“the hammock / of my collarbone”

Posted by

These notes are part of my “read 100 poetry books in 12-ish months” effort. Far from an official review, they represent first impressions and provide some context for what I brought to the reading of the text.

36 of 100: Landscape With Plywood Silhouettes by Kerrin McCadden (2014, New Issues Press/Western Michigan University)

Quick, personal thoughts:

  • It’s tempting to say the poems in this collection are “about” divorce, parenting, art, rivers, photos, the ocean, ghosts, loneliness, etc., but that’s not quite accurate. It feels more to me to be a book about tenderness — seeking it, finding it, longing for it, practicing it. Those other topics or items — grief, cartoons, chairs — are present alongside us, not as objects, but as living beings. They’re active in our stories.
  • The book felt personal to me, in places even intimate, as though McCadden and I had confided in one another about our losses. Without a doubt, this (imagined) familiarity was helped along by the second poem in the collection: “Elegy for Some Beach Houses.” It opens, “The break off Chatham broke and spilled / old homes into the sea.” As I started reading Landscape with Plywood Silhouettes, I’d just returned from that break off Chatham (I’m pretty sure it’s the place she’s referencing). “My” spot there, reachable only by boat, is pure magic. Its energy is indescribable, but what it makes me feel is that beauty and breath and surf and life are without end and entirely precarious. At once. The place epitomizes the tension between feeling extremely powerful (paradise is ours!) and humble at the same time because being there means knowing instinctively that we are vulnerable. We are at the mercy of forces far stronger than us. We’re here — off Chatham and alive on Earth — only because conditions currently allow and may change any second. The story of this place is one of family dreams both realized and ruined, as McCadden’s poem captures. She writes how the Atlantic “spilled” the houses “like dresser drawers pulled out too far, / quiet underthings sent flailing like old aunts / into the surf.” In just a few short lines, she conveys the sea’s carelessness and disregard and the despair felt by generations.
  • I really enjoyed the imaginative qualities in these poems. The narrator is a skeleton. The narrator is a chair. She imagines experiences: “I think I was weightless once” and “once I was not lonely.” The poems shift perspective (as in one that both looks up at and back down from a hot air balloon) and time (“One night, I snuck / away and climbed the tower hand over / hand. This took something like years”).
  • Anyone who reads my blog or knows me in real life may tire of me writing about writing or talking about writing, but I’m a process junky through and through. My considerations of process always accompany actual writing; they’re part of how I enter and protect the space for doing the work. And so what McCadden says in a Ploughshares interview really resonates right now: “My day job is demanding, as is this life in general, so I needed to install scaffolding to help the book demand its own time.” I’ve also been building this kind of scaffolding, and it was helpful to hear how other writers require it and find it useful.
  • In a Beloit Poetry Journal interview, McCadden explains: “A restrained tone in poems about heartbreak can function as a kind of dissonance, providing tension. Poems send a reader to solve, or reconcile, the world of a poem — not as if there is a correct answer, but as if there is something to construct, some work to do. … In grief we both wallow and set our shoulders to move forward. Somewhere between wallowing and setting our shoulders, we tell ourselves how to do it; we look for instructions.” That’s not only what the poems in this collection do but also (for me, anyway) what I seek in reading and writing poetry: a kind of manual, a guide, a way through.

Lines I want to remember:

  • “the houses tumbled, / like only a house can, full of argument, debris / and leftovers.”
  • “Mostly, She Practices Falling / And it is true that we are incredibly lonely.”
  • “Unless directed by a crew member, / do not construct if/then scenarios / — not about the plane, not about your life.”
  • “my heart breaking like / a bird’s egg, untended, desiccated, sparkling / in the evening light, so beautiful, so light / and diaphanous it almost doesn’t fall.”
  • “desperately, like a child, you love the world.”
  • “I walk with a stick now and have carved steps for you. / Walk with me. Soon, we will be above it all. / You should see the view, he said.”
  • “and when you talk / into my neck the words settle in the hammock / of my collarbone, puddle there and spill, / …”
  • “All night I have folded laundry / into stacks that stand for children / gone to a father’s house. All night / I have uncapped beer bottles, // stuffed firewood into the old woodstove. / … “Bring me a family, / for the love of god. I will sit it down to dinner / & ask it about its day. I will tuck it in at night. // I will suck in my breath as I kiss its temple / long after it has fallen asleep. I will walk the / dark halls of this house & listen for the lonely / thing. & I will kiss it, too.”

What others have said:

  • from Tinderbox Poetry Journal: “In sifting through the debris of divorce and daily life, McCadden gathers the transcendent moments into the portrait of a woman rebuilding a life of a depth…”
  • from The Common: “McCadden often expresses longing as disorientation. Throughout the collection, things fall apart, dissolve, and float, including houses. … When we have battled to overcome pain and separation, falling (failing) is less of a risk. McCadden suggests that by throwing ourselves down again and again, we might just be healed.”
  • from New Pages: “Lyrical, honest, descriptive, Landscape with Plywood Silhouettes by Kerrin McCadden is a thoughtful meditation on wandering through a human landscape, one full of loss and desire. Often elegiac, this collection of poetry accepts the world before it, acknowledging the quotidian value of our lives while also seeing the beauty in it. … In this collection, McCadden asks us to consider our own capacity for pain, our ability to face loss and resurface from grief. These poems are lonely and tender, longing for an answer larger than life.”

Where some of the poems from this collection live online:

Have you read this collection? If so, let me know your thoughts in the comments!

Leave a Reply