The title poem of Melanie McCabe’s History of the Body begins with a question: “What was the body before we named it?” The very personal but also very formal poems that follow never lose sight of this primary question, this preoccupation with the body and its (im)permanence.
McCabe considers the inner workings of the body, “the industry/of the heart and lungs” and “the hinged whole oiled”. She gives the shape of body to every subject matter she encounters. In “Watching for Wasps” she writes of the “huge body of each blue-black wasp.” In “These Songs” she gives body to sound, writing that “Notes hold/perky, round above the bass line,//and in my throat the hum swells full.” Reading Gone With the Wind for the first time in “In Bed with Rhett Butler” even the “sensible bedspread” has “rib cords.” In “Renegotiation” the house has “bones curving only over torpid air.”
But this sense of shape, of understanding and delineation, can be misleading. This is especially true as the body relates to the self and to the human characters that populate McCabe’s poems. In “History of the Body” McCabe writes that “there was no body separate/from the self.” In “This Dance,” dancers lack faces and “are no more than muscle memory/and grace, stilettos and wingtips.” In “Merely Body” we are told that “Without a soul,/ the body could still be mistaken for the self//it dreamed.” Not everything is as it seems.
Almost as ever-present as the body is the garden and all that it contains, although even here the living things that grow take the shape of the body. In “Garden in Rain” the wisteria vines “twin over/me, salivating rain.” In “Under Wisteria” the vine’s shoots “slither overnight, a strangle/of twist and creep” and “Who comes here for quiet hears also those lungs, root-hidden” of the “always breathing” vine. In “Ripe” the “long tendrils of the melons rustle as they creep/from the garden.”
An air of nostalgia hangs heavy over many of the poems in History of the Body. In “Waiting for Power,” the narrator recalls the first thunderstorm after the passing of her father. She remembers how “Mama peeled off her dress and leaned//in her white lace slip before the narrow/yellow flame.” We meet the character of the mother again in the next poem, “The Mother Poses for Her Daughter”—here, the narrator seems less at ease with her mother. The poem closes by noting that “The mother is here,/love as keen as a blade against the throat—a throat that/might otherwise open, might tell everything that it knows.” There are secrets inside of the body, secrets that are not being shared.
In the fourth and final section of the book, there is “Between,” a poem that feels so starkly different from the rest of the collection in form and tone as to serve almost as a note on the rest of the work:
Here are the lines I am sending you — bland
as rice. Serviceable as a doorstop.
Knock knock—who is here would seem to be
me. Staunch, but not hell-bent. Pared so as not
to give pause. These are tropes you could drop
in Sunday’s plate and feel not a whit of shame.
Note how these lines are parallel; no two serifs
will ever touch. If you turn sideways, suck in thin,
you can slip between and scuff not a syllable.
You can loiter white space, unstained by anything
as guilty as ink. At the breaks where each of my
breaths go, I will linger with the lines I meant.
Aside from breathing, the body is not especially present in “Between.” Instead, this is a poem about the writing, a poem that lets us know that McCabe intends for us to read between her lines, to insert our own selves, and our own bodies, into her work.
Melanie McCabe’s History of the Body does not read like your average debut collection. Each poem found within is polished to a completeness that can be felt. The actual crafting of poetry, the skill involved in completing a poem, is apparent in the careful line breaks and orderly stanzas. The poems within this collection stand alone as individual stories just as much as they stand together to form a more substantial recounting.