No matter how long I’ve been reading and writing professionally, it still amazes me how much a little time away can contribute to my appreciation of a larger work. During my first year as the Layout and Design Editor at New Issues Poetry and Prose, I had the extreme benefit of working with Kerrin McCadden, upon her winning of the 2013 New Issues’ Poetry Prize for her first full-length collection, Landscape with Plywood Silhouettes. In subsequent months, I would focus on content, proofreading and the physical layout of her poems on the page. This is a job I tremendously enjoy; but I have found that I have to turn off that other side of my brain in order to adequately complete these tasks—that part which is interested in image, line, and syntax, in the overall arch of the collection and the persona established throughout. While a certain amount of attention must still be given to these attributes, in order to ensure a thorough, comprehensive proofreading, they have to otherwise be set aside to focus more so on the fine-tuning that occurs in this great world of bookmaking.
Kerrin McCadden’s Landscape with Plywood Silhouettes officially arrived on the literary scene in March 2014. Over the next several months, I was then able to focus on other pursuits—my writing of poems, writing book reviews, and working on other layout and design projects—and take my more-analytical attention away from McCadden’s work. Now, late in the summer when I’ve had a little time to sit back and let the literary areas of my mind take a rest, I’ve returned to McCadden’s collection simply for the joy of it, and I am beyond-astonished with what I have found.
McCadden’s poems are, in a word, breathtaking. They live somewhere between the world of the lyric and the narrative, providing us a foundation to establish a story, but otherwise leaving us suspended in that place where our imaginations and interpretations take over. They are relatable, descriptive, in that way that many good poems are, but they also provide the breathing room we need to invite our own memories. These poems are the persona’s stories, but they can also be our stories. Much of what makes these poems so relatable are the themes established, but also McCadden’s use of image and metaphor.
These poems largely focus on family and love, longing and grief, and coping. Though these concepts may seem to be commonly placed together, it is the way in which McCadden complicates these ideas, and juxtaposes them against one another, again and again, that makes them so interesting, real, and alive.
For instance, Family, as an umbrella term for motherhood and marriage, is fractured and confusing in a way that is so familiar to many of us. In her poems, “Bedtime” and “Little Ghost Girl,” there is a sense of creating value and prioritizing between children; this, in and of itself, can be a startling concept—the playing of favorites to the extreme of reading to and feeding one child, and forgetting the other. But if we then turn to McCadden’s poem, “Ballooning,” we are overwhelmed with the sense of maternal instinct and protectiveness, longing for connection and safety, which may complicate our reading of “Little Ghost Girl.” In a similar vein, we are not presented with the stereotypical emotions of loss and grieving commonly found in poems that mention, or focus on, divorce; rather, we are presented with a severe complication of a longing for the memories of the time before, as well as for something new. This idea, while fresh and inviting on its own, is further supported by the portrayal of love in these poems—and better yet, the strangeness of it, such as its portrayal in “Skeletons,” when the depiction of love is both bodily and surreal, perhaps even awkward and somewhat startling or creepy. In this way, each of these concepts that are stereotypically so desirable are driven with a sense of wonder and abjection, suggesting that they are not as clean and beautiful and ideal as they seem. This final idea intertwines itself beautifully with the grief and coping processes found in some of these poems, giving us the sense as readers that these processes are nothing if not normal, and that they, too, are not clean or straight-forward, that one individual—the persona, perhaps—may find solace or beauty in something that otherwise terrifies us, and perhaps where we find comfort would disturb her just as much.
As if these concepts and their unique portrayals were not enough, McCadden further astounds through her use of redefinition, metaphor and image. What I find so startling and beautiful about the use of redefinition is the sense of possibility that is inherent to its use. By including this particular tactic, the poet is able to redefine a moment, an emotion, or an image, again and again, through a series of word revisions or images that, all at once, change our perception of what the poet is trying to get across, while still maintaining our memory of that earlier version. It is a metapoetic method of revision—maintaining what could have been erased, or revised out, as a part of the learning process, the grieving process, and the inherent epiphany, available to this persona. One of my favorite examples of redefinition across these works occurs at the end of the poem, “The Death of the Reader”:
This is the heartache I am after. Not the one
after the marriage, the long marriage, the forty
open acres of marriage, the fifty page ending.
Just the snapping open of a valve, the chamber
squeezing like a fist, 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.
In this moment, we are presented with what we might expect the source of heartache to be, but are then challenged with a more bodily, and then lyrical, rendition of this persona’s grieving—the moving from “the snapping open of a valve” to “a bird’s egg, untended [and] desiccated”. Then, it suspends us in the end with a strange combination of hope and dread that maybe, just maybe, this teetering thing will hold fast, will not fall, will remain intact.
This is what I feel McCadden does so well. While she uses redefinition as a means to reach a deeper, raw truth, much of this redefinition is established through her beautiful use of metaphor and image. In the short passage I shared above alone, we are presented with the, both, real and conceptual idea of heartache, followed by the raw snapping open of a valve and the fragility of a bird’s egg, all covered in soft evening light and the imposition of falling. This complication of rawness and fragility, beauty and dread, are juxtapositions we are so familiar with in our moments of struggle and bittersweetness. This is what makes McCadden’s poems so perfectly relatable, and open, leaving us in these strange, in-between places that both harm and calm, that remind us of the beautiful, simple things and “the lonely thing[s],” and humble us with the knowledge that we are “just a series of pauses, waiting,” even “careening [impossibilities],” never quite knowing what we have, or what we will miss, or what will leave us. These larger themes keep us up at night, so often, and in projecting them onto us through a universal you, and in constantly deepening our understanding of our own grief and the persona’s, we are left in this place of understanding and community, while all at once knowing that nothing is entirely guaranteed.
Kerrin McCadden’s debut collection, Landscape with Plywood Silhouettes, is haunting and truthful, honest and trustworthy, with beautifully-repetitious images of birds and flight, a constant going-away, and close-ups of ghost girls, gorillas, and heart valves, that challenge our understanding of grieving and happiness. In a sentence, it is not a collection you should miss.
KERRIN McCADDEN is the author of Landscape with Plywood Silhouettes, winner of the 2013 New Issues Poetry Prize, judged by David St. John. A 2013 National Endowment for the Arts Fellow in Poetry, she was also awarded a 2013 Sustainable Arts Foundation Writing Award, as well as support from The Vermont Arts Endowment Fund and The Vermont Studio Center. Her poems have appeared in Best American Poetry, The Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series, American Poetry Review, Rattle, Green Mountains Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Poet Lore, Failbetter, Hunger Mountain and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from The Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.