Common Magic

Your best friend falls in love

and her brain turns to water.

You can watch her lips move,

making the customary sounds

but you can see they’re merely

words, flimsy as bubbles rising

from some golden sea where she

swims sleek and exotic as a mermaid.


It’s always like that.

You stop for lunch in a crowded

restaurant and the waitress floats

toward you. 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.


It’s not just women either. Or love

for that matter. The old man

across from you on the bus holds

a young child on his knee; he is singing

to her and his voice is a small boy

turning somersaults in the green

country of his blood.

It’s only when the driver calls his stop

that he emerges into this puzzle

of brick and tiny hedges. Only then

you notice his shaking hands, his need

of the child to guide him home.


All over the city

you move in your own seasons

through the seasons of others: old women, faces

clawed by weather you can’t feel

clack dry tongues at passersby

while adolescents seethe

in their glassy atmospheres of anger.


In parks, the children

are alien life-forms, rooted

in the galaxies they’ve grown through

to get here. Their games weave

the interface and their laughter

tickles that part of your brain where smells

are hidden and the nuzzling textures of things.


It’s a wonder that anything gets done

at all: a mechanic flails

at the muffler of your car

through whatever storm he’s trapped inside

and the mailman stares at numbers

from the haze of a distant summer.


Yet somehow letters arrive and buses

remember their routes. Banks balance.

Mangoes ripen on the supermarket shelves.

Everyone manages. You gulp the thin air

of this planet as if it were the only

one you knew. Even the earth you’re

standing on seems solid enough.

It’s always the chance word, unthinking

gesture that unlocks the face before you.

Reveals the intricate countries

deep within the eyes. The hidden

lives, like sudden miracles,

that breathe there.

Dive in

  1. What kind of “magic” is happening in this poem?
  2. This poem has many vivid similes (a comparison using "like" or "as") and metaphors (a comparison that doesn't use "like" or "as"). Is there one that stands out to you? Why that one?
  3. The poet chose to use the second person in this poem. What effect does that have on your reading of the poem? How would your experience of the poem change if it were written in the third person?
  4. Who is the speaker in this poem? What do we know about them? Do you think they're relaxed, amazed, crabby about what they're seeing unfold?
  5. If you were going to recite this poem, would you keep an even pace throughout or would you speed up and slow down at certain points?
  6. Think of two words, like “common” and “magic,” that contradict one another (an oxymoron). Start with that as your poem title and write about that contradiction. As a nod to “Common Magic,” try to include some interesting similes or metaphors.

Useful Links

Read this story about Bronwen Wallace as told by her friend and fellow poet Carolyn Smart.  

Read about the recent winner and finalists for the Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers.

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Bibliographical info

“Common Magic” by Bronwen Wallace is reprinted from Common Magic by permission of Oberon Press.

Source: Common Magic (Oberon Press, 1985)

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