Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter or Living Truthfully Under Imaginary Circumstances
Anhinga Press, Sept 2016 (Winner of the 2015 Robert Dana-Anhinga Prize for Poetry)
120 pp; $20
Reviewed by Matthew Lippman
“Autocorrecting the Lyric” is the first piece/poem in Elizabeth Powell’s new and prize winning book, Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter or Living Truthfully Under Imaginary Circumstances (winner of the 2015 Robert Dana-Anhinga Prize for Poetry). In this fantastic collection what is evident from the get-go is that the speaker is most definitely a daughter. She is also a wife, a mother, a woman of the deep heart and spirit. Reckless? No. Or, yes, if the heart is a reckless landscape of emotive temperaments, shifts, mannerisms, funky phantoms of hipness and insight, then, yes, reckless. The entirety of the book is made up of poems that constantly autocorrect themselves. That is, if we think of the autocorrect as something that, on its own, decides to reconstitute, re-imagine, reconfigure, and rearrange, with the sole purpose of getting it wrong in order to make sense of the self in its most organic and authentic state. Powell is interested in investigation, in plumbing the depths of experience—a lifetime’s worth of experience—to get at that authentic spirit. The only way she can do this is writing and re-writing and re-writing her world, the big world, to find that place. The poems in Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter, then, are beautifully reckless—full of love, hope, desire, and forgiveness.
If you, like myself, have never been involved with Death of a Salesman in any shape or form it does not matter. Powell’s poems transcend Miller’s play, its narrative and its characters. If you know a little about Willy Loman from the ether—that he is juvenile, sad, and unrounded—you will not be lost. These pieces are so universal in spirit and form that they will appeal to the every-person.
When I autocorrect myself, it is better than back when I merely erased myself. There are many ways of erasure: deletion, drunk and disorderly, disintegration. Acting is a favored mode, and that’s why I like theater, drama, monologue. I’ve had practice passing as a Jew and passing as a WASP because my mother teacher explained that I am what used to be called in New York, a Mic-Moc, though I am not Irish. I have become kind of good at doing this passing, though the one identity is always trying to autocorrect the other. Can you guess which parent of mine is a Jew? A Gentile?
— “Autocorrecting The Lyric”
If Willy Loman’s plight is the plight of the American then so is the speaker of Powell’s poems. The narrative in this book is the narrative of what it means to be a 21st century American—it is a tale of slipping between identities to simultaneously identify as an original self and then, an imagined-American self. To be one and the other at the same time. To always be passing, switching.
The greatest power a poem has is to be utterly grotesque and gorgeous at the same time so as to personalize and universalize. All of the writings in this collection are gorgeous renderings of the grotesque American experience. Powell’s intimacy is off the charts as Jew and Gentile, and yet it does not matter if you are Puerto Rican and Chinese, White and Native American, you will get it, what she is after—the dance of the autocorrect. I am This. I am That. I am Mother and Not Mother. I am Daughter and Not Daughter. I am Reckless and Contained. In exploring these dualities, of course, the poems embrace the human experience of Willy Loman and his crew. It is the unfolding drama of an American family in all of its dysfunction, something to be celebrated in all of its difficulty, and, as we continue to move forward into our history, something that is both fantastic and elegant and mired in the muck.
Many of the poems in Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter grapple with death. Powell has a little section called “Funeral Staging.” Another entitled, “Regarding My Autopsy.” There are poems entitled “From The Book Of Condolences, “What Death Said,” and “At The Grave.” This is not to say the book is morbid. Oh no, not at all. It is quite the contrary. I think of the French phrase, ‘le petit mal’, the little death, when I read these poems. It’s as if each moment and its ending has to die in order to give birth to a new moment, a new insight and experience. Powell is embedded in this process. These poems walk the tight rope between what is real and what is imagined. In her poem “Invitation To My Real Self From My Imaginary Self,” she writes:
Please come flying: I’ve been to a wake and a funeral. The other alters aren’t as fun as you. As the host I invite you clearly, over the Brooklyn Bridge, please come flying. So that when you arrive I will know you have been listening to your iPod on the train, snapping Juicy Fruit gum, committing the same old adultery in your head because I am the host and you are the alter. Tonight we will be two characters in search of an author, or maybe I mean father.
The play as idiom. The theater as structure. The lines between character and person, always blurred. It never concludes. Is slippery. Later in the poem, Powell writes, “But the problem with drama is; Nothing ever ends.” There is nothing original, of course, about the idea that identity is comprised of many parts. That’s why life is messy. We “present” the minute we leave the house, sometimes, in the house. The collective, assured voice, however, that Powell has constructed makes me feel comfortable that the push and pull between these parts is as it should be and why, at the heart of things, the beauty in getting each other wrong, getting ourselves wrong, is the best part.
The “I”, of course, behaves recklessly consistently, in the service of screwing up:
This reckless daughter
kept using I statements.
You were turning off
the auditorium lights where headlights
In some way the theme of these poems is shattering—a colossal undoing between the self and the other that makes the most sense. The lines are blurred. What better context to have them explored then under the umbrella of the theatrical? In the third section of what I think is the book’s opus, “Living Truthfully Under Imaginary Circumstances,” Powell writes:
Unless we open the book, we can’t have real emotions.
In the book, there are Objects of Attention.
THE OTHERWOMAN. Silk stockings (also known as shears), ghosts, a valise, New England road maps, a receptionist’s desk.
“Are you paying attention to what I am saying?”
THE OTHERWOMAN provides access to the scene. But the access is exploitation. SEX. Here THE WOMAN is our mother.
THE OTHERWOMAN says you ruined her, so she will send you directly to the buyers.
Access is buying into the buying.
What I do know about Willy Loman is that he imagines events of the past as if they are real, as if they are events of the present. It is, indeed, a reckless way of living. This kind of recklessness is one that lacks insight. Powell’s reckless daughter, on the other hand, has boatloads of vision and insight. Her poems are visionary in that they speak to a formation of life, of identity, that wants to confront the truth, to have real emotions through whatever means possible—opening the book, walking the Brooklyn Bridge, standing at the grave—not to eradicate the many parts of the self but to hold onto all of them, to experience life in all of its delicious and complicated fullness. She rejects Loman’s experience, his trajectory. In the title poem, “Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter,” she writes:
O Willy Loman. I’m your reckless daughter, your memento mori.
I’ll never be a character in your authorized story,
the one that brought you fame.
No, no one knows my name
a character in search of a moment
to come alive. I am your love accident….//
Sometimes I’m ashamed, something righteous. It’s a dramatic art.
I raise my fist until anyone can see it’s a heart….
— “Act 1. At the Grave”
Disclosure: I love these poems because I feel them as heart. Powell’s heart. Loman’s heart. Miller’s heart. America’s heart. Your heart. Daughter’s heart. Lover’s heart. Mother’s heart. My heart.
This is a collection of poetry that will suck your blood, slip and slide it through its pages, then return it to your body. I’m not kidding. It’s got that kind of power. It does not want to kill you. It wants to reinvigorate. It does. Powell’s fist is a heart. If you stand on the shores of Ellis Island or The Lower East Side or Red Hook, Brooklyn, no matter where you are, actually, you will be able to not only see it beating, you will be able to feel it as well. The heart in these poems beat for her. It beats for you, us, we. She beats back the internal monologue of intimacy and identity to make it ours. Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter is the truth. It is The Truth. I can’t think of a recent collection of poems that has given me so much to think about while swallowed up in its pure sensual joy. These poems are so BIG because they are constantly in motion, constantly slipping and transforming. They don’t go away and you can feel them as they autocorrect themselves, steady and true, the force of family and identity at the center, of life and love, one beat after the next, I am I, I am I, I am I.
Matthew Lippman is the author of four poetry collections—The New Year of Yellow (winner of the Kathryn A. Morton Prize, Sarabande Books), Monkey Bars, Salami Jew, and American Chew (winner of the Burnside Review of Books Poetry Prize). He is the recipient of many awards including a New York State Fine Arts Grant, and Jerome J. Shestak Poetry Prize from American Poetry Review.