Exploring Modern Magical Realism

b y   t a m a r a   k a y e   s e l l m a n   ~   M A R G I N

SOMETIMES, WHILE reading literary journals and anthologies, I run across poems which leap from a realistic context to something extraordinary. I'm not talking about surrealistic poetics, where the leap is expected and doesn't require logical sensibility. What I'm talking about are those poems which take on transformational strategies similar to those used to write magical realist prose.

Some of these poems are quite obvious in their leaps: Ray Gonzalez's poem, "Easter Sunday 1988, The Grand Canyon, Arizona" is a poem specifically about falling into that great rent of earth, the significance of the holiday and the poet's cultural background not lost in the telling.

But a lot of poems make leaps that are more subtle, or perhaps even accidental. Some resemble the same stretches made in the fiction of Julio Cortázar or Bruno Schulz: leaps in time, logic and landscape.

Contemporary poets C.K. Williams, B.H. Fairchild and Lawrence Raab have graciously contributed poems toward the following discussion of so-called "leaping poetry" and its significance to magical realist writing.


OF THE three poems in this discussion, C.K. Williams's poem, "Biopsy," follows most closely the kind of realistic leaps that are found in magical realist narrative. That is, you'll find the element of dreams, of time stretching into unusual temporalities, of physical enactments of what others might only consider imaginary or metaphoric.

The dream element is introduced in the third line of the first stanza. But it's not the dream element that anchors the poem in a magical realist perspective, it's the text it depends upon in the first two lines:

        Have I told you, love, about the experience
        I sometimes had before I knew you?

Suddenly we become aware of a separate past relationship between the speaker and listener of the poem, one that occurred before they had consciously met. The relationship was not, as Williams points out immediately in the poem, a dream, but a physical connection in which the poet literalizes the painful potential of a future loved one's undiagnosed tumor. It might even describe the point in which they first "met."

The speaker bears the fear and pain of this future event viscerally through to the eventual night of the biopsy But it is only after the tumor is declared benign that the speaker can even begin to explain this horrible journey to his loved one. In the last stanza, he presents the Big Reveal:

         now I can tell you of those hours in which
         my life, not touching you but holding you,
         not making a sound but crying for you,
         divided back into the half it is without you.

Is this just metaphor? Perhaps. But the poet uses such authority in voicing this "true confession" that it seems the poem is actually connecting dots on the timeline of this relationship. There is certainly relief found, at last, in the continuity of the relationship implied by the first line of the last stanza, "the results were 'negative'."

The last line binds the power of the ongoing relationship, then, in lovely form. Anyone who has ever suffered over the fear and pain of a loved one (a lover to another, a mother to a child, etc.) can surely relate to the literal way that one's body can be physically overcome with a longing to remove anxiety, fear and pain from another. In essence, the poet here has written a supportive case for the validity of the emotional medium, a person (not unlike an empath) who is sensitive enough to channel another's pain through to its threshold.

Reading from the complete text (below), one feels confident in the authority of the poet's message, regardless of any discrepancies in time or any questioning of the validity of dreams or precognition. This poem is, quite simply, a true story, based upon experience (stanza 1, line 1) and personal fact. Like so much magical realist prose out there, it exists to tell the truth the way it happened, nonbelievers be damned.


Have I told you, love, about the experience
I sometimes had before I knew you?
At first it seemed to be a dream—I'd be in bed—
then I'd realize I was awake, which made it—
it was already frightening—appalling.

A dense, percussive, pulsing hum,
too loud to bear as soon as I'd hear it,
it would become a coil of audible matter,
still intensifying, so penetrating now
I was sure I'd tear apart in it.

I'd try to speak or shout to contradict it,
but its hold on me was absolute,
I was paralyzed; then, my terror
past some limit, I'd try again, this time
I'd moan aloud, and it would stop.

Trembling, I'd come to myself, as,
the night of your tests, I came shuddering
awake, my fear for you, for us both,
raging more terribly through me
than that vision of annihilation ever did.

I felt I was in that desolate time before you:
I couldn't turn to you for reassurance
without frightening you, couldn't embrace you
lest I wake you to your own anxiety,
so, as I had then, I lay helpless, mute.

…The results were "negative," you're fine,
now I can tell you of those hours in which
my life, not touching you but holding you,
not making a sound but crying for you,
divided back into the half it is without you.

c . k .   w i l l i a m s
p r i n c e t o n ,   n e w   j e r s e y


B.H. FAIRCHILD is known for writing poems grounded in the present and everyday which move into the realm of the extraordinary nonetheless. In the following poem, "Thermoregulation in Winter Moths," his particular leaping ability whisks us from the world of logic and reason and deposits us at a junction of landscapes, of the impossible and the unthinkable.

The poem comes in two parts, which serve as a kind of mirror to each other. One refers to Buddhist monks who can generate heat through meditation while suffering extremely cold temperatures. The second part captures two layers of frozenness for the poem's burn victim: the icy emotional landscape that led to her attempted suicide and the more tangible, if mysterious, way in which burnt flesh can yield a cold sensation.

We have here a play on contradictions. In both scenarios, the subjects of the thermal differences are both seated cross-legged. And yet one subject is a student of Life (the monk), the other a student of Death (the suicide attempter). Both will experience steam rising from their bodies, and the steam will be real (as a metaphysical outcome or as a self-inflicted conflagration). Even the source of the steam will arise from similarly meditative scenarios.

But one fire will be ignited, ultimately, by an internal flame, while the pilot is clearly "out" in the case of the despondent suicide victim, who must reach with a match in order to start what might be compared to a "winter fire."

Interestingly, it's only the winter moths, as referenced in the poem's title and briefly within the poem, and the burn unit patient who tremble inside their frozen landscapes; while cold water drips down the backs of the monks, there isn't any mention of chattering teeth. Might it have something to do with the poem's "thesis question" that is asked in the poem's epigram, lines borrowed from scientist Bernd Heinrich? You decide.


How do the winter moths survive when other moths
die? What enables them to avoid freezing as they
rest, and what makes it possible for them to fly—
and so to seek food and mates—in the cold?


I. The Himalayas

The room lies there, immaculate, bone light
on white walls, shell-pink carpet, and pale, too,
are the wrists and hands of professors gathered
in the outer hall where behind darkness
and a mirror they can observe unseen.
They were told: high in the Himalayas
Buddhist monks thrive in sub-zero cold
far too harsh for human life. Suspended
in the deep grace of meditation, they raise
their body heat and do not freeze to death.
So five Tibetan monks have been flown
to Cambridge and the basement of Reed Hall.
They sit now with crossed legs and slight smiles,
and white sheets lap over their shoulders
like enfolded wings. The sheets are wet,
and drops of water trickle down the monks'
bare backs. The professors wait patiently
but with the widened eyes of fathers
watching new babies in hospital cribs.
Their aluminum clipboards rest gently
in their laps, their pens are poised,
and in a well-lit room in Cambridge
five Tibetan monks sit under heavy wet sheets
and steam begins to rise from their shoulders.

II. Burn Ward

My friend speaks haltingly, the syllables freezing
against the night air because the nurse's story
still possesses him, the ease with which she tended
patients so lost in pain, so mangled, scarred, and
abandoned in some arctic zone of uncharted suffering
that strangers stumbling onto the ward might
cry out, rushing back to a world where the very air
did not grieve flesh. Empathy was impossible,
he said. A kind of fog or frozen lake lay between her
and the patient, far away. Empathy was an insult,
to look into the eyes of the consumed and pretend,
I know. It must have been this lake, this vast
glacial plain that she would never cross, where
the patient waved in the blue-gray distance,
alone and trembling the way winter moths tremble
to warm themselves, while she stood, also alone
and freezing, on the other side, it must have been
this unbearable cold that made her drive straight home
one day, sit down cross-legged in the center of
an empty garage, pour the gasoline on like a balm,
and calmly strike a match like someone starting
a winter fire, or lost and searching in the frozen dark.

b. h .   f a i r c h i l d
c l a r e m o n t ,   c a l i f o r n i a


I LIKE the poem, "Vanishing Point," by Lawrence Raab because its subject matter reminds me of the Cortázar short story, "Axolotl." In "Axolotl," a man is at an aquarium staring at a strange, eel-like creature. He stares for so long that he inevitably assumes the identity of the creature.

"Vanishing Point" is written in the second-person vantage point, so by its very nature the poem's speaker is demanding the reader's cooperation. It tells the reader where he/she is, what he/she sees. "That's where you're headed," the speaker in the poem says with authority.

I'm reminded, not only of the hypnotic qualities seen through Cortázar's aquarium glass in "Axolotl," but of the passages describing a city in the brilliant short story, "Street of Crocodiles," by Bruno Schulz. The story is about a young man's venturing into the city which, we learn at the end of the story, is nothing more than a paper illusion.

In Raab's poem, we are greeted by the same possibility, that we are entering a similar façade, when he nudges us with these key lines:

                        Did you really think
        you were just out for an aimless stroll?

This follows a tradition in magical realist prose, where authors hint at other stories hiding behind the stage curtains of their main narratives.

Raab's concurrent reference to the world as "a blank page of open space" could be taken literally or figuratively; it works in either case. Certainly the notion is supported by the rest of the images in the poem: the mountains, the sky, which could be part of a real horizon or a real drawing, or could exist merely as symbols.

Curiously, the ending lines in Raab's poem take on contextual similarities with the endings of both short stories mentioned here.

In Schulz's "...Crocodiles," the last line reads:

         "Obviously, we were unable to afford anything better than a paper imitation, a montage of illustrations cut out from last year's moldering newspapers."

And in "Axolotl," the eel that has consumed the human figure speaks:

         "And in this final solitude to which he [the human figure] no longer comes, I console myself by thinking that perhaps he is going to write a story about us, that, believing he's making up a story, he's going to write all this about axolotls." (Editor's note: parentheses added for clarity.)

In Raab's "Vanishing Point," the last two lines of the one-stanza poem deliver a similar sense of hopelessness or despair:

         Is there any comfort in believing
you're needed where you are?

In all three works, the notion of seeing the "real world" rests ultimately in the way one enters that landscape. It's as if, in the case of all three writers, this entrance they've created for the reader, into a particular landscape with specifically hopeful expectations (a city, a place on the horizon, a zoo) is really just revealing the reader's innate blindness to what's really there.

For Raab, it is through a picture "someone else has drawn;" for Schulz, it is through an enormous wall map with a bird's-eye panorama; and for Cortázar, it was his character's expectant visit to the zoo in springtime, and his eventual discovery of the axolotl tank in the aquarium after first being disappointed with a pathetic collection of lions.

These leaps between landscapes, from the real to the imagined, constitute a powerful aspect of magical realist poetry: they take words from the hands of metaphor and deliver them instead as an unfolding of unexpected reality. This is no easy task to achieve, but poets with considerable authority in their verse are apt to achieve it (even without meaning to). Raab's "Vanishing Point" is one such delivery.


You're walking down a road
which someone has drawn to illustrate
the idea of perspective, and you are there
to provide a sense of scale.
See how the road narrows in the distance,
becoming a point at which
everything connects, or flies apart.
That's where you're headed.
The rest of the world is a blank page
of open space. Did you really think
you were just out for an aimless stroll?
And those mountains on the horizon:
the longer you look, the more forbidding
they become, bleak and self-important,
like symbols. But of what?
The future, perhaps. Destiny. Or the opposite.
The perpetual present, the foolishness of purpose.
At evening they recede into the sky
as if they had always been the sky.
Is it a relief to know you'll never reach them?
Is there any comfort in believing
you're needed where you are?

l a w r e n c e   r a a b
w i l l i a m s t o w n ,   m a s s a c h u s e t t s

POETS HAVE, throughout the ages, incorporated magical realist strategies in their work, consciously or not. Two of the world's most beloved magical realist poets, Lorca and Neruda, use these strategies for leaping from the real to the extraordinary with such fluidity that their leaps have become the hallmarks of their work. But even in the most contemporary poetry, you'll find, in works here and there, the undying presence of the magical realist approach, as poets take their own precipitous leaps, across time, logic and landscape, in order to tell their own stories.


"Axolotl," by Julio Cortázar, ©1967
"Easter Sunday 1988, The Grand Canyon, Arizona" by Ray Gonzalez, ©1989
"Street of Crocodiles," by Bruno Shulz, ©1963

If you enjoyed the subject matter of this article, you may also wish to read William Pierce's essay, Fabulously Real, which explores the considerably shaky ground upon which discussions about literary realism are made.



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