Melanie McCabe’s Poetry of Summer


I first read Melanie McCabe’s beautiful first book of poetry, History of the Body, last year, but it seems right to talk about it now, in this season of heat and harvest.  As the title suggests, this is a book that revels in the visceral and bodily, and in the poems she writes about summer, McCabe finds a multiplicity of meanings in the season.

In many areas of the country, summer is hurricane season. In McCabe’s poem “Waiting for Power,” a family mourning over the loss of a father is pitched again into darkness:

…The sultry
swell of heat filled the room from the ceiling down, so Mama
peeled off her dress and leaned

in her white lace slip before the narrow
yellow flame–a daguerreotype, an oval-flamed ancestor from
the cracked album in the cedar chest. Hours passed without
clocks. The heat moved back

and forth with our fans, but it was still
heat, and no men came to put things right.

Similarly, in the poem “Safe,” the speaker finds safety from the storm in her home:

All day at the glass the wind swoops,
dives, rallies, looks for cracks to permit
entry–but caulk holds. Panes shake.

I look through them at the storm. All day
the air conditioner thrums off and on.
All day July transpires outside the glass.


In McCabe’s poems, summer is a season marked by desire, and the waiting game that must be played. The imagery in her poem “Ripe” illustrates this tension:

The long tendrils of the melons rustle as they creep
from the garden. The moon is the only eye to see,
but in my bed I listen for the whisper of green on green.
My vigil to morning weaves between nerves and dream.
Somewhere tongues take sacraments, glistening and sweet.
I knew this night always, before I planted a single seed.

Her poem “Patience” reminds us of all that waits for us, even when the world seems still and barren:

Emptied of desire for whatever it is that horses desire,
they bide
their hours, reconciled to the day’s slow, scorching
revolution across the bent stalks and red earth, patient in
their bodies’ memory that evening always comes, that winds
can stir,
that the field is not lost to them, but waiting.


Most interesting to me are McCabe’s poems about summer that focus on its dark side: how summer forces us to confront our pasts, and how the physical world becomes a reminder of those lost summer loves. The next two excerpts beautifully convey this melancholy:

From “Translation From The Green:”

Between the trees, you say, there are spaces where we can
reclaim what we have lost. A quiet is there that will always

remember who we were. Nothing is on our lips now but flat, doltish
words. It is leaves and branches only that allow us to hear the wind.

From “This Wide World:”

You have always known how the earth can be excavated, changed, then

reunited with itself, or how a flower can travel miles to finish its life far from
where it began. Once you showed me a sky you called live-for-forever blue,

as if we might, as if that were possible. Sometimes I search for your name
to find out if you are gone. Death would be an explanation I could understand.

I know you think of me. The wind tonight is freighted with honeysuckle
and salt. The moon slides like a postcard in and out of the clouds.


McCabe’s poem “The Body Goes To The Beach” takes a familiar source of summer self-consciousness – how we appear in a swimsuit – and turns it into a deeper moment of mortality:

What once paraded, strutted 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

the body, this old thing…If it makes

a sound, it will be the clicking of needles
pulling taut a gap, an unravel in yarn.

It will be the tick of insect legs over
gift wrap…Bones rehearsing their pop

and clatter. Their star turn.
Their last role.

As the summer progresses, I’ll share more of my seasonal favorites – but I think McCabe’s poetry is an excellent place to start. 🙂

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