The Double Under the Bed
Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter or Living Truthfully Under Imaginary Circumstances by Elizabeth A. I. Powell
Anhinga Press, 2016
108 pages, paper, $20.00
Elizabeth Powell’s Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter is a thoroughly entertaining work about sad things. For instance, in the prose prologue “Autocorrecting the Lyric I” that opens the book, we learn that the poet-narrator is an “Episcojew,” who, though she learned to “pass” according to the demands of the occasion, was once kicked by the Catholic boys on the playground for “killing Christ.” When she was 14 years old, her “cold borscht” father and “finger sandwiches on white” mother divorced, and she was raped by a drunken neighbor, Bill Gottlieb. Concurrent with these events, she discovers that she has a double “snoring and talking and laughing in her sleep” under the bed. She also learns that the source of her parents’ conflict is her father’s rampant philandering (“No more 42nd Street hookers, no more secretaries!” she hears her mother yelling).
Though this may sound like Too Much Information, Powell makes it entertaining by approaching it primarily through humor and irony. She writes, “It is better, the Boston Brahmins say, to have a history not a past, so when I speak in the ‘I’ it must be my Jewish side, when I say that I am a vaudeville act in a quiet New England house. I’m the Daughter of the American Revolution in third class steerage. I’m the debutante in the Pogrom.” That last sentence is simultaneously jarring, discomfiting, and hilarious.
Powell’s book is one long poem that explores the poet’s identity and past through concentrating on the figure of the double under the bed, her doppelgänger. This “alter” is called “stepsister, bitch bastard—the roofied one, erased from the storyline.” The double is also a dead twin brother who, as we learn in the prologue, has been literally absorbed by the poet in utero. The doppelgänger becomes the poet’s half-sister with whom the father’s new red-headed mistress is pregnant at his funeral (a fact that the poet learns later).
Metaphorically, Powell’s book itself finds its doppelgänger in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. The famous play becomes a virtual template for Powell’s own life: like Willy Loman, her father was an adulterous salesman who died suddenly. In her prologue she says that, like Loman, her father “had eaten the dream and it had made him sick.” In Miller’s character Biff, Powell sees the twin brother who was incorporated into her own body in the womb.
She also imagines that Willy Loman’s mistress gives birth to a girl whom she identifies with the half-sister that her father’s mistress carries. Powell’s alter merges with Powell’s half-sister and speaks as Willy Loman’s “reckless daughter” in the stunning six-act title poem which ends the book. This figure seems to signal catharsis and resolution, even wholeness, for the poet. She says, “Tell me, Willy, isn’t it true—//daughter sounds like slaughter,/son, the sun.” The doppelgänger is the finally emergent genius of the book. The poet’s struggle with her is one of the book’s principle sources of vitality.
In many ways, the genre in which this book participates is theater. The book includes acting exercises, references to set design and to the Fourth Wall, soliloquies, and staging directions. Its hybrid of forms—prose, plays, a sonnet sequence, rhyming couplets, and various nonce forms—and its many different points of view are held together by an unforgettable and one-of-a-kind urbane, postmodern, humorous voice and then pulled apart, almost to the point of breaking, by a swirling, centrifugal energy. In “On the Way to the Theatre, Stuck in the Roundabout,” Powell says, “We surrender to the thrashing, thrust all at once to the left side. . . . We are imaginary people becoming real once again by the fever of this throttle[.]”
In this centrifuge of a book, she throws many bites of information at us simultaneously: other highlights include the narrator/poet’s lack of a belly button, fire that used to follow her “like a strange cat,” psychoanalysis, and a deep urge to connect with a God—“I love God this much (see my hands out as far as I can reach) and farther.” Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter has a frantic velocity that is thrilling and at all times under the control of the guiding intelligence of its maker.