Siblings by Suzanne Burns, Reviewed by Jennifer Givhan
J.R.R. Tolkien says, “If fairy story as a kind is worth reading at all it is worthy to be written for and read by adults. They will, of course, put more in and get more out than children can.” This is true of Suzanne Burns’ new poetry collection Siblings, a surrealist retelling of the Hansel and Gretel tale. Ben Marcus, who awarded Siblings first place in the 2013 Diagram Innovative Fiction Prize by Diagram Magazine, says, “Suzanne Burns has perfectly captured the powerful strangeness of childhood, the fear and joy and weird rituals we invent to work out our place in the world.”
Narrated in the first-person persona of an unnamed Gretel character, Burns’ collection of linked poems delivers a vision from a world of childhood where reality and fairytale collide in the kind of surrealism in which the familiar feels strange and the strange feels familiar. In a rite of passage poem early in the book, the speaker begins menstruating, one catalyst of the siblings’ journey; her brother “corrals the spiders / into a circle on [their] bed” until “the first night [she] bleed[s]” when “they stop gathering around” (“4,” 5-6, 12, 11). “Your blood is nothing like ours,” the spiders whisper (“4,” 13). Later in this poem, the brother says, about the speaker’s menstrual blood, “This will save us both, someday” (“4,” 17), but this is a power and agency with which the speaker is uneasy; she says,
I ask Mother
to tie my lets together with ribbons.
I ask Mother
to save the fish bones from dinner.
My brother calls me an imposter
when I tell him
I have oceans in my body just waiting to be released.
That night I dream when I sleep
about building a boat
to sail across my sea. (“5,” 9-18)
One major accomplishment of Siblings is its ability to explore taboos within the family dynamic, to plod deeply into rather dark material, while still retaining a childlike innocence, a sweetness, albeit a bittersweet, a nearly sickly sweet. As the speaker says in “A Treatise on Gingerbread,” these poems make up the “finest house [ . . . ] built from sugar,” but where “other fairytales [ . . . ] forget to mention the bugs, everything pretending to be so sanitary all the time [ . . . ] this house crawls with worms… this house is the house no one can stop eating” (“56,” 8, 9).
The surprising and complex relationship between sister and brother is difficult to pin down; it deepens as the poems progress. In the collection’s opening, the speaker contextualizes her brother’s and her place in the family: “When there is only enough for one of us / Mother feeds him from a silver tray,” she says, although they are all “becoming a family of skeletons” (“2,” 9-10; “7,” 1). So “each night when [their] parents / reduce themselves to dreams / he lodges a candy between [the speaker’s] teeth” and says, “Bite down and this sugar / will make you feel relieved” (“1,” 4-6, 7-8). The slippery bond is both innocently intimate and tinged with erotic undertones, transgressive material fit for fairytale exploration, with its tradition of the mythic and metaphorical. “I have never kissed you,” the brother says, “because you are the kind of girl / who wears a crown to bed . . . // and you are my sister” (“35,” 1-4). At times the relationship takes even darker turns, and the speaker tells her brother,
Whenever I see a cake
I want to eat until I get sick
Whenever I see [the witch] coming.
I want to know
what it will really feel like
to be me without you (“71,” 4-9)
The jealousy for the brother’s affection bubbling beneath the surface throughout the narrative begins bursting through as the witch makes her appearance, when the siblings
follow paths in black forests
until they see a house made of gingerbread
and a witch inside who only acts bad
when she is hungry. (“53,” 2-5)
The problem is that “she is always hungry” (“54,” 1).
Still, the book is not all darkness and psychological prodding. The lyricism and deft figurative language in each poem shines through, as in the following stanza in a poem about the speaker’s mother:
Her body knew these recipes
the way a tattoo always knows paper moons
sailing over cardboard seas
can only last as long as the believer
agrees in the contract of make-believe. (“20,” 11-16)
While this is a book for dreamers and fairytale aficionados, Siblings remains ever self-aware, a meta-analysis of the form it uses and the trappings associated with it, some of which Burns uses as subtle social critique; the speaker says, “In this story there is no path. // The next person who writes this / will add the path back in” (“33,” 1-3). Yet the speaker knows she is part of a fairytale, that as a “good girl” she is by “default” playing a role
prized by good girls in other fairytales
the ones who luck out with woodsmen
who cross-train and drink Muscle Milk,
to pull women out of wolves,
retire red capes for engagement rings,
retrofit glass slippers. (“17,” 5, 13, 5-11)
This stanza also demonstrates another trope that Burns uses throughout the collection; within the hazy childhood world of make-believe, outside reality continually tries to invade. “And I am not dumb, you know,” the speaker says.
It’s not like the inside of the house
doesn’t have real walls
and a spoon rack
and a thimble collection and a flush toilet
and heart medicine in a brown pill bottle. (“64,” 8-14)
It’s only that “the house smells like a sweeter version / of [the children’s] defeat,” of their family’s defeat (“72,” 5-6).
In an interview response to the process of writing Siblings, Burns said,
Then an opportunity came for me to spend a week at the Oregon coast editing and tinkering with the piece in the most fantastical place I have ever been, Marie Antoinette’s Cupcake and Espresso Parlor. (Sadly now closed.) A converted bank building, the parlor was the size of a ballroom, decorated like something out of an Alice in Wonderland tea party, and stuffed with comfortable chairs and private, secret corners. What could be more magical than editing a fairytale while eating rich chocolate cupcakes each day, served on miniature silver platters with petite cake forks? I think the atmosphere, the lightness, the daily dose of chocolate, helped me feel less afraid of taking the story to a darker place. (redpainthill.com).
Burns’ assessment of writing the book is how I felt reading the book—while aspects of the narrative unearth the trauma and uncertainty of childhood, the fairytale and meta-criticism seemed to pull me safely through. I felt truly attached to the stories of this brother and sister, whose affection for each other even in their cruelest moments is touching and reassuring, even as their fate remains uncertain. “[D]on’t we at least go back to our cabin in the woods, with no more woods,” the speaker asks, “and fall asleep in the same bed waiting to grab at our sugarplum dreams?” (“79: A Treatise on Chicken Bones, Part 2,” 10-12). Perhaps “just until morning” (“87,” 2), or perhaps until the reader finishes this powerful tale.
Burns, Suzanne. Siblings. Clarksville, Tennessee: Red Paint Hill Press, 2014. Print.