Considering Magical Realism in Poetry

Magical Realism in Poetry

Poetry is more likely to wander into magic realism than fiction by its very nature. Metaphor is bringing two unlike things together for a startling result, a transformation. A magic trick of effect. Because most contemporary poetry lives more in metaphor than narrative (discuss!), the realism quickly shifts into an altered state. To make a point, but tell it slant, you sometimes make an alternate universe that is more real than the ordinary one we’re living in.

This is an example of a magical realism poem — mine, from my book Femme au Chapeau. The fish in the poem lives in a different Hawaii than the everyday one. I visited it in a tea shop, but it’s just as real as the real fish. Its realism is fluid.

A Pot of Humuhumunukunukuapua’a

In a store I saw a one-cup teapot
shaped like a fish I once met
under the waves at Puako Beach.
Short as a thumb, he had a name longer
than the curving shore. Breaker
blue scales and gold fin-to-fin stripe,
he startled me among the reef knees — that
and his painted eye under surf as frothed
and filled him with leaves and bubbles,
let him ruminate until the tea steeped me
dark enough. As he swam away,
I pressed a silver fin to each eye,
lifted my cup and drank
crackling syllables of sea.

What Makes It Magical Realism in a Poem

Magical realism in poetry is a compilation of transformations sufficient to make a new world. In the above poem, the actual name of the fish — humuhumunukunukuapua’a — begins to weave the spell. When you use an unfamiliar word with a sound like that, you begin to make magic. By magic I mean a suspension of disbelief.

Many poems would go one to create one metaphor or simile and then move on to another, perhaps associated, but standing on its own. In a magical realism poem, the metaphors are linked to create a world. So in this poem the fish-shaped teapot becomes a real fish even while being used to steep tea, with the resulting tea becoming ocean surf, and transforming the tea drinker.

One thing or being transforning into another can illumine the nature of each thing. Same as the way metaphor and simile bring two disparate things together, but the joining is more complete, and thus alters reality to heighten it. The teapot becomes the living fish and the fish bestows the power to become one with the sea. The setting of Hawaii and the Hawaiian fish heightens the altered reality, as that landscape confers an added magical quality.

Readings: Magical Realism in Poetry & Fiction

Dana Gioia’s essay on Gael Garcia Marquez and Magical Realism

One of my favorites: Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman (and his Master Class is also magical)

The Secret Ingredient of Wishes by Susan Bishop Crispell

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robibn Sloan

Waking Kate by Sarah Addison Allen

Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yaniqu