A woman, after an absence of many years, returns
to her old neighborhood and finds it a little more
burned, more abandoned. Through rooftop aerials
the stadium’s still visible where the boys of summer
spun across the diamond and some nights she’d hear
strikes and pop flies called through the open windows
of the rooms she shared with a man she thought
she loved. All that summer, she watched
across the street the magician’s idiot son
paint over and over the Magic & Costume Shop’s
intricate portico – all frets and scallops, details
from another century. The more he painted though
the more his sheer purity of attention seemed
to judge her own life as frayed somehow and wrong.
Daily the son worked until the city swerved
towards night’s dizzy carnival with moons
and swans afloat in neon over the streets.
One evening she saw the magician’s trick bouquet
flower at the curb while he filled his car.
He folded the multicolored scarves, then
caged the fabulous disappearing pigeons.
It is a common human longing to want utterly
to vanish from one life and arrive transformed
in another. When the man came home, he’d
touch her shoulders, her neck, but each touch
discovered only the borders of her solitude.
As a child in that neighborhood she’d believed
people were hollow and filled with quiet music, that
if she were hurt deeply enough she would break
and leave only a blue scroll of notes.
At first when he hit her, her face burned.
Far off the stadium lights crossed the cool
green diamond and burnished cobwebs swaying
on the ceiling. Then she became invisible,
so when the doctor leaned over and asked
her name all she could think of were her dresses
thrown from the window like peonies exploding
to bloom in the clear dark air. No music –
merely a rose haze through her lids, something
ticking in her head like a metronome
in a parlor, dusty and arid with steam heat.
How many lives she’d passed through to find/p>
herself, an aging woman in black, before the locked
and empty shop. So much sleight of hand, the years
simply dissolving. Again she hears the crowd,
a billow of applause rippling across the brilliant
diamond, across the mysterious passage
of time and the failure of sorrow to pass away.
In Theodore Roethke’s famous poem, “I Knew a Woman,” he uses the terms “turn, counterturn, and stand,” to the delight of many a reader-critic yearning for sexual innuendo in poetry. For the tamer classicists (versus the wild ones), the terms also refer to the typical structure of a Greek tragedy – most overtly, when the chorus moves in one direction (toward the altar), then reverses course and goes the other direction, and finally chants standing still. A discussion of a poem’s turn, therefore, should think in terms of movement – plausibly, in more than one direction. Lynda Hull’s poem titled “Magical Thinking,” contains a great deal of movement in time and space, as well as brief standing meditations, which occur at the turning points, indicating emotional and discursive shifts.
There are two surface structures at play in the poem: what Mark Yakich terms in his essay as the “Retrospective-Prospective Structure,” and a slightly more transparent Circular Structure. In the latter, obviously, we end where we began. In the former, the narrator considers the past and uses the wisdom gained to look toward the future – or, at least, consider the present in a different light. Hull’s first couplet, “A woman, after an absence of many years, returns/to the old neighborhood…” offers the first “turn” (since it does contain the word, after all) of the poem: more than a backward glance – a journey into memory, a shift of time and space.
She spends the first half of the poem detailing a summer spent there “with a man she thought/she loved,” a wonderful example of an undermining enjambment, as the word “thought” introduces the narrator’s self-doubt, and the positing of love as the first illusion in the poem. The poem’s first half introduces the brief cast of characters: the magician, his “idiot son” whose creativity and “purity of attention” contributes to the narrator’s insecurity about her own choices and apparent inability to focus or devote herself either to life’s tasks or the relationship. At this point, the narrator identifies herself as wholly responsible for her situation, which seems, at best, static.
The color provided by magician and son sustains the poem’s energy until its first true volta, which occurs smack in the middle of the poem, in stanza eight, diverting from descriptive detail to a “standing still” assertion: “It is a common human longing to want utterly/to vanish form one life and arrived transformed/in another.” Placing the turn dead-center, unlike after the octet (the 4/7ths mark) of the Italian sonnet, allows the writer sufficient space-time (like a wormhole!) to make yet another turn, two tercets prior to the poem’s concluding statement, which identifies the truly tragic element of this poem: “the failure of sorrow to pass away.”
The ongoing sorrow mentioned originates in childhood, where the writer briefly takes us after the poem’s mid-point, and the idea of vanishing, referred to in the poem’s defining statement, (introduced just before that with the “fabulous disappearing pigeons”) recurs: “if she were hurt deeply enough she would break/and leave only a blue scroll of notes.” Two stanzas later, the child’s belief concretizes when her lover hits her: “Then she became invisible…” and the image of the magician’s trick bouquet and multicolored scarves transforms into “her dresses/thrown from the window like peonies exploding/to bloom in the clear dark air.”
The sadness driven by the abusive relationship completes the narrator’s personal erasure, but when she returns to the neighborhood, the magical nature of memory, so often an invitation in poems to revery and meditation on potential options, begets the despairing realization that certain events will never leave us, much as we might want them to fade from existence. Rather than, as Ecclesiastes might have us believe, that each turn has its counterturn – a time to weep leads to a time to laugh – this poem suggests that some occurrences have no redemption, and on revisiting, continue to burn – a term used to describe the old neighborhood, and the narrator’s face when hit by the lover.
The final turn of the poem cannot be called a counter-turn, and might best be described as what my childhood locals call “The Michigan Left Turn.” First constructed in 1960, the Michigan left (no politics involved) utilizes a U-turn and right turn in lieu of the prospective left turn at the crossroad intersection. By employing the rhetorical version of the Michigan Left-Turn, the writer returns to her old neighborhood and the damaging recall of an abusive relationship, but instead of facing away and taking shelter in a healthier present or future laden with the potential of hard-gained wisdom, the narrator veers in a third direction, away from its point of origin and away from its opposite pole, beginning with “How many lives she’d pass through to find/herself…”.
It is at this turn (perhaps the “sub-volta”) that the narrator stops blaming herself and starts to shed the culpability of victimhood. Hull transforms the magician’s flourishes and the lover’s hostility into a single gesture, “sleight of hand,” and instead of disappearing, herself, it is “the years/simply dissolving.” She continues to hear the music of her youth, mentioned in stanza two, but the “strikes and pop flies called through the open windows” have become “a billow of applause rippling across the brilliant/diamond,” conjoining the performances of baseball players and magician. The unseen crowd’s approbation becomes the music of memory, while the memory, itself, becomes an admixture not of baseball noise and shape but of the precious jewel’s hard, sharp edges and beauty: the violent lover against the backdrop of the Magic & Costume Shop’s “intricate portico,” emblems of the past’s mysterious complexity, and scars that will not fade.
Patty Seyburn has published three books of poems: Hilarity (New Issues Press, 2009), Mechanical Cluster (Ohio State University Press, 2002) and Diasporadic (Helicon Nine Editions, 1998). Her poems have recently been published in Boston Review, DIAGRAM and Hotel Amerika. She is an Associate Professor at California State University, Long Beach and co-editor of POOL: A Journal of Poetry (www.poolpoetry.com).
Lynda Hull, “Magical Thinking” from Star Ledger. Copyright © 1991 by Lynda Hull. Reprinted with permission of the University of Iowa Press.