Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

P O E T R Y   R E V I E W
ABSENCE, PRESENCE
AND MAGICAL REALISM

D a n n y e   R o m i n e   P o w e l l   h o n o r s   C e l a
( a n d   M a d n e s s )


BY MARJORIE ROMMEL

THE ECSTASY OF REGRET
Dannye Romine Powell
© 2002
University of Arkansas Press, 80 pp.
$16 Paperback

ABSENCE AND presence are major themes in Dannye Romine Powell’s book of poems, The Ecstasy of Regret: absence of the yearned for; presence of the unwelcome, the insidious, the perhaps downright dangerous—and equally important, the fey, even fairytale ability of drunks, religious zealots and the seriously illusional/delusional to cross the unseen border between absence and presence, perhaps at will.

In the very first poem, “What Entices May Finally Recede,” the poet hints of what she means to tell us about relationships, describing a farmhouse with “two white chairs on the porch.” It is, she says, “Just a house...” But what’s missed in the distant, more picturesque territorial view is “...the bevel/of wear on the wooden steps / the iron lock that makes a traitor of the door.”

Inside this remote house, the inhabitants (if there are any) may be supposed to lead tranquil, ordinary lives inaccessible to the poet (and her reader), regardless of how much she longs to go inside, “rattle dishes and remake/the bed.” What we choose to see about the world we live in, and about human relationships—in fact, the human condition—is a matter of perspective, she tells us: the longer view shows the mystery of setting, but misses what the closer view reveals of the details, where God surely lives.

More telling still, in the second poem, “Startled by Green,” the teasing grin of a five-year-old boy “insisting he’ll never go wrong” in a photo rediscovered after the death of his grandfather, the poet’s father, is a sad precursor to a series of poems that bleed absence. “The Woman Who Allowed Light to Have Its Way With Her” alludes to the story of Leda and the Swan, “the impetuous sailor/her mother warned her against/time after time...” Absence of that much-loved son, now grown, appears in “The Day He Disappeared”; absence of the muse shows up in “How the Muse Keeps Trying to Elude Me.”

The heart of Powell’s book resides in “Relapse,” which gains much by liberal quotes from the addictively odd prose poem format of Camilo José Cela’s 1953 novel, Mrs. Caldwell Habla Su Hijo (Mrs. Caldwell Speaks To Her Son), in which a deranged Englishwoman, Mrs. Caldwell, searches for her drowned son in a manner strikingly similar to Orpheus’s quest for Eurydice in the underworld, here recast in the mold of alcoholic relapse: a kind of limbo for both mother and son. In the poem, the poet speaks of searching for her son lost to alcohol in much the same way Mrs. Caldwell searches for her son lost to death:

“...in a murky garden
of willows and junipers, I would never tire
of looking for you, my dear, of looking
for you with lights and with the little hazelwood
wand which illuminates the waters
and hidden treasures...”

The alcoholic son is portrayed as victim to his addiction––a kind of perverse Gift of the Gods––in much the same way that Yeats’ Wandering Aengus goes off into a hazel wood “because a fire is in my head.” It is interesting to note that in both poems the hazel wand is used as a magical means of both lighting the way and “catching” what is sought.

All four––Orpheus, Aengus, Eliacim, Powell’s “son”––are border crossers, able to move freely in and out of the realms of Lethe, though each stands to lose something essential every time he crosses. The poet/speaker in “Relapse,” on the other hand, is close enough to see across that dangerous border, but however long she traipses “through murky gardens, a hazelwood wand in hand,” she is unable to get there.

“I’ll tell you my need: When I look at him,
I see through his presence into his absence.
I touch his shoulders and my fingers
encounter holes. It’s been this way for years.
One drink, and he’ll blow
right out of this world as you’re drying
the tablespoons. One drink
and all I know of him evaporates.”

"I'll tell you my need." In this and other of Powell's poems, that need, so strongly rooted in human nature, is recognized, and addressed, by means of nonlinear time, subjective causality, and highly unlikely scenarios––all hallmarks of literary magical realism.

This poem, containing both the absence of a loved only son and the presence of the stranger who periodically replaces him, and the magical thinking of his desperately obsessed mother, is enchanting, heart-breaking and all too real.

In “After Detox,” Powell recognizes:

“... Here comes my son
who is made of cravings.
And in “The Wink:”

“...in a flash I know
the wink could unlatch my gold
anklet, snatch my freshwater pearls,
wheedle me out of everything
I own, including my life
savings, dash out the door,
everything gone in a wink.”
Sad, but true: the reality is that you can’t ever entirely trust a junkie, even––maybe especially––if he is your own son; and you may not be able to trust yourself, either, doomed to be the ever-indulgent enabler. It's even sadder to know how thoroughly the son indulges in junkie thinking, seeing himself as the victim of his life, as Powell so accurately describes in the poem, “In the Two-Week Relapse Prevention Program My Son Writes a Forty-Six-Page Autobiography.”

Counterpoint to the son poems, Powell interweaves poems from a sometimes amusing, sometimes seriously disturbing series in which Eve and Adam maneuver an unlikely suburban life first inside, then outside, the Garden of Eden. The first of those, “Eve Screams for the Hoe,” reveals Adam’s fumbling inability to find the hoe he might use to kill the serpent, which, meanwhile, rapes Eve, going “clean up in her,” in a lean, strong, truly nightmarish 19-line poem without an ounce of fat on it.

It's a not uncommon theme, the imagined lives of the Hebrew first couple, one examined by many modern poets both in and out of the magical realist range. Annie Finch's collection, Eve (Story Line Press, 1997), comes to mind, and especially Amy Fleury's "The Fugitive Eve" in her collection, Beautiful Trouble (Southern Illinois University Press, 2004), which gives us Eve

"on the lam,
running through brambles, plum boughs
and luminous webs, past low-slung branches,
past the birds of the air and beasts of the field,
over the rocky soil, stumbling out
of the garden, out of the numb perfection
of before into the brilliant and difficult ever-after.
She is running and running, she feels
the warm rub of her blood-slicked thighs
and a thudding, which is her heart. He is close
behind her, clutching the pain in his side."

Powell's “Leaving the Garden,” on the other hand, shows a more tranquil Adam and Eve working together to tidy the house and garden before they are expelled. After the fact, they seem to spend more time arguing whose was the greater crime––hers for enticing him, his for eating. Eve, pregnant in “Eve’s Sorrows Multiplying,” suffers morning sickness. When the child is born, she ponders, seeming to make excuses for his bad behavior in advance:

“This is a new thing, she thinks. Like us
but not us. If I fail
to comprehend him, who will?”
This seems to shed light on the “son” poems, as well.

In “Adam Tries to Explain to God That None of This Is His Fault,” Powell shows the universality of the son’s point of view expressed in Powell's “In the Two-Week Relapse Prevention Program...” In “The Other Life,” she examines the possibility that the poet, and perhaps Eve, too, might have made other choices. But, she says:

“Don’t misunderstand. I’m here by consent.
I was simply trying to remember
the exact dimensions of longing.”
Lest you think Eve is entirely the good guy in this story, Powell admits, in “Eve’s Not a Bad Mimic,” that Eve’s “got God down/pat,” and “nags him (Adam) until he blanches.” But Eve, too, Powell says, is shaped by her beginnings:

“Listen. Next time you hear her
badgering Adam, remember
that inlet where she slept,
a mere ribbon inside
his chest. Feel the tornado
sucking her out, air slapping
at her flesh. She’s dripping wet,
knees wobbly. And Adam?
Slathered in sleep.”

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