Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter or Living Truthfully Under Imaginary Circumstances by Elizabeth Powell. Anhinga, 2016.
Reviewed by Nancy Mitchell
Elizabeth Powell’s compelling new volume of poems, Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter or Living Truthfully Under Imaginary Circumstances, winner of the 2015 Robert Dana-Anhinga Prize for Poetry and published by Anhinga Press, is the saga of one psyche’s circuitous, courageous evolution to wholeness as it reclaims and integrates the fragments of its shattered self. Like a classic epic, the book is substantial; its 109 pages are divided into four distinct, yet integrated parts, and the arc of each furthers the narrative arc of the collection, the tension of which lies in “the tug of war between what you are and what you want to be.” In lines barely held in check by semi-formal constraints of rhyme and rhythm, the poems pellmell the reader through poems like “a toboggan threshing me down a hill.” The wrangle of this struggle is underscored by erratically shifting tones via inventive syntax and humorous, original neologisms/verbalizations: “I lollygagged and sofatized as I proceeded with the CNN-induced lobotomy dream of life,” and
The world, violent full of sex,
the movie’s zeitgeist, era after era, a new Bond
(CARE PACKAGE, WITH RIDDLE AS MISSIVE)
as well as with startling enjambments:
…This poem is made of me and I it. It doesn’t worry
about irony or stance and only odd incidence and fact and doesn’t care
if it tells the truth about what will happen to my face
or behind my back….
Part One, the heftiest section, worthy to stand on its own as a separate volume, serves as the Genesis, the creation story of the collection, as it introduces the origin of the book’s structure along which uncanny parallels to the speaker’s life are plotted:
Around then, I read my father’s 1960s Compass copy of Arthur Miller's
"Death of a Salesman" and began to understand why his sister called
him Willy Loman. He had eaten the dream and it made him sick...But
my father’s sister never stopped with the Willy Loman talk, and so we
seemed to be acting that play as our family drama.
(“AUTOCORRECTING THE LYRIC I”)
From a longstanding intimacy with the American drama—“This entire book is in love with Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, and has been in conversation with it for a good, long time,” according to Powell’s notes—and subsequent internalization, a world is created into which the title character is called forth from the a shadowy subterranean of unconsciousness, or “my doppelgänger under the bed, snoring and talking and laughing in her sleep,” to inhabit this world with full autonomy: “I read it again and again, until the doppelgänger moved from under the bed to the top bunk.”
Powell’s doppelgänger is an alchemic tour de force, deftly echoing Plath: “and then I knew what to do. / I made a model of you,” claims a poem also titled “Daddy.” Willy Loman’s daughter, paradoxically whole and black hole, becomes the self into which other selves, shattered “the way the Rolling Stones sing about” by seismic psychological pressures, are absorbed. Because the doppelgänger can successfully assimilate undifferentiated cultural identities—
Let’s say I’m fusion of cold borscht and finger sandwiches on white. I'm
matzo ball Jew Bagel and thrifty Campbell’s soup with dried parsley
don’t-worry-about-me luncheon. I’m noodle kugel and I’m turkey divan
casserole. I’m Bubbeleh and I’m Dearie. I’m Ma and I’m Mummy. I’m
the Episcojew, and I am strong and not strong! I have a family tartan
and a silence in the Vilnius ghetto. I cannot be buried in the holy land
but I cannot be cremated. I am passing and have passed, heard the
murmurs of lovely & also ... Dirty Jews, Fucking Gentiles.
—as well as the trauma of sexual abuse—
…small child who is taken into a room with
an ex-convict and made to drink peppermint schnapps and lie on his
polyester orange and yellow bed and black out until she walks from
the room and is shown his medals of valor from a war she doesn't
understand. She didn’t know peppermint that way until she came
to dislike the sunniest days. (“Sense Memory: (Re)-Experiencing Time Travel”)
she becomes the trustworthy, although admittedly imaginary confidant, sister in Pasternak’s “sister life,” the ma souer of the speaker. Both protective mediator and arbiter of memory, the doppelgänger will become the the reliable narrator, even as she speaks as a foil to other characters throughout the book, but only with the speaker’s complicity or permission:
My retinal flashes made no sense until I realized they were someone
else’s story trying to live through me. That sweet doppleganger, brother-
sister, evil other, good girl! The story kept banging at my red front door…
“Someone else’s story” is also the speaker’s; by opening the “red front door” she intuitively and courageously allows the necessary psychic split into a stronger double who, acting as a “second,” descends into the hell of the past and faces down the demons of abandonment and estrangement, before assimilating them and returning whole to tell the whole story.
In the poem “LIVING TRUTHFULLY UNDER IMAGINARY CIRCUMSTANCES,” the speaker speaks for “both of them” with, “We both want to be whole, so the story can be told.” In my notes I’ve written, “Or maybe: We want the story to be told so we can both be whole.” Elizabeth Powell’s stunning, evocative Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter or Living Truthfully Under Imaginary Circumstances, is, like any odyssey, to be read in parts, slowly, carefully, and reflectively, like a psyche recovering the shattered parts of herself.