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What this Cinderella has lost -- and gained

Jean Flanagan

Arlington Poet Laureate Jean Flanagan, who seeks contributions by May 1 to a planned publication called Anthology of Arlington, Massachusetts Poets, has written a poem titled "My Sister's Foot." Steven Ratiner, former town laureate, comments on it as part of his ongoing "Red Letter Poem" series. Take a break from social media -- read and reflect ....

I am obsessed with shoes.
Smooth red suede heels
3 inches high
navy blue leather flats for ankle-length pants.
Sandals with diamonds and silver bling.
Sneakers for tennis
green as grass.
I hate Mary Jane’s
the unsightly strap.
No style there.

My sister asks me to put a gold flat shoe
on her black titanium foot.
I push and push like the ugly stepsister,
escaped from “Cinderella.”
But still, I cannot get it to fit.
She cannot feel
me pound it on her foot
or my heart as I look away.
I return the shoe to the closet
with other shoes she’ll never wear
steps she’ll never take.

Steven RatinerSteven Ratiner / David Andrews photo 

Ratiner comments in Red Letter No. 200:

The dark forest. . .the threatening beast. . .the quivering candle flame pointing the way home.  Even before the Brothers Grimm began collecting them in book form, traditional fairy tales comprised an elaborate text of moral and practical wisdom, stocked with characters and events familiar to every individual who has survived childhood. These iconic stories have been preserved on the tongues of grandparents and inscribed upon the blank pages of our young imaginations.

But I was an impressionable college kid, way back in 1971, when Anne Sexton’s Transformations was published –– a book-length collection recasting those iconic narratives into fraught situations not-so-very far from our own everyday reality.  Anne was not the very first to do this, but the scope of her sly and spirited re-imaginings had tremendous psychic resonance––for me and a whole generation of rising poets.  Fairy tales and myths have remained part of our poetic toolbox ever since. 

So it is not surprising that Jean Flanagan has turned to such a formulation in trying to come to terms with this particular family memory. But what caught me off guard (and became creatively refreshing within her poem) was the unexpected ways she cast the roles in this little drama.

Her younger sister plays the part of Cinderella –– except she has lost, not her glass slipper, but the foot itself (and I can’t help envisioning cruel diabetes lurking off-stage like that big bad wolf.)

Jean explained to me that her sister lives with a titanium prosthetic from the knee down but has somehow never surrendered to self-pity (making her a heroine indeed.)  But, in this skewed version, the narrator imagines herself as “the ugly stepsister,” trying hard to get an attractive dress shoe to stay in place.

A self-deprecating gesture, to be sure, but doesn’t that hint at the tangled thicket in which all our fragile egos exist?  In this scene, we envision the sister aspiring to –– not the Prince’s dress ball –– but the palace of everyday experience from which she might sometimes feel excluded. And when the speaker looks away, heart pounding, we are all reminded of how often fairy tale endings fail to materialize. Still, isn’t Jean’s poem the sort of candle flame by which we can take our bearings?

Jean, I am happy to say, succeeded me as Arlington’s laureate, and is in the midst of her second term. Following the democratizing instincts that have long characterized her work, she has focused on bringing poetry to diverse settings, and inviting poets and artists to combine forces for the enrichment of the community. 

Two thematic threads have run through most of her own poetry: the effects of the Irish diaspora and the intricacies of family life (the two often intersecting.) She’s published two collections –– Ibbetson Street (Garden Street Press) and Black Lightning (Cedar Hill Books) –– and has had work appear in a variety of publications including, most recently, Nixes Mate Review and The Power of The Feminine Vol 1.

 For many years, Jean has also taught in a variety of educational settings including an alternative sentencing program called “Changing Lives Through Literature.”  She was one of the founders of the Arlington Center for the Arts which continues to be, decades later, a cornerstone of cultural life in our area.

This poem and commentary were published Monday, April 1, 2024.

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Thursday, 13 June 2024

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