The Night Divers
by Melanie McCabe
Terrapin Books, 2022
Reviewed by Jessica de Koninck
Siblings, for those of us fortunate to have them, are our mirrors, our models, our confidants, sometimes our dearest friends. When we lose a sister or a brother a door to part or our own life slams shut. But The end is only the end until you start over, Melanie McCabe writes in her poem, “If Time Travel is Possible,” the opening poem of her haunting collection, The Night Divers (Terrapin Books, 2022). The book is a memorial to her late sister, Terri, and a pensive study of time and memory, what it means to be the survivor, to continue on each day. The poem opens:
Physicists concur that if time travel is possible
it will be only in one direction, into a future
filled with people I do not know, towns
so rearranged and remade that I would need
a guide to walk the landscape I once claimed
The speaker must start over and starting over means following a new path that may be unrecognizable.
McCabe’s recitation of loss is both explicit and poignant. She writes in “The Last Time I was Here, You Were Alive:”
Every landmark seems changed now, blank
mere architecture or postcard scene,
holding fast to its secret story, meaning
nothing to the people passing, to the man
who walks beside me, unless I tell it.
A shared history has been lost, the speaker the only keeper of memory.
This is McCabe’s third collection of poetry. Her first, History of the Body, was published in 2012. The second, What the Neighbors Know, received an Honorable Mention in the Library of Virginia Literary Awards Competition. She is also the author of a non-fiction work, His Other Life: Searching for My Father, His First Wife and Tennessee Williams.
McCabe grounds her poems in the world of nature and of living things. In her remarkable poem, “Incursion” the speaker hears birds whose pecking has created an opening in the walls of her house. Her long lack of noticing coupled with the damage the birds caused to the structure of the building create an apt metaphor for the cancer that wracked her sister’s body and for the loss with which the speaker must live. The body is the home. The home is the body. The speaker concludes, I must live in two houses.
As suggested by the title of the collection, water imagery appears throughout. Water can cleanse. Water can cool. Water can soothe and frighten. The title poem opens:
Each night we dropped quarters for each other
into the shaking green light of the hotel pool,
testing our mettle and our lungs in the still
scary plunge into the deep end. Less than an hour
from closing, we were often the only swimmers
in this abandoned world, all other children
Water imagery often centers her poems as in “Storm Watch,” in which the speaker awaits the storm in a teetering house on stilts or “Returning” a poignant return to childhood vacation scene. While “Dead Reckoning” offers philosophical take on the nature of water. “Heading Home” is set around a variety of island vacations. Other poems contain subtle water images that, in addition to their own power, help tie the collection together. For example, in “The Sound of It” a coming-of-age poem centered on an old, dangerous electric fan, the speaker describes hearing the sound of the fan as if underwater. “Your Vanity,” an ekphrastic exploration of a creased Polaroid photo highlights a tube of waterproof Maybelline/for the eyelashes that survived.
It would be remiss not to note McCabe’s use of metaphors which seem neither stale nor overworked. “Your Vanity” is one such example. McCabe uses the photograph of her sister taken at her dressing table or vanity to explore the concept of vanity. Much of the poem is a list poem as it describing both the dressing table and its contents. Each item is freighted with meaning and memory.
An econo-jar of Dippity Do, for the wings
that would not, the flyaways that would.
A yellow pump bottle of Sun-In. A curling iron.
An empty Marlboro hard pack, a lighter,
and a gift of Jovan Woman I gave you at Christmas,
full-bodied and still uncorked.
Knowing that the person pictured in the photograph is dead, the reader cannot help but think of angels in those “Dippity-Do” wings, or the absence of light despite the “Sun-in,” and, most painfully, a young woman “full-bodied and still uncorked.” Then the poem goes deeper still. This is the photo the speaker had chosen, over many taken, to keep for herself. The reason:
evidence–though it was disintegrating–
of who you were when no one was watching.
McCabe has a terrific talent for last lines.
Steeped in memory the speaker of McCabe’s poems continues living. The house on stilts where she once cared for her sister:
This house leans creaking in a hard wind.
In tilt and keen, at every window
you hang white lace. Its flutter soothes.
Above the din I call to you
Breathe deep, breathe in;
is now her house.
Like the spring animals she references in “Trespassing,” the final poem of the collection, who have gotten word/that it is their world now, McCabe’s speaker relies on a kind of faith, on the heaven in which she does not believe, the one her sister might have dreamed. Her life goes on, and readers will be glad to have been invited to join the journey.