Landscape with Plywood Silhouettes
By Kerrin McCadden
84 pages, $15
Review by Jocelyn Heath
Kerrin McCadden’s landscape is full of bones and dust, blankets and furniture, old letters and the trappings of moments past. 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 unknown to the plywood silhouettes that walk among us.
Many of the poems in Landscape involve family as we assemble and disassemble it over the course of a lifetime. McCadden probes the dissolution of marriage, and in its aftermath, re-learned love, in verses reminiscent of Claudia Emerson’s Late Wife. “These are the ways I am folded by you,“ she writes in “Definition,” folded like a prayer, like the earth, like origami, like bedsheets, and finally, shadows: “I fold them back/into the night, each sheet a lakeside. I hardly recognize myself.” The evanescence of all things including love, a whisper behind every poem, comes to the fore in “Bone China”:
Today, though, we toast other things, not
my wedding anniversary, which no longer exists,
like the marriage. I wonder if everyone can see
the black hole of it, right next to me.
The absence—and the resulting maneuvers she makes around it—reach all corners of the speaker’s life. “Laika,” for instance, turns the focus from speaker-as-woman to speaker-as-mother, grappling with how to rationalize divorce for children and finding analogy in the story of a Russian space dog. Though true closure on such an issue may not be achievable, the speaker is able to find some peace toward the end of the collection, or at least, to reclaim her “one life.”
McCadden’s poems are dense—at times, nearly overwhelming with detail, as in “Elegy for Some Beach Houses,” where the reader must wade through houses “full of mouseshit, must,/armoires and settees, full of lobster trap/coffee tables, old letters, tattered rugs” and vast amounts of flotsam. But the reader’s trust in McCadden’s ability to navigate the cascading images pays off in the moments of quiet yet fraught revelation that pervade the collection.
McCadden, at times, takes her reader’s breath away with disarming sincerity; her speaker seems as startled as we are by what she has found out. In “Intersection,” the reader sits with the speaker at a crossroads of kindness: two drivers determined to outdo one another in courtesy gesture “no no, you go” and “no you, please” in mimicry of a relationship in stasis. Too polite to end the relationship, but too polite to feign deep feeling. In a moment’s span, the speaker paces the floors of memory only to return to no new end: “Your car rolls into the space I have built between us.” In a moment, the crossroads of thought and human connection are quickly left behind.
Even the possibility of connection must be examined with care. The title poem’s silhouettes, a man leaning on his trailer and the woman waving for his attention, are “black inside/the outline,” living through an inner emptiness but projecting onto one another the details of their particular desires. After all, “filling in the blanks/is not unreasonable in their world,” nor is it in ours. The temptation to see what one wants to see in a lover brings a thrill to courtship but a real danger of disappointment to its aftermath. And having seen this process for what it is, the speaker guards herself against the shallow fronts of romance.
The concept of landscape comes up in a number of permutations. Though many of the pieces seem to take place in a quiet village, a few travel beyond these geographic bounds, and more still traverse the psychological landscapes within the narrowest borders. “The Southern Tablelands” does both. In the Australian wilderness, “the warnings/here are charms,” the birds are “colored like clouds and blood,” and the travels with a lover still have the potential to reach unexpected ends. She writes, “you and I have been at the game/so long that I love you is a secret as unexpected as/roadside parrots.” In a village, in the wilderness, in winter and in darkness, McCadden looks deep into the space around her and gathers in verse the parts we need to see.
Among the most powerful moments in the book are those of abject loneliness, a truth of the human condition amplified by loss. “What I Said to the Night” finds the speaker alone in the winter dark, folding laundry “for children/gone to a father’s house.” McCadden knows well where the mind may go at such times; the speaker tells us “All night I have uncorked old bottled up things,” only one of which is scotch. Though she finally resolves herself to face the dark and the “lonely thing,” to kiss it as she would a loved child, the guilty plea for a replacement family shows the depth of the speaker’s struggle.
For all that cannot be fixed in Landscape with Plywood Silhouettes—a marriage, a rusted classic car, the ending of a poem—there is much to celebrate in the world. As McCadden reminds us, we have one life; to invite it to “settle in with us” opens us to the possibilities that lie in the smallest traces of dust around us.