Keep This to Yourself by Kerrin McCadden
I have recently fallen in love with poetry chapbooks. I love how you can read them in one sitting (or, like me, in bed before turning in for the night), and I love how the compact, themed format packs a gut-wrenching, mind-expanding, heart-squeezing punch, in just a handful of poems.
Keep This to Yourself (Button Poetry, 2020) is one such chapbook that packs such a punch—well multiple punches, actually—as in it, McCadden documents and explores the loss of her brother to an opioid overdose. The poems are gorgeous and haunting in their depictions of that loss and grief, the family unit, and the drug epidemic at large.
The second poem in the collection, a prose poem called “Portraits of the Family as a Definition” is absolute genius. The numbered entries riff off of the dictionary definition of the word “soon” to convey the pain and grief of a family struggling to understand addiction and overdose.
The church bells ringing meant that another of his friends would be buried soon. Soon we will all sit down to dinner. Soon after the last time they gave him the money, he came clean.
And so on with soon the poem moves, through examples of how this word infiltrated the family’s lives and understanding of her brother’s troubled life.
I love the poem “The Mother Talks to Her Son about Her Heart,” which made me cry. I admit, it doesn’t take a lot to make me cry (a good friend once said I cry if the wind blows), and I am a sucker for poems about motherhood, but this poem begins steady and gets heavier and heavier until you cannot help but burst just as the mother’s heart surely burst when her son died. In this persona poem, we meet an adoptive mother with a heart condition, who gives us metaphor after metaphor of her heart’s holes and flaws, its mendings and stitchings:
In the lumber yard of the heart, the materials
are strange—Teflon, like I said, for the hole
and a valve from a cow to seal the doorway.
Over and over, I shore this place up.
How her heart was closed but also open, “like a summer cottage” where “the light is bright and warm.” How, talking to her son: “You were supposed to come home.” But, of course, he never did. I won’t spoil this poem by giving away the amazing ending here.
Other notable poems include the ones called “reverse overdose” one through six, which are scattered throughout the collection. They are nuggets of insight that really bring into focus her brother’s life and struggles, but from reverse (think The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which is ironic because Button is the name of the poetry publisher). If read together as a standalone group of poems, though, they tell the tight, brief story of her brother’s life in reverse of his addiction. I have never seen anything quite like this in a chapbook; it is almost like a chapbook within a chapbook: a micro-chapbook!
In addition to the subject matter and styles covered, McCadden is masterful with her language. Her similes and metaphors are fresh and sharp—sharp as grief comes on a windy day, sharp as my favorite line in the book, from the poem “Losing”:
I keep / a jar of nails like a bouquet of denial.
Oof. This poet’s broken heart and fine, fine writing. I urge you to read this small but mighty book. You will be moved. Probably to tears, like me. But isn’t that the point of poetry? To punch you, to make you feel? We need poets like McCadden to turn trauma into art, to make us grieve for not only her brother, but for the 72,000 lives lost to the opioid crisis.
Kerrin McCadden is the author of Landscape with Plywood Silhouettes (New Issues Poetry & Prose 2014), winner of the New Issues Poetry Prize and the Vermont Book Award. An NEA Fellow and Sustainable Arts Foundation Writing Award winner, her work has also been supported by the Vermont Studio Center, The Vermont Arts Council and the Vermont Arts Endowment Fund. Her poems have appeared in Best American Poetry, the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series, and recently in American Poetry Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Los Angeles Review, New England Review, Ploughshares, and Prairie Schooner. She teaches at Montpelier High School and is the Associate Director of the Conference on Poetry and Teaching at The Frost Place. She lives in South Burlington, Vermont.
Samantha Kolber has received a Ruth Stone Poetry Prize and a Vermont Poetry Society prize, and her manuscript “Jewel Tones” was a semifinalist with the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry’s 2019 First Book Prize. She received her MFA from Goddard College and completed post-grad work at Pine Manor College’s Solstice MFA Program. Originally from New Jersey, she lives in Montpelier, Vermont, where she coordinates events and marketing for Bear Pond Books and is the Poetry Series Editor at Rootstock Publishing. You can find her poems in many journals, anthologies, and online. Her chapbook, “Birth of a Daughter” is forthcoming September 1, 2020, with Kelsay Books.
Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.