Inner Chaos and artificial Structure in Bronwen Wallace’s “Common Magic” Robbi Henderson-Canning

At its core, Bronwen Wallace's “Common Magic” explore the worlds that we, as individuals, create for ourselves in our own minds. The speaker describes the many ways in which we become completed preoccupied by our own thoughts and how we carry those constant worries, daydreams, and feelings around with us, regardless of what we are actually doing. Some would even go so far as to say that "one-third to one-half of our waking hours are spent daydreaming" ("Science of Daydreaming"). These habitual preoccupations are meant to be represented, in their various forms, in the three illustrations below, as a subset of the total five illustrations.

This first illustration is the most detailed. The largest face in the upper left hand corner is meant to symbolize the individual reading the poem. The detail goes to show that while you may catch glimpses into the worlds of those around you, you never truly experience their thoughts and their feelings. You are not privy the details of their worlds in the same way that you are to your own. This detailed face is also representative of a shift throughout the poem – a movement from a specific topic to a more general one. The speaker begins the poem with the line, “Your best friend falls in love” (1) insinuating in the reader a knowledge of the subject and establishing the fact that she is talking about one specific individual. She moves from there in the following stanza to a more general stance to say: “It’s not just women either. Or love / for that matter" (16-17). I have mirrored that movement from specific to increasingly general in my second illustration.

In this drawing the features of the faces are much less detailed. However, they are just as messy and and just as connected. This overlap of features is meant to represent the chaos of our minds, and how easily our thoughts can become convoluted: how easily they can distract us from what is actually happening around us, or at least take away our investment in it. The speaker describes a distracted waitress saying, "you can tell she doesn't care / whether you have the baked or french-fried / and you wonder if your voice comes / in bubbles too" (12-15). And, as Colin Nissan declares, this "daydreaming serves an incredibly important purpose for those who are incarcerated in prisons or who work at T.G.I. Friday’s. It allows them to escape, so to speak, and imagine a life with better uniforms" (Nissan).

The one sleeping face in the drawing is meant to represent that this disarray of mental worlds is not escaped in sleep, though this is perhaps the state in which we experience the least connection with others, and the least connection with the thoughts and feelings of those around us. None of the first three illustrations are realistically drawn to further emphasize how much of the chaos that surrounds us exists only in our minds, and that, in particular, the poem, as well as these illustrations address inner thoughts, and not outer reality.

Finally, the last drawing in the subset of the series is meant to act as a sort of culmination of the first two illustrations. It has the most crowded and chaotic features of the two, and has more colour than the second. This is meant to represent all of the way in which our own worlds become mixed with the worlds around us. Toward the end of “Common Magic” the speaker describes the rare and unplanned circumstances in with we become witness to the worlds of those around us, and the unexpected way in which our worlds become visible to others. None of the faces in any of the three drawings are completely distinct from the other features surrounding them, because our worlds are never actually mutually exclusive from one another. Our worlds are always mixing with others, whether we want them to or not. Really, only a small part of our worlds are self-centered, the remainder being more or less a summation of the bits we gather from those around us.

The poem ends on an optimistic note, which declares that in spite of all of the thoughts that preoccupy our minds, things are still accomplished, tasks are still carried out. The speaker says, almost triumphantly,

In some seemingly impossible way, we are able to organize the chaos of our minds and the chaos of the world. This led me to want to organize my illustrations. I first did this by turning the third painting of the series into a paint by numbers. The paint by numbers is not entirely followed and is more of an afterthought, or a structure placed on top of something inherently evolving and creative - art. This mirrors the almost absurd idea that we can and, perhaps more importantly, should, organize and schedule every aspect of our minds, and our physical worlds, which led me to an attempt to dramatically organize my illustrations with drawing number four:

Here, I have separated some the features of the previous three illustrations to create columns of eyes, noses, eyebrows, and lips. This separation is meant to demonstrate that when we go overboard in terms of organization and structure we miss out on organic human interactions and experiences. We miss out on the opportunities to daydream, to fall in love, to feel strong and unstructured emotions, and to reap the benefits of those things. The point of this illustration is that the features no longer form a face, that they do not exist in this state.

The final illustration is the one that breaks the pattern of facial features within the series. The setting of trees and a night sky is meant to almost literally represent the lines of the poem that stood out the most to me because they explore the way our past experiences influence our present thoughts:

The words “galaxy” and “parks” served as points of departure for much of this illustration, but most importantly the serenity of the scene is meant to mimic the calming feeling of the final stanza of the poem. The ending lines bring the speaker to the conclusion that things are not only accomplished despite the chaos that surrounds, but that they are accomplished amidst it and in harmony with it. The final resolution of our anxieties toward disorganization are those peaceful moments we are able to find within our own worlds. These moments are illustrated by the trees, which grow and bloom even where we may not wish them too, and by the black night sky, which shuts out the world around us and allows for silence and reflection, even if only in a fleeting way.

The speaker guides us through these developing interpretations, revealing one detail at a time until we reach the primary meaning of the poem. We, as the audience, see the different layers of thought that surround the poem, as well as the different layers of thoughts that form our worlds. We move from the distracted state of inner chaos to the artificial structures we impose upon it, and finally to the calm we can manage regardless. We see our everyday worries fall away, and even amidst all the chaos and disorder that circles us, we can find peace and calm in ordinary moments of "common magic."

Works Cited

Nissan, Colin. "The Science of Daydreams." The New Yorker. The New Yorker, 07 May 2015. Web. 2 Apr. 2017.

"Science of Daydreaming." Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science. Dartmouth College, 03 Feb. 2011. Web. 2 Apr. 2017.

Wallace, Bronwen. "Common Magic." 70 Canadian Poets, edited by Gary Geddes, Oxford UP, 2014, 358-359.

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