like “volunteers” go door-to-door dispensing false information and shooting people. Another takes place after some kind of accident while a girl “shudders along the roadside with her limbs deciphered.” There is a windshield, a sledgehammer, and a backbone. The last sentence of this short tale, “Her sightlines narrow to a dreary hallway of open doors with see-saw voices sobbing into amputated handkerchiefs,” exemplifies Goldstein’s ability to manipulate thin threads of narrative while employing language that is as dark and enchanted as the world it gives breath to.
It is testament to this book’s unique sensibility that these stories originate from sources as varied as Brothers Grimm, historical accounts, and Google searches, and its brave desire welds the old and the new into a contemporary fable that is both horrifying and humbling in its imaginative precision. Entering Goldstein’s Fables is good fodder for dreams and the conscience, but be sure not to leave this one laying out for the kids." - Nick Strum
I’ve been reading and re-reading Sarah Goldstein’s Fables before bed. I’m not one to do this: for me, my bed is for sleeping and sleeping only. I’ve never been a “read-before-I-go-to-sleep” person either as it’s too effective: the words start turning into absolute nonsense only a few minutes in and I will find myself reading the same page over and over again before I inevitably put the book down and forget everything that I just read. Yet this style of reading—under the covers with a pillow folded in half behind my back—seems appropriate for Fables, a gorgeous intertwining of allegorical stories presented in tiny fragments, dare I say breadcrumbs!, that display a horrifying yet beautiful world where mayors keep bones in boxes and ghosts enter through the beaks of birds.
In an interview with Avant-Women Writers, Kate Bernheimer, founder of Fairy Tale Review as well as the editor of a number of fairy tale anthologies discusses the importance of animals in fairy tales: “neither toad nor snake, bear nor hedgehog, is lower than a human on any scale of earthly significance.” There is a leveling in Goldstein’s stories as well: all things are equal—sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, birds, dogs. The fox conspires with the crows against the stag. The children, one day, decide to kill their father and burn him in the yard, yet they get in trouble for killing a toad and leaving it on their teacher’s chair. In dreaming there is leveling as well: all things are even, yet the fact that a fox can carry you in its mouth provides some sort of ordinary magic that is found in fairy tales, this matter-of-factness that permeates through the collection that makes you feel as if everything is all right even as the man with the melted face tells you to put olive oil in your ear to cure your sore throat. The world of Fables has this ordinary magic as well—at times I picture a forest with fireflies, other times I get images of rolling down car windows as students near the last few weeks of school before summer vacation. The language is reassuring, declarative: that we trust in whomever is telling us these fables, that the world that exists is a world that exists—that what happens here happens, that it will not disappear when someone wakes.
There is nothing romantic about the actual act of sleeping; sure, sleeping next to someone is interpreted as romance—to share a space that is considered private, to trust someone to the point that you are comfortable in being at your most vulnerable with them, that you are offering a slowed heart and soft breathing as a gift. Films make a huge deal about the act of “staying over”, something that seems to imply that the night was one thing, yet the beginning of the day is something else entirely. The moments before sleep and the moments after are the ones that stand a chance of meaning something—while it is impossible to remember the moment before you fall asleep, you remember the moments leading up to the moment: the checklist of things that need to be accomplished tomorrow, the assessment of what you did the day before, the random thoughts about loved ones, hated ones, lost ones, strange ones, and then nothing. There is little romance in these stories as well: not much room for love, yet there is something tender about it all. The ghost loves you while you are asleep, the farmer and his wife work only by moonlight. There is a longing in these words: a hope that things work out, that things return to the way that they once were, that things will continue to change as they always have. The ghosts don’t wish to be human, they simply wish.
There are times the collection has everything to do with watching: observing the people from across the river, looking down at one’s arms, rows of sacrifices left out for dead animals. These moments are quiet and powerful, coming from different sources: at one moment it could be the girls held captive by an unknown, another the voice of the one spinning the tale. In sleep, I see myself as if I were watching a film: the back of shoulders and overhead shots, like a ghost, perhaps. There’s something to simply watching, to taking notes for next time, yet being unable to affect anything: that all that is seen is all that has ever been known. In these stories we are placed in medias res, waking up somewhere new with no explanation as to why we are trudging through a swamp, why we are waiting in a field near a river. We are in, we observe, and then it ends, not in flying or a massive battle, but definitively—freed momentarily, yet still caught in what has happened.
The New World
is an ending. We fast forward to something unexpected like it were magic, and yet this is where the magic stops, with slick modernity and the recording of numbers into files. Whereas at the beginning things were being turned into other things, here we catalog what is left. The ghosts have all gone home, the children are at school, the foxes are resting. When you awaken, you won’t remember everything, but you’ll remember parts. At the end, it is all beautiful: a collage of images and voices that stick to your bones." - Brian Oliu
"Fables is a series of short and simply written insights about a fabled new world. Goldstein lightly treads up and down the spectrum of delightfully playful to hopelessly grim via vivacious and unsettling possibilities. Two of my favorite mini-tales: 1. three girls long to be and do become mermaids; 2. the narrator is hiding in a sunless, foggy swamp and sees a terrifying image, the narrator’s “jaw shakes to remember it.” An important glimpse into contemporary literature, which blends a new subtle style with both nature and the relatable subversive. For fans of Brothers Grimm, Angela Carter, and César Aira." - Hey, Small Press
"In 1902, W.B. Yeats—according to his unused preface for Ideas of Good and Evil—told James Joyce that he had based his recent plays “on emotions or stories that I had got out of folklore.”[i] Yeats also imbued the folk tradition in his Red Hanrahan stories in The Secret Rose, and collected Sligo County oral tales in Celtic Twilight. Joyce called Yeats’s practice “deteriorating” but borrowed and revised Irish myth himself, first in a short story, “Clay,” and most notably in Finnegans Wake.
Yeats’s Red Hanrahan character is an itinerant Gael poet, an amalgamation of historical precedent and folk legend. Hanrahan fits Maria Tymoczko’s concept of pseudotranslation: “a literary work that purports to be a translation but in fact has no original.”[ii] The malleability inherent to oral tradition and the subsequent coloring of character and description across generations makes fables particularly appropriate to such pseudotranslation.
Sarah Goldstein, in her appendix to Fables, notes inspiration from, and modification of, selected fairy tales, from the Brothers Grimm to selected European traditions. Regardless of the genesis of these prose poems and vignettes, Goldstein’s vision and approach is wholly new. Her work in this collection is more than translation and transcription: Fables contains poems that whisper tradition but fully stand on their own.
Goldstein resists the mere modernization of folklore that might mar a lesser book. The pieces are devoid of proper nouns, settings are clearly pastoral but not particular, and the supernatural background of the tales remains comfortably other. Think the pastoral-focused films of Ingmar Bergman: the ethereal Smultronstället, the haunting Jungfrukällan. The book begins with a one-poem “Grim” section, where metamorphoses abound, and the iconic animal of the collection, a bird, is introduced.
The title section of the book fills the bulk of the collection, with numbered, independent fables connected by recursive description and diction. Certain elements return, including sometimes orphaned, often displaced children; the supernatural, Hawthornian forest; and anthropomorphic animals. Goldstein leans into her narratives, leaving the reader convinced that matter has been chiseled away, likely to the benefit of cohesion. One piece begins: “The girl comes clambering up the hill from the meadow to the house, whispering the message into her hands.” Soft sentences for soft speech, and Goldstein counters with strange imagery: “Her mother is on the floor in the corner, curled with her fingers in her mouth. The rabbit her father tossed on the counter for stew has awakened, and they watch as it lurches toward the window.” The argument that Fables resides closer to poems than prose exists within these lines. Goldstein has clearly hoped the reader will savor these words, and that goal is reached. Well-placed commas turn the sentences, moving represented subject into action. The resurrected rabbit escapes, and cat-killed mice join in the rebirth, as they “now stagger across the rough-hewn floors.”
The appeal of fable has always been in these quick offerings, the possibility of magic without explanation, the uneven ending. Add to that mix a requisite darkness. A later poem begins: “After enduring many years of abuse, the children decide to do away with their father.” Fright is presented as commonplace, and a girl’s suggestion that “a burned corpse is harder to identify” is offered without emotion. A few poems forward, other girls “hold each other’s hands and wade into the shallowest part of the pond, shivering violently,” training their “underwater breathing.” Goldstein does not shy from surreal violence elsewhere: foxes and coyotes gain revenge on a boy for hanging a goat, and three other boys find a burned house, including “charred remains of two horses that were tied to a tree.”
Of the final sections, “Ghosts” is the most intriguing. Gems include the return of an avian touch: “Has a bird ever flown too close to you?” A close bird might be the result of its “warp and swerve around these restless forms,” the vague presence of spirits. Birds, so easy in flight, are also easy hosts for these ghosts, since “an animal has no means of self-analysis.” And humans? We are less attractive, since “our souls weigh so heavily upon” the foreign form. Goldstein is able to song her characters into possession, and even her direct sentences—“Wait for the crows over dark rows of corn”—are delivered with gentle consonance.
Fables is also noteworthy for its contributions to the organic conversation of narrative form. The collection might be considered a book of prose poems, but strict definitions only muddle the power of the stories. The works certainly build toward a final line, and yet the profluence of the narrative builds in epigrammatic snippets, crafted with laudable precision. Goldstein opts for the sideways glance, the unfocused focus. What is not told to the reader is enticing: when “dogs of the town lie in a heap and cough, shuddering with every breath,” an entire architecture of apocalypse remains in the silent background. The power of fable, and Fables, has always been folks' ability to give blurry shapes to concrete fears, to convince the listener that the corners of the supernatural can be flushed with light just as easily as they have been shadowed dark." - Nick Ripatrazone
"My friend Zachary and I were talking about monsters a few months ago in relation to a research project I'm putting together and he said, "A day doesn't go by when people don't think of monsters. The threat is always present." In particular, the threat of harm is always lingering in edges of what we can't know. The ambiguity lacquered into shadows, the dripping voices around the corner; at the very least we must be weary of the unknown.
Sarah Goldstein's collection Fables, completes the aforementioned criteria, and then becomes fucking menacing. As with an fable or fairy tale, we choose to believe in the niceties of what Disney has provided us with; however, almost all of these stories were horrifically grim (or Grimm). Goldstein does not allow us to afford any hope that we will not be harmed. For instance, the second poem from her Fables section creeps into our viscera and won't let us breathe:
The girl comes clambering up the hill from the meadow to the house, whispering the message into her hands. Now the sheep in the field, the holes in the ground; and she stops, having entered the kitchen. Her mother is on the floor in the corner, curled with her fingers in her mouth. The rabbit her father tossed on the counter for stew has awakened, and they watch as it lurches towards the window. Outside, the dogs begin to howl and their father comes into the kitchen. He holds his shovel like a sword, breathing heavily. In the barn, the cats are stalking the mice they killed that morning, mice that now stagger across the rough-hewn floors. (8)
Something in these poems is twisting necks of chickens behind you. Something in these poems has a frightening smile. Then, you enter the poems and see what is menacing behind you.
The book is split up into 3 parts, and a prelude and epilogue (or at least I'd like to think it is that way). And all the while, the you and I slowly creep from the sweating pours of these poems and as a reader they become too close for comfort. The best comparison to this book, for me, is the German film White Ribbon. Suffice to say, this is a horrific and threatening film that never relents in its promise of violence:
Through the filter of this film, these poems have an all too real probability of menacing from under your tongue. There is an unsettling viscera being manipulated and probed; Goldstein's ambiguity does not judge what has or is about to happen: "If the ghost of your true love appears at your window, cover your eyes with cotton and stay still until dawn. But if the ghost comes again the next night, you must lead her back to her jagged body in the cellar where she lies." (48)
These poems beg the read to consider possibility, which is the most frightening after-gloaming our imaginations are able to task. This book is monstrous." - READ THIS AWESOME BOOK
Many old wives’ tales persist in town, such as: take an orphan child hunting, you will return with threefold the bounty. Although law forbids observing such advice, a hard winter is coming. Some adults decide to take a few of these unfortunate children into the woods. The hunt yields nothing. After several days the adults become frustrated, and the already grief-stricken children know something is wrong. Sunlight does not pass through the tree canopy, and the children see ever more owls and bats. They sneak away from the hunting party and wander the forest. Nightjars and swifts circle, alight on their arms, pinch them. Swallows dive and take tufts of their hair. Exhausted, the children crawl into the undergrowth. They feel safe and sleep, but wake without memory of themselves. When they cry it is the sounds of the whippoorwills. The nightingales become their mothers, and pheasants usher them to winter quarters. Meanwhile, the adults have returned to town to face the others. Everyone grimaces, hearing only what they decide to understand.
They call him hatchet-head, spoon-nose, moon-face. His friends are a worn-out bicycle and the family dog, who is graying and slow. They barely endure his talking at home and his mother frequently buries small talismans in the backyard after his father has gone to sleep. One night she nods off in the yard, waking to find her son holding a bouquet of fiddleheads, puffballs and sumac. She feels very hot, as though the sun is out. But it is only that the moon has risen to a brightness she no longer anticipates and she hears the river recede into its rocky bed. Her son’s face is nodding and difficult to see, yellow in a blurring glow.
The town is definitely cursed but some decide to stay there anyway. They watch their screens carefully to help figure out where to burn the leftover parts. They should not forget their protectors, they say to one another. They should remember to chlorinate the water and bathe every third day. The women can be assembled in one area to watch the food. It’ll work itself out once the clouds blow away to the east. The screens have a steady flickering pattern that interferes with live broadcasts of unsmiling wide-shouldered men in heavy suits. The dogs of the town lie in a heap and cough, shuddering with every breath.
One day in June all the baby starlings appeared, just like that: born of nothing but curses. Hurrh-hurrh-hurrh of their feeding throats drowns us out. Insect parts litter the streets, that white shit everywhere and dead robins too. The witches come out and stand on their front porches, clapping their hands to draw the starlings in for the night. Sickness has struck all over town, children falling one by one, their little organs gracefully shutting down, fevering away from consciousness. Mothers try clapping their hands but birds just hit the windows.
They have been banned from the local swimming pool and their parents complained about the trenches they dug in their backyards, so the three girls meet in the colorless dawn by the pond near the highway. People in the cars going by seem not to notice. The girls hold each other’s hands and wade into the shallowest part of the pond, shivering violently. They kneel down and take turns inhaling the stagnant, rusty-tasting wetness, the microbes and the dirt. Now they cannot be seen from the road at all. Each day they return to practice their underwater breathing. When it does flood the following month, they laugh and swim gloriously between the submerged houses like underage mermaids, lithe among bloated debris.
Not so long ago the crops were terrible, and the farmer came home each night worried and wondering how to keep going. Usually there were chickens and rabbits for his wife to cook, but not anymore: now they are almost out of everything. The wife opens her window and lays out a few crumbs of bread on the sill as she has every day for the past several years. The sparrows come, heads cocked. In return for the crumbs they have cleaned her bushes of centipedes, crickets, and biting spiders. They hear her whisper, see the trail laid out for them. That night the farmer returns to a better meal than usual, crunches down the stringy, bone-ridden bits in the stew. Strange, but satisfying, he tells her, before going to bed. She stays up a bit longer by the dying cinders, fingers tapping the rhythms of birdsong. Her insides are fluttering with the beats of tiny organs, there’s something stuck in her throat and her eyes are wide and barely blinking.
All the Birds of Finland. Smoke trapped in the attic. The boy holds illustrations up to the window and traces bird bodies onto sheets of paper towel. Corvus corax. Feral cats caught in traps, blood on canvas, mice in laundry baskets, passerines, tail feathers, sky without color. Grasping a pencil with his small hands, imagining the miles of territory they must cover. Paper towel birds lined neatly in rows, eyes sketched in with water drops.
His father dreams of chivalrous men dancing with beautiful women, slowly spinning. Empty light sockets on the front porch became clogged with nests, punched out with broom ends, all crap and feathers. The car’s backseat holds only empty soda cans never redeemed.
They have been planning the switch for months. The girls grow their hair and dye it the same pale blonde, start buying and wearing identical shapeless dresses, apply their makeup in the same technique and palette. Some kids think it’s cool, but others avoid them because it’s so strange. At first they swap places in a few of their classes to see if the teachers might notice, but none do. Soon afterwards they go to each other’s houses after school, eat dinner with the other’s equally chaotic family, and stay the night in the other’s bed. Each room has the other girl’s scent and pattern of disorder. Each lies awake in a strange house, unsure of the night noises and constituent conversations. At school the next day they congratulate each other on their deception. And so it continues and the two families, being so inconsistent and self-centered, never catch on. One day one of the girls does not show up at school. In fact she is never seen again, since the entire family has fled in the night to avoid their many debts. A letter finally arrives for the abandoned girl, postmarked from another country, with pictures of a new house, an ocean. “I love them and have left myself,” she reads, “I left myself so long ago, please, don’t be angry.”
Read it at Issuu
Interview at Open Letters Monthly