Swans in Half-Mourning, a prose poem in ninety-six parts from Per Second Press, is perhaps the most innovative retelling of a fairy tale that I have ever encountered, one that needs to be experienced, not merely read. Challenging and unconventional, this book is for readers haunted by Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Wild Swans”, in which a young girl frees her brothers from their enchanted swan form by knitting them coats made of nettles. Vi Khi Nao’s version is filled with surprising details: a powerful God who seems curiously human, a bird’s experience of desire, an unexpected source of blood found on a conjugal bed.
In this version the heroine, Cynthia, the first in line for the throne, is in love with another princess, Veronika. The passion between the two women, conveyed in beautiful imagery, is irresistible: “Later, Veronika, enervated, will return to the garden of mattresses and allow the horizon of Cynthia’s kiss to slip into her mouth”. It is this passion, as well as pressure from the antagonist Queen, that will make it hard for Cynthia to keep her six-year vow of silence, one of the conditions to which she must adhere in order to break the spell.
The brothers’ dilemma demands Cynthia’s labor as well as her silence. Like many a fairy-tale heroine, Cynthia’s task seems impossible: she must make six shirts from starwort, which is apparently as painful as nettles. While the brothers wait for their sister to complete her work, we are treated to the many details of a swan’s life. The author’s attention to the brothers’ transformation is speculative fiction at its best. Since they become human for a brief period each day, the brothers inhabit a dual reality, where the most mundane of human tasks (undressing, using the toilet) can become suddenly impossible. The effect is interesting and sometimes comical, satisfying the modern reader’s wish to enter the physical world of the fairy tale. For those who have ever wondered what it is like to slip into animal form, this work proves that it is not only fascinating, but perilous as well–swans, enchanted or otherwise, should stay away from kitchen work stations.
In the end the language itself is the greatest achievement of this short work. “The Voice of Veronika spoke: ‘I wish sometimes when I come into a room, all of my body parts unassembled like your brothers, Cynthia, so that everyone’s speech and the landscape’s oration could slowly reassemble me back into poetry and I would become a complete woman’”. Vi Khi Nao does not limit herself to the fairy-tale realm, instead allowing YouTube and Starbucks to intrude upon this enchanted world and leave us in a state of pleasant disorientation. Fortunately this work is still available in the real world in an affordable e-book format: