Saturday, February 25, 2017

Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter: Or Living Truthfully Under Imaginary Circumstances by Elizabeth A. I. Powell
(Anhinga Press, 2016)

Reviewed by Jamie Wendt

Elizabeth Powell’s second book of poetry, Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter: Or Living Truthfully Under Imaginary Circumstances, is a beautifully woven collection of prose poetry, lyric poetry, and memoir. She writes about the mixing of identities, particularly of Jewish and Gentile heritage as well as the combining of twins’ blood in the womb and the confusion of one’s self versus a doppelganger. Using Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Powell continually returns to the idea of auto-correction and the censoring of identities as a means to contemplate the erasure of female voice and presence within the Loman family and within the poet’s own family experiences.

Powell raises issues of sexism and gender bias in theater and life, particularly for an unnamed daughter whose voice is silenced. She uses excerpts from Death of a Salesman as well as stage directions, theater typography, and lingo to intensify Loman’s death and the illicit relationship with the “Other Woman,” whose “Reckless Daughter,” a character of Powell’s imagining, sees the dysfunctional American family in a fresh light. Using symbolic moments from the play, such as Linda Loman’s stockings as a reminder of Willy’s affair in “How to Sew an Unhemmed Day,” Powell questions what the American Dream means for women in this play as they are repeatedly cast as “Other.” Women's lines are cut-off or ignored, or they are simply written out of the play or reduced to the role of understudy.

Death of a Salesman and the poet’s memoir collide in a theatrical understanding of American families. Powell acknowledges that an actor/actress, extra in the play, or even audience member are at times the same, so there is often a blurring of reality and fiction. In a series of sonnets titled “The Understudy’s Soliloquies,” she plays with the idea of salesmen putting on a show and American business as an act. In the first sonnet, she writes,

    The photo on top of Father’s coffin was from before the creditcrunch,     
    a portrait taken for a New York Times article on American business. 
    Father fake-smiled from the frame before his final stage left, his mistress     
     in the back made eye contact with the idea concealed behind journalistic     
    facts […]

Poems such as “Accident Report,” “Set Design: What the Door Knows,” and “Traveling Salesman in Providence” are directly in conversation with Death of a Salesman, and the poet uses Loman’s story to talk about her own father and the life and death of his American Dream. In “What Death Said,” Powell imagines her father’s thoughts as he is dying and his concerns about who will care for his body in death. The reader cannot help but be reminded of Loman’s death as Powell weaves her own story with that of Miller’s tragic American family.

Powell understands that people perceive the world in part based on the stories they hear, so if the reckless daughter is silenced, the audience misses part of the story. In the title poem at the end of the book in the section titled “Act 5. To Further Understand I May Not be Human at All,” Powell writes,

    Every salesman tries on so many faces,
    they lose their own in the road’s empty spaces.
    I was a secret stuck inside a secret. You kept 
    tabulating yourself in me. I wept 
    for the curtain’s endless rising
    on your death. The morning shining 
    in through the kitchen window. 
    The past could not enter, nor foreshadow.

The recklessness of the daughter lies in the fact that she wants her story told, so as not to be erased from the plot of her family’s yearning for the American Dream. These poems—full of rhyme, longing, memory, and forgiveness—make for both an incredibly original book and a nuanced rethinking of the classic Death of a Salesman.

Jamie Wendt is a graduate of the University of Nebraska Omaha MFA program. Her poetry has been published in various literary journals, including Lilith, Raleigh Review, Minerva Rising, and Saranac Review. Her essays on Jewish writing have been published in Green Mountains Review and The Forward. She contributes book reviews for the Jewish Book Council. Wendt teaches high school English and lives in Chicago with her husband and daughter. Find her at