Review of An Elastic State of Mind by Ren Powell
An Elastic State of Mind: D.L.D.’s Autobiography in Poems, by Ren Powell, is a fascinating book in an elegant hardbound bilingual edition (Wigestrand, 2012), with the English poems, notes, and introduction translated into Norwegian by Eirik Lodén.
D.L.D. is Dorothea Lynde Dix (1802-1887), an accomplished woman of her time, able to support herself with her writing, a supervisor of nurses during the Civil War, and a social reformer who created a “moral therapy” for treatment of the mentally ill. She conversed or corresponded with such interesting and diverse historical figures as Millard Fillmore, John James Audubon, Elisabeth Barrett Browning, and William Ellery Channing. Powell has researched Dix thoroughly, using biographies, letters, and strong, empathic identification to impersonate her, in a sense, and in a variety of ways. As Powell says in her introduction, “I performed the character of D.L.D. while writing. Like an actor using Stanislavski’s Magic If, I inhabited the mind of the character and played out the scenes drawing on my own sense memories….”
The poems range from formal to free to found, veer from wildly lyrical to stately-sounding speech, and do interesting things, such as burying a rhyming sonnet in a prosey-looking letter. D.L.D. was also known as Thea, as she is here in Thea Writes a Sonnet for a Young Woman for Anne Heath (1802-1871). Here is the first stanza/paragraph:
My Dearest Annie,
I must confide in you and trust your tender heart to understand the shocking excess of attention I demand. My close relations numbering too few—I’ve not been taught to veil my love from you. I write, thus guided by your gentle hand, confessing sentiments that will withstand a season’s joyful blush to bloom anew.
There’s also a “curtal,” or shortened sonnet, for Millard Fillmore, the 13th President of the United States. Lineated, it begins, “I could hear the loss in your voice from my side of the screens / and it seemed the silk expanse was the whole of Asia / between us,” beautifully conveying intimacy, depth of emotion, and, somehow, geography.
I admire but cringe at the series of numbered “Madsongs,” which quote awful things said about the mentally ill at the time, giving a sense of what went on in the institutions for their care and keep.
“We got him that there collar.
First he didn’t like it none.
he took to it.
He left off tryin’ to run.”
“It ain’t fitting on Sundays
when proper folks have to see
them that’s pregnant
and won’t repent.
But we gotta have the entrance fees.”
Perth Tolbooth, Scotland, 1855
“There ain’t no need for a stove.
If you pardon me, Ma’am,
their baws could freeze
right off and these
bampots dinnae give a damn.”
It’s clear from these short “songs” why D.L.D. was a reformer, and these poems convey both her practicality and her conviction. Miss Dix Opens a School for the Indigent 1816 begins, “With Grandmother’s seam ripper / I let down the hems of skirts.” Other poems show D.L.D.’s sensitivity and emotional receptiveness, as in the unexpectedly titled Unbroken Cheerfulness, which starts, not very cheerfully, “On a hard night I wake as Aphrodite / virgin shells pouring from my ears / scalloping my flesh” and continues lyrically until it appears to break off in time, thought, and space: “I dance with the dancers / as fleeting as inevitable” with no period to end the dream or start the day’s routine.
For more poems from this book, please see Ren Powell’s solo feature here at Escape Into Life. You can also see her take on another historical figure in our Women in History feature, honoring Women’s History Month here in the USA.
—Kathleen Kirk, Poetry Editor