I’m fat. No matter where it stations itself then—against the sunset, unto the dawn, in the most awake and aware of lights at the gas station or drive-thru—my silhouette is thus often a distinct inconvenience, something that, like it or not, ails me. Entitled The Silhouettes, Lily Ladewig’s first collection of poetry should have therefore irked me. Instead, I found myself entranced while reading it, hyper-stimulated, gorging myself on a bag of pita chips all the while.
Consisting of 13 like-minded sections, The Silhouettes does not differ much from the vast majority of contemporary American poetry collections; in a variety of free verse forms Ladewig writes poems on a multitude of various subjects and themes. Many of them are interconnected—see the 3 recurring titles in the book, “On Silhouettes,” “Templates” and “Shadow Box”— and notions of fashion, technology and modern-age doing and being come up continually. Throughout Ladewig resolutely refuses to say either too much or not enough; the mystery of her work clasps sweaty hands with its vivacious readability. Her poems are funny, at times.
Her poems are serious, at times. They’re direct; they’re disjunctive. They don’t pander to the reader yet at the same they aren’t afraid of making decidedly un-oblique questions/statements like “What is the worst fashion/beauty/love advice that’s ever been given to you?” or “The problem with watching movies about air travel is/ that in reality your never get to watch yourself take off/ from the outside”. I wouldn’t go so far as call Ladewig’s work in The Silhouettes standard (or some variant thereof) exactly—but to be honest it isn’t that much different from a lot of other stuff out there. To any reader of contemporary American poetry it’s familiar. It’s recognizable. It has antecedents. To a certain degree at least it’s nothing new.
What sets Ladewig and The Silhouettes apart, than, is that it doesn’t attempt to classify itself as something it’s not. Read any blurb from any award-winning (no matter which award) poetry book published in the last 15 years and the inevitable words inevitably arise—“new,” “needed,” “discovery,” “transcend,” “vital,” “fresh,” “exceptional,” “extraordinary.” I could go on. The irony of such high words of praise, of course, is that 98.5% of all these “vital” and “extraordinary” collections of poetry are forgotten about 2 or so years following their publication; after that, they are relegated to the teeming shelves of so many half-dusty university libraries. Unread, they dwell only on themselves. Unread, they dwell in themselves, their entire life a fervent prayer to be picked up once again. And to be interlibrary loaned, passed amongst several different sets of hands, is to enter the rarefied air belonging to heaven.
The Silhouettes has not been accredited by anyone in the field of contemporary American poetry. Somewhat astoundingly, the collection is blurb-less (at least on the actual physical copy I possess; if you search for it, Dara Wier does provide one online at SpringGun Press’ website). Instead, on the book’s back cover is—get this— an actual poem written by Ladewig, one that is also contained within. Essentially representative of her poetry as a whole and taken from the aforementioned “Shadow Box” series, in its entirety it reads:
You can always return to a room, even if it no longer exists. Even if you don’t pray, there is something soothing about pressing your palms together. Bowing your head. They say that much of our decision-making is a result of biology. They say when you visit Russia you never for a moment forget that you are in Russia. I smelled you and within five seconds I knew. Nothing stays clean. Not my white t-shirts. Not your white jeans. The skin between a sailor’s tattoos. I bathe and then I have to bathe again. If I keep repeating what I think I should want, I might start believing it.
With no one to vouch for it, Ladewig’s “Shadow Box” here is forced to stand on its own, and I would say it passes muster. In particular the line “Even if you don’t pray, there is something soothing about pressing your palms together” rings true—to press one’s palms together is soothing in some fundamental sense-—and the end sentence “If I keep repeating what I think I should want, I might start believing it” seems to suggest that faith is simply repetition and repetition is the eternal semblance of enacting belief—to be faithful one merely has to live in the world and exist, has to accept the circuitous nature of day-to-day living. It also reminds me of my weight problem. How many times has my (right) arm extended itself to my (only) gaping mouth? 1 million times? 10 million? “Repetition is necessary,” Ladewig asserts in a later “Shadow Box” poem. “It evens out the body.” And, mercifully, according to Ladewig my overeating is an act of incalculable devotion, of unassailable faith and belief.
There are other poems in The Silhouettes that distinguish themselves just like this particular “Shadow Box” does and numerous memorable, insouciant lines that stand out throughout. Among them: “Like how if nobody looks at my naked body then I will never be truly naked again” (“Shadow Box” 18); “There’s a certain drug/ people take that makes them/ feel like trees. I’m better/ at the jerky movements. / Take me to the supermarket/ of your hips and I’ll build a home” (“When I Dance”); “At nightfall our shadows turn into choreographers. They instruct the dancers not to touch but to imagine touching” (“Shadow Box” 30). Just like any poet worth his or her salt, the best of Ladewig’s poems stay with you, plain and simple. They remind you that to be a poet is to be both a liar and a truth-seeking oracle, and that in the end there is no real difference between the two.
The Silhouettes didn’t win any major national awards. It did not change the scope and focus of contemporary American poetry, nor did it—on its back cover, in black ink against a sheer white background—purport itself to. What it did do—what it does do—is provide the reader with well-crafted, well-constructed poems, ones that deserve reading and rereading. Nothing more or less. Ladewig’s debut collection of poetry is worthwhile, engaging and provoking. It is deserving of your time, but it will not change your life. And it didn’t at all help me with my weight problem. My unseemly silhouette.