Robert Coover "Pricksongs & Descants"

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Julia Van Middlesworth

Annotation: Robert Coover “Prick songs & Descants”

To read Pricksongs & Descants is to travel through the dark myths of childhood—not the scrubbed down Disney “rip-off” versions—but the Brother’s Grimm with a Robert Coover triple twist of sex, death and terror. “The Gingerbread House,” is transformed into a journey of sexual discovery. In “A Winter’s Scene” the camera lens focuses tightly, then pulls back for the depth of field shot. The reader watches as the latent image, black and white, floats to the surface and with it a sense of doom and foreboding. In “The Baby Sitter” we take a funhouse spin through the suburbs where anything and everything and nothing happens. The reader new to metafiction, as I am, is perplexed at times, but engaged. Disoriented at first, but grounded by the rich tapestry of his sentences and the vibrant imagery that he assembles in collage-like sequences. There is terror here for sure—this is Cooverville, but who doesn’t like the flapping of black rags? We are curious.

“The Gingerbread House”.

This is the fairytale of Hansel and Gretel re-spun with the threads and rags showing. No, the witch doesn’t roast slowly in the oven in this retelling. Coover uses sensory detail and repetition to set the mood of “The Gingerbread House”. It opens with the young boy and girl entering the forest where “earthly greens seep into the darkening distance.” The verb “seep” that Coover has chosen does a lot of work for him. Consciously or unconsciously, the reader senses danger ahead. The “earthly greens” don’t sprout, waver or beckon, they “seep” which gives the palpable sensation of the forest encroaching. The word “seep” suggests water, rising water, algae filled water, decay. And this word appears again in passage 23. “Shapes seem to twist and coil, and vapors seep up from the forest floor.” The vapors seep up as does the floor of the forest and nature will have its way. Coover also uses light and dark to shade and evoke emotion and mood. We skip into the shadow then into the light. The sunlight is “filtered” and also vaporous and the reader has a sensory perception of a mist floating in the air, as if looking through a curtain—we see but not clearly, it’s all a bit gauzy. And in this diaphanous atmosphere they sing, “ Their song tells of God’s care for the little ones.” Here, Coover uses the weight of words to stop us. There is something discordant behind the words. We know that the darkness ahead will tell a different story. And we know that the song they sing is but a myth with all the tatters showing. As the reader follows the path, Coover uses vibrant colors as a painter dabs a bit of scarlet here, and yes, a splotch of purple beside it. “Spots of red, violet, pale blue, gold, burnt orange,” the pattern falls as notes, clipped and in succession. They seem to vibrate against one another. There is the jolt of red and the violet with a timbre of violence. The “pale blue” and “gold” bring a rest and suggest the highly idealized illustrations of Jesus with the pale blue and the gold light emanating from his spirit. Finally, the shock of “burnt orange” which brings the sentence to a fiery end. And later in passage 29, we have, “The good fairy has sparkling blue eyes and golden hair”. When the witch appears she is in black rags that flap in the wind. The witch represents life and death. The good fairy is myth. Coover uses the symbolic power of color throughout to add texture and latent meaning.

By section 11, the dove appears in a beautiful description.
“The dove is a soft lustrous white, head high, breast filled, tip of tail less than a feathers thickness off the ground.” And at the end of section 11 I love the way he ends with: “Only its small beak moves. Around a bread crumb.” (Pg.65) I love the rhythm of these two sentences and the way the second comes to a stop and adds a sort of an inside joke. We all know the birds in the...
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