Once the wife of a rich man was on her deathbed and she said to her daughter Cinderella: Be devout. Be good. Then I will smile down from heaven in the seam of a cloud.
Hmm. That "Once," off in a line all by itself, seems kind of important. It seems like the poem really wants us to focus on that word, which is of course the first word of every fairy tale: "Once upon a time." (For more on how this poem is put together, check out "Form and Meter.")
Ah, here we go—this stuff might seem familiar, now. Remember, Sexton's version of the fairy tale follows the Grimm version much more closely than the Disney version.
So here we have straight plot: Cinderella's mother dies and tells her that if she remains good and "devout" (faithful to God), her mother will "smile down from heaven" on her.
If you think about it, that's not a whole lot of incentive to be good, is it? To have a ghost smiling at you? What if you couldn't even see her?
But in Christian culture, to "smile down from heaven" usually means something like "to bless" or "to give blessings to." This has infiltrated our language, as when someone says something like "God was smiling on me."
So if Cinderella stays good, good things will happen to her. Good times. Let's see what happens next.
The man took another wife who had two daughters, pretty enough but with hearts like blackjacks. Cinderella was their maid. She slept on the sooty hearth each night and walked around looking like Al Jolson.
Well, what happens next is about as far from good fortune as one can get.
As we know from the fairy tale, Cinderella's father marries another woman with two daughters—and all three of them turn out to be real jerks.
Sexton says the stepdaughters have "hearts like blackjacks" —which is kind of a strange simile (a comparison using "like" or "as"). After all, what's a "blackjack" in this case? It's probably not the card game, because that doesn't work in the plural. "Blackjack" here has to be a thing, and a bad one at that.
It's possible that Sexton is referring here to the batons that British police use in place of guns—nicknamed "blackjacks" —but we can't be sure.
Then again—does it really matter? Or does the simile manage to get its meaning across anyway? After all, the word "black" is almost universally associated with evil.
And just listen to the way "blackjack" sounds when you say it out loud. It's like being stabbed—twice! Such is the power of a good-sounding simile: we don't have to be exactly sure what Sexton means here; we still get the message, loud and clear.
In the rest of the stanza we have more plot: Cinderella is relegated to the hearth (which means the fireplace—she literally sleeps in the ashes right in front of the fire) and does dirty chores all day.
In another simile, we learn that she looks like Al Jolson. But wait! Who's Al Jolson? He was an early twentieth-century performer who was perhaps most well-known for his performances in blackface—which is when a white guy puts brownish-black makeup all over himself to make him look like an African-American, then performs traditionally black music and theatre. It's considered super offensive today, but in the early twentieth-century it was pretty common.
See the comparison here? Of course! It's Cinderella with her ash-blackened face, looking like Al Jolson. It's not a very nice comparison, and the casual way it's made is a hallmark of Anne Sexton's style—slightly sarcastic, biting, almost shocking. (For more on that, click on over to the "Calling Card" section.)
Still, Al Jolson was very famous. Cinderella was a maid. Al Jolson could take off the makeup whenever he wanted. Cinderella was stuck with it.
Her father brought presents home from town, jewels and gowns for the other women but the twig of a tree for Cinderella. She planted that twig on her mother's grave and it grew into a tree where a white dove sat. Whenever she wished for anything the dove would drop it like an egg upon the ground. The bird is important, my dears, so heed him.
Finally, at the end of the stanza, Cinderella's luck begins to turn around.
But before that, we have an instance of her father not being a very nice person—or so it seems.
In the Grimm version of the tale, Cinderella actually asks for the twig and nothing more—namely, the first twig that brushes her father's hat on the way home.
Here, though, we don't get that plot point, so it seems like Cinderella's father is being just as cruel as her stepsisters. Sexton actually manages to make the story even darker than the Grimm version, which is pretty dark to begin with.
So Cinderella plants this twig on top of her mother's grave. In the Grimm version, she waters it with her tears.
The twig—as is not entirely uncommon in fairy tales and mythology—grows into a tree with magical properties. Namely, it seems to attract a particular white dove, which is where the real magic comes from.
It's a wish-granting dove! Pretty sweet. Every time Cinderella asks for something, the dove makes it appear and then throws it down to her.
Actually, he drops it "like an egg," another simile that gives us a sense of the fragility of the wish itself.
At the end of the stanza we have another strange interjection from the narrator, literally telling us to pay attention to ("heed") the bird, as he'll be important for the rest of the story.