-Reviewed by Afric McGlinchey–
‘Make of my life a few wild stanzas.’ In the opening poem of this collection, a young girl asks a tattoo artist to inscribe these words on her back, along with the ‘ink blue flash’ of a barn swallow.
Using conceit as her principal device, with recurring images throughout the collection, Kerrin McCadden has managed to transcend what David St. John, the judge who selected this book as the winner of the 2013 New Issues Poetry Prize, calls the ‘quiet wreckage’ of her marriage. Many of the poems in Landscape with Plywood Silhouettes deal with a sense of emotional vertigo – a frequent image is one of falling – but the delicacy is almost breath-taking.
The poems are collated so that the process of revelation is gradual and oblique. In retrospect, the girl of the opening poem could be a mirror image of the poet herself. Birds recur throughout the collection, and in ‘Mostly, She Practices Falling’, the bird is not typically flying, but held up for scrutiny, wings to each side. This is how she evokes her state of mind, by disturbing our expectations of an image.
Certain qualities of poetry are exerted from different capacities of human consciousness as well as experience. For all the poet’s reticence, one senses a volcanic world of feeling in this collection. Other related recurring images include crushed or falling nests and eggs. And yet, in spite of the violence of these images, the overall impression is one of a graceful, tender sensibility.
Some conceits are strikingly original: a man ‘with a tangle of bicycle innertubes / over his shoulder’ (and later in the poem, ‘the words on the page are cursive, the innertubes of thoughts we build…’). Images such as these interweave through the collection like a satisfyingly complex knitting pattern.
In ‘The Death of the Reader’ the opening line is ‘I have not read a book since my divorce, or,’. While it instantly alerts the reader to a divorce, the immediate addition of the word ‘or’ doesn’t allow the reader time to pause over that laden word but shifts attention towards books: books that have been read, half-read, unread, picked up, loved, returned to (especially the childhood ones) hidden in, etc .
The poet tells us she wants to lose herself inside books:
to hide in a duck blind, to hide behind a door
with an axe, to hide in a tree with a friend,
to crush a birdnest in the fist to watch the
smallest shells fall through the sunlight,
to pick up a gun and fire it by accident
and kill my ten-year-old-twin, my father
running through the tall grass like he is
‘This,’ she tells us toward the end of the poem, ‘is the heartbreak I am after. Not the one / after the marriage, the long marriage, the forty /open acres of marriage, the fifty page ending.’
‘Mostly She Practices Falling’ begins with the line: ‘And it is true that we are incredibly lonely.’ While this is an evocative opening, for someone who is so sensitive to cadence and accuracy of language, I found it surprising that she should choose to include the word ‘incredibly.’ The inclusion makes the rhythm stumble. What does the word add? As I trust this poet, I explored possibilities of intent: it makes the line more conversational, more contemporary. It places the emotion – loneliness – at an extreme point on a continuum. Perhaps for McCadden, ‘lonely’ wasn’t enough to convey the depth of feeling she was after.
For the serious poet, each word is evaluated, for its contribution to meaning, for its sound, its placement in a line. The reader can, of course, choose to agree or disagree with such a choice. That is their aesthetic temperament. And a poem is a dialogue, after all, between poet and reader. If it had been my poem, I would have left the word out. I would also have left out the last line in the otherwise lovely poem about a fisherman called ‘Jake’. But only two quibbles out of a whole collection? That’s quite a feat.
Visual poems are usually the most memorable. McCadden goes one better and focuses on specifics. If there are birds, they are parrots, cockatoos, musk ducks. In her naming of objects, she reminds me of an unaffectedly lyrical Karen Solie: ‘I have spelled / out the name of the man I love in crab apples.’ The poems are often about simple things: a commute to work, a life drawing class, a meal with friends, icons of our contemporary world: Tom and Jerry, Laika, the space dog. But throughout, they are really about ‘how to miss a man.’ These are heartbreaking poems.
I could rave about so many poems in this collection, but would rather you read them for yourself. Suffice it to say that what McCadden does is this: she motivates us to pay attention. Hers is the registration of both inward and outward perception, simultaneously, it would appear. Her gift is to create enthralling dramas, which often work as a sleight of hand. Each poem requires that you re-read it to unlock the plot, observe its movement, how it has been shaped by the source emotion, the way a single crystal at the core of a snowflake determines its final structure. The clarity of McCadden’s tone, her multiple, distinct inflections, are so delicately wrought, we know intuitively that the speaker’s feelings are complex, long-standing and half-buried. What we witness in the making of these poems is a poet in the throes of self-alteration.
If you were to buy only three début collections this year, I’d make Landscape with Plywood Silhouettes by Kerrin McCadden one of them. You won’t regret it.