Book Review: The Girl Who Came Back (Meg Eden)
Reviewed by Michael Northen
On August 15, 1955, Enchanted Forest opened in Ellicot City near Baltimore one month after Disneyland, making it the second oldest theme park in the United States and the oldest on the East Coast. It was based upon fairy tale themes, with statues of large characters and, eventually, rides. The trajectory of Enchanted Forest, however, was very different from that its famous forerunner. In 1988, the park, in disrepair, was sold to make way for a shopping center. Some of its characters, having been rescued, reappeared bizarrely in the local landscape. When asked, those living near Baltimore who were children in that era are likely to smile and say, "Yes, I remember Enchanted Forest!"
One of those who remembers is poet Meg Eden and Enchanted Forest is the subject that underpins her most recent book, The Girl Who Came Back. It is, in essence, Eden's Coney Island of the Mind. Those familiar with Eden's last book Rotary Phones and Facebook will recognize the poet's style and some of the same themes; but where Rotary Phones grappled with new times and technologies, sometimes resulting in some startlingly new images as in her poem "Toaster Oven Hysterectomy", The Girl Who Came Back, as its title implies, is much more backward-looking. Trips back to childhood, when not deliberately invoking nostalgia, often risk it, and the exploitation of fairy tale characters for literary purposes is older than theme parks themselves. Eden has set herself a difficult task.
In the opening poem, "Motherland," Eden lays out the territory she will be covering.
Mother took me to Enchanted Forest once.
As in Rotary Phones and Facebook, Eden sets up the tension that will dominate the book – that between the values of her mother's world that have already begun to disintegrate and those of the world she faces. There are probably few readers above the age of 40 who have not at some time longed for the return to that mythical homeland and it is they to whom Eden is addressing her book.
Eden immediately complicates this journey of remembrance with an undeniable fact: as we get older our memory fades. Not only do we forget why we walked into the room where we are standing, but we become unsure even of those images that our minds have held for a long time. As parents, one of the hopes that we have for our children is that we will be able to instill in them some of the values that we had, the dreams that we believed in. With time this becomes increasingly difficult until it reaches the point where it is only through our grown children that we recognize those values existed at all. "The Map", Eden's second poem, captures this experience so well that it is worth quoting the entire poem.
Sometimes, Mom forgets where she lays
From this point on the book's structure is a historical braiding of actual events in the demise of Enchanted Forest with the narrator's reactions to them. These public events include the sale of the park, the dissemination of the statues and signs, the dismantling of the giant Mother Goose, and a fire in the remains of the park. Though grounded in Eden's own childhood the frequent use of "we" and occasional shift to third person as in "The Prodigal Daughter," signal the poet's intention to speak not just for herself but for a generation of women. In doing so, Eden is able to raise a number of questions — questions not so much to be solved as to be meditated upon.
In today's literary climate, it is almost obligatory for short books of poetry to be theme-oriented. The Girl Who Came Back makes no attempt to buck this trend and, in fact, is much more organic and tightly woven than Eden's previous books. The risk of the themed book is that the individual poems do not stand alone, but Eden has reached a balance. While poems such as "Our Gingerbread Bodies have Been Sited" and "They Took What They Could Pull Off" gain greatly from their context, neither would seem orphaned read on their own. At the same time with the unfortunate exception of "The Child Language" (the only poem to overtly refer to disability), each poem in the collection contributes to the entire [theme] of the book. Perhaps, being the penultimate poem in the book, it warned the author that she was beginning to wander and contributed to her wise decision to limit the book to twenty-five poems.
Readers looking for poetic pyrotechnics won't find them in The Girl Who Came Back. Eden's choice to write a tight book that sticks to its main script makes it possible to eliminate that need. There will be critics that will take her to task for not pushing the limits, but as a reviewer, I have made it an axiom not to chastise writers for what they are not trying to accomplish in the first place. While it may be the artistic impulse to "boldly go where no man has gone," in a democracy there is also the obligation to write intelligent poetry that is at the same time accessible. Eden has chosen the latter path and, if anyone needs proof of the importance of such work, they need look no further than the poetry of Maya Angelou. Eden is voicing concerns that if not universal (a dirty word to postmodernism) are at least widely felt.
In lieu of linguist play with words and symbols, what Eden does offer are a variety of approaches to writing a poem. Because she sticks close to her theme, these appear not as haphazard or random experimentations but as alternative entrances to a subject. The poems range from one written after the style of Rilke ("The Resurrection of Cinderella's Castle") to the "The Prodigal Daughter" (a dichotomous poem that invokes the book's title) to "Isophobia," a poem unmistakably reminiscent of Stevens' "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Bird." In the course of constructing these poems, Eden pulls in such building material as newspaper headlines, graffiti, and inscriptions from the buildings of the theme park. These variations contribute to a variation in texture that hold homogeneity at bay and keep the book fresh.
As with most thoughtful books, there are no easy conclusions. Although she recognizes that with the dismantling of childhood dreams something has been lost, she knows that she herself has been part of the dismantling. When an older generation reacts to the selling off of the park, in "They Took What They Could Pull Off," she says:
What Eden's recognizes is that despite all of the wonderful remembrances, the world of the Enchanted Forest was not magical for everyone. In "Ode to Alice" she looks at old posters understanding that in the drawings of Alice of Wonderland fame, her hair was "too blond" and her eyes "too blue":
I watched your old VHS tape,
As the prodigal daughter, Eden returns to the childhood from which she escaped with fresh eyes, admitting candidly, "I try to remember all that my mother has taught me/ but my returning is its own form of disobedience."
The Girl Who Came Back is not a book likely to appeal to readers under thirty. To come back, one has to have left in the first place and have traveled far enough to have a perspective on the landscape from which they came. It is also not going to satisfy those looking for the edgy or avant garde. But that still leaves a sizeable audience that the book will speak to. Meg Eden has taken a subject that has the potential for bathos and turned it into an interesting and rewarding book — and, after all, isn't such recycling what most good writers do.