History of the Body by Melanie McCabe, Cincinnati: David Robert Books, 2012. 81 pages. $18, paper.
The title poem of Melanie McCabe’s first collection, History of the Body, opens the volume with a question: “What was the body before we named it?” Throughout the poem, she explores this idea, but ultimately, the book is less a history and more of an intimate examination of the body as is, the “blemish to conceal.”
There’s beauty in the speaker’s candidness of how she views herself in light of her aging body. She believes herself invisible, and from the vantage point of being unseen in the world, she sees everything. In “It’s Been Years,” she says, “I could spy on you now from this changed / body; I do not think you would know me here, / peering out of the heavy-lidded eyes, the flesh / drawn low and close against the too bright day. / Anonymity is a mercy –.” She carries this invisible spy metaphor into “The Body Goes to the Beach,” when she states,
What once paraded, struggled to be seen
now only hopes to move unnoticed among
this supple horde, this muscled flesh—
a spy stealing from corner to lamppost,
from gray to gray. To be unlit, to take up
no space. We have nothing to wear but
this body, this old thing.
In both of these poems, to be unseen is to be obviously blessed.
In spite of her desire to be invisible, the speaker in McCabe’s book is not ashamed of how she’s changed; she embraces who she is inside the body. “I am young inside these songs and so / I play them again,” she says in “These Songs.” The rest of the poem describes the private joy of dancing and singing in the shower, when she can be “a taunt on slick porcelain,” and “a Pip, a Supreme snapping / and swaying spangles.”
The body is the ubiquitous symbol of our mortality. It’s the thing we each live inside until we die from its failures. Melanie McCabe’s lovely poems illustrate this as the great tragedy of life, and yet, as no tragedy at all. In the title poem, the speaker wonders “if the self / can live unhoused.” This question is answered in “The Pact”: “Twirl me around the floor without bones on,” she says, “and lo, nothing will break.” McCabe allows for the strange hopefulness of shedding our bodies, of being suddenly out of the danger that is life, and still finding joy in the resurrection of the spirit, the suppleness of “our ghost suits.”
[This review originally appeared in Mid-American Review, Spring 2011]