Barbra in Shadow, poems by Shannon McKeehen.
McKeehen begins with a quote from the film Double Indemnity, and then a found poem pastiche from the films Double Indemnity; The Maltese Falcon; Murder, My Sweet; and Out of the Past. Right away, McKeehen establishes a playful tone harkening back to the tough Noir language and tense relationships of these films, but also critiquing their chauvinist mentality in a tongue-in-cheek way. Several images reoccur: ‘the other woman’, scenes of murder and betrayal, relationships gone awry because of poor communication, “The book on the shelf is hollowed/ out to accommodate a pistol” (lines 1-2) she states in one poem, and one could easily imagine that it is this book, and the ‘pistol’ is contained within these poems.
McKeehen’s poems are untitled, so that they imply sections in an ongoing series chronicling a failing relationship. McKeehen’s poems are visceral, tough: “My dear phantom,” one begins, “there is fire/where my skin/should be sleeping./I swallow; there’s burning.” (1-5). The narrator is ‘haunted’ by memories. “My dear phantom,” she states, later, “the skin remembers/ what is missing,/ a life amputated,/dreams outlined in chalk.” (l9-23). There is loss, anger, and deep regret in these lines.
The narrator of these poems is disillusioned, desperate for love and meaningful interaction. “Maybe you never cared about me…but I still tried” she says in one poem (11-13). She tries to make sense of this world ‘in shadow’ in which the truth of things is never fully revealed. “Does anyone call a random number/ just to have someone to talk to?” (23-24) She asks in another, nakedly honest.
McKeehen manages to create a powerful, layered portrait of ‘Barbra’ in this collection. The Noir conceit is refreshing and clever. She handles it well, without slipping into the realm of cliché. McKeehen is adept at reigning in what could be melodramatic moments while remaining true to the world of these films, and yet, these poems feel real and not contrived. It's a strong collection that resonates well beyond the page.
-Reviewed by CL Bledsoe