American Wake
by Kerrin McCadden
Black Sparrow Press, 2021

From its epigraph to its final line, award-winning poet Kerrin McCadden’s exquisite third book, American Wake, is about going places. In its energetic momentum, we encounter who moves on and who and what is left behind in this poet’s search for origins, identity, and home.

The fifty-nine poems, remarkable in their formal and imaginal diversity, are presented as a braided continuum, rather than divided into thematic sections. As they progress, we move, via man-made structures, machines, and devices, through a world of water, land, and air that is both dangerous and wondrous. “I Google where I come from in Ireland, drag the yellow man into street view and click the spin arrow….”

Disruption, dislocation, and loss, along with heightened perception propel readers through these charged narratives, lyrics, and inventive poetic forms. The poems depict a “train wreck” divorce, recollections of the poet’s formative years in her family of origin (biological brothers and sisters who did not thrive, her mother’s heart disease, and the arrival her adopted baby brother who never met his biological family); also McCadden’s travels to Ireland where superstitious and illiterate kin, and their earthbound endurance inform her of her roots: “The man crawls, darning holes/in the roof, while the hayfield is not tedded,” and, later, we become utterly submerged in the McCadden family’s long standing traumatic reality, in a series of heart-rending poems about a fait accompli, the epic loss of her brother to a fentanyl overdose.

The brother’s impending death appears quite early in the book, in “Portrait of the Family as a Definition,” in which the word “soon” is used in sentences; such as, “When the brother is desperate, he says he needs food, and so, as soon as they can, the family gives him money,” and in “When My Brother Dies.”

American Wake is rich with flora, fauna, water, stone, and also man-made structures, all seeming to exist primarily as temporary containers and conveyors for human emotions passing through. We are repeatedly reminded that in all our travels there is aspiration, futility, and the longing for redemption from the heart’s hardships.

McCadden writes: “In ancient times,/our heroes looked at stars/and saw our hearts stirred in,” reminding us that human beings have always been this way. Likewise, the body’s skeletal system and musculature exist to move the restless and dislocated heart and mind from place to place. “I wander through days like an envelope marked please forward.”

The book’s title, American Wake, functions as a provocative triple entendre: it’s the Irish Catholic’s ritual of mourning the departed (even those leaving Ireland’s shores for America); the split waters behind any fast-moving boat; and the awareness and demands of being awake.

The content of this book, so laden with longing and pain, is also buoyant and sparkling with reflections, recurring images of water, mirrors, prayers, loving care, and the sparks of a creative mind.

A poet’s poet, Kerrin McCadden’s formal devices are both fascinating and instructive. Try “Choose Your Own Adventure: Loneliness,” in which you skip around the numbered lines of the poem as a form of self-discovery or self-help (“to get up and get a snack, continue to line 9, to get even smaller, go to line 18.”). And I urge you to dive in and read “My Broken Family” and the entirely unpunctuated “reverse overdose,” the last line of which is, “we have a good home and my parents apply for a new baby boy.”

In this crushing and generative book, one swims in the heart’s largess. The poet plays with time; you feel your way across interior and exterior distances through tough subjects. When an ocean liner completes a trip, its wake, at once, disappears. But when this powerful book ends, American Wake remains with you.

Jari Chevalier
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