A CLOSER LOOK: Wesley McNair



Wesley McNair has been called by poet Philip Levine “one of the great storytellers of contemporary poetry.” He is the author of eleven volumes of poems, including two limited editions, and twenty-two books, comprising poetry, nonfiction, and edited anthologies. McNair has held grants from the Guggenheim and Fulbright foundations, two Rockefeller grants for study at the Bellagio Center in Italy, two NEA fellowships. He has been selected for a United States Artist Fellowship, and he has twice been invited to read his poetry by the Library of Congress. Other honors include the Eunice Tietjens Prize from Poetry magazine, the Theodore Roethke Prize, an Emmy Award, and the Sarah Josepha Hale Medal, for his “distinguished contribution to the world of letters.” His poetry has been featured on NPR’s Weekend Edition, Saturday and Sunday editions, and 22 times on Garrison Keillor’s Writer's Almanac. It has also appeared in the Best American Poetry, The Pushcart Prize annual, and over sixty anthologies and textbooks. Last year he was named as the recipient of the 2015 PEN New England Award for Literary Excellence for his collection, The Lost Child: Ozark Poems.

Over many years, Wesley McNair has written several essays about  craft, advising poets-in-the-making about writing poems. To sample his short-take essays on craft, click here: http://wesleymcnair.com/craft.php?p=2



  New Poems

by Wesley McNair


All five will appear in The Unfastening

(David R. Godine, spring 2017), his ninth full length collection.



Nursing Home Haikus

 

A decorative

front door, the back rehabbed for

anything on wheels.

 

With each step, the right

foot finds the floor for the left

foot, which cannot feel.

 

When guests come he looks

up, then down for the open

place in his darkness.

 

It stops at each door:

an ice-cream truck with no bell,

just pills, a clipboard.

 

Right then, waving them

off, smiling, she was having

her last heart attack.

 

Are you going? When

are you going? When are you

going to come back?

 

Once this whole floor was

the ballroom of a mansion.

Think of the rooms cleared

 

away for dancing,

the gowns, the music that said

now, and only now.

 

 

Delight  

 

What did the milk know

when my youngest spilled it

from a cup all those mealtimes

except to follow the long slant

 

of our table that led to my lap,

and what did the four

children know when I rose,

to invoke the name of our Lord,

 

except to laugh, then laugh

because they shouldn’t, and how

could my son, the lover of books,

who crawled under our new

 

mattress to discover a curtained

chamber, read to himself without

lighting the candle? He was no less                

surprised than I was, waking up

 

from my nap and smelling smoke,

that he’d set the box-springs

on fire, and when my two oldest

gazed, as if for the first time,

 

at the topmost windows

of our rented barn feeling

an itch in their fingers for stones

small enough to fly,

 

what were they to do but search

for them? It was only delight

that called their attention

to the milk that jogged past

 

their plates down our table,

and to the candle that lit up

the chamber, and to the sharp,

winged stones, and when I

 

warned them or chased them

or drew them toward me for my

explanations, it was only delight

I wanted myself, my lessons

 

breaking into shouts, my spent

lungs struggling for breath.

 

 

The Unfastening

 

As the father turns away from the thought

of his failure, the hands remove

his glasses and rub his eyes over

 

and over, drying the nonexistent tears.

Unknown to the one who is troubled

about losing his hair, his fingers stroke

 

his baldness as he speaks. The body,

our constant companion, understands

the loneliness of the hostess in her dark

 

driveway, embracing herself after the guests

who promised more and soon have gone,

and even visits the old schoolteacher

 

who reads the same happy ending to each

new class, working her toes in her shoes.

How could the people of the kingdom

 

not have known the curse of sorrow

was nothing more than a long sleep

they had only to wake from? In dreams

 

the body, which longs for transformation

too, suddenly lifts us above the dark

roofs of our houses, and far above

 

the streets of the town, until they seem

like any other small things fastened to earth.

 

 

The Longing to See

 

You wont be able

to see through it,

said the surgeon who

put the dark bubble

 

of gas into my sick

eye, yet if I held it

just so, I could steal

inside its small,

 

refracted world,

broken into beautiful

colors that sickness

and dark had made,

 

a sort of poetry

without the words,

which I returned to

even after the bubble

 

was gone all well

except for my old

incompleteness

and the longing

 

for its way of seeing,

the irresistible

looking out

while looking in.

 

 

The Revolution

 

for Kathleen

 

On a day in this post-9/11 nation,

where our cars are protected

by sensors and cameras

and black glass that keeps us safe

 

from the sun and each other,

my daughter-in-law drove me

and her kids down the main street

of Felton, California, in an SUV

that wore brand new, long

 

eyelashes over its headlights.

The tinted glass of parked vans

refused our reflection. A pickup

with window guards, and cars

 

with squinting, watchful headlights

passed by before we turned

into the parking lot of the school.

But on this day of the eyelashes,

which transformed her SUV

 

into a human face, the face

of a woman, mothers we didn't

recognize honked their horns,

putting up their thumbs,

 

and when the black glass

of the SUVs and the mini-vans

opened, other moms came out

with their kids to gather around us

in intimacy and wonder. “I love

 

the lashes,” one woman said,

clutching her heart and laughing.

“Where can we get a pair?”

somebody else wanted to know,

 

the start of a small revolution

to free us from the protections

of Homeland America.


 

Selected Poems

by Wesley McNair


From his selected poems, Lovers of the Lost, and seven other collections: The Lost Child, The Ghosts of You and Me, Fire, Talking in the Dark, My Brother Running, The Town of No, and The Faces of Americans in 1853.


 

1.  SELF

 

How I Became a Poet

 

“Wanted” was the word I chose

for him at age eight, drawing the face

of a bad guy with comic-book whiskers,

then showing it to my mother. This was how,

 

after my father left us, I made her smile

at the same time I told her I missed him,

and how I managed to keep him close by

in that house of perpetual anger,

 

becoming his accuser and his devoted

accomplice. I learned by writing

to negotiate between what I had,

and that more distant thing I dreamed of.

 

 

The Good-Boy Suit

 

I was four when my mother

stitched herself, working late

at night, my father gone.

She put her hand into the light

 

of the Singer and pressed

the treadle until the needle

sang through her thumb.

I stood back from the sleeves

 

and pant cuffs she sewed

afterward with her bandaged

hand, pins shining in her shut,

angry mouth, gone away herself.

 

She would not stitch me,

I thought. But I was a bad boy,

and why did my mother say over

and over she would sew me

 

a new suit if I was good?

I was afraid to be good,

I was afraid not to be good.

My mother switched me.

 

My mother switched and stitched.

Turn around, she said, pushing pins

with her bandage into the patterns

on my arms and chest, Stand still,

 

making a tickle when she measured

my inseam. I was the bad boy

who couldn’t, who forgot

to flush, who was afraid

 

to clean out from under the bed

or watch my mother lean forward

putting her hand into the Singer’s

light that was like fire

 

in her eyes and hair.

The good boy suit just let her

stick pins in it and cut it

and push it into the fire again

 

and again with her shut face

to stitch it, only the two of them

together in the dark all night long.

So when I came downstairs

 

to find them, my mother

held up the good boy suit

that had my arms and chest

and legs. It’s perfect, she said,

 

smiling at it, and her hand, with no

bandage now, was perfect too.

I was the one who wasn’t.

I couldn’t answer when my mother

 

asked me why I did not like

or want the good boy suit,

or why, even at a time like this,

I had to be such a bad boy.

 

 

Hearing that My Father Died in a Supermarket

 

At first it is difficult

to see you

are dropping dead

 

you seem lost

in thought, adjusting your tie

as if to rehearse

 

some imaginary speech

though of course beginning

to fall,

 

your mouth opening wider

than I have ever seen

a mouth,

 

your hands deep

in your shirt,

going down

 

into the cheeses, making the sound

that is not

my name,

 

that explains nothing

over and over,

going away

 

into your hands

into your face,

leaving this great body

 

on its knees,

the father

of my body

 

which holds me

in this world,

watching you go

 

on falling

through the musak,

making the sound

 

that is not my name,

that will never

explain anything, oh father,

 

stranger, all dressed up

and abandoning me

for the last time.

 

 

The One I Think of Now

 

At the end of my stepfather’s life

when his anger was gone,

and the saplings of his failed

nursery had grown into trees,

my newly feminist mother had him

in the kitchen to pay for all

those years he only did the carving.

“You know where that is,”

she would say as he looked

for a knife to cut the cheese

and a tray to serve it with,

his apron wide as a dress

above his work boots, confused

as a girl. He is the one I think of now,

lifting the tray for my family,

the guests, until at last he comes

to me. And I, no less confused,

look down from his hurt eyes as if

there were nothing between us

except an arrangement of cheese,

and not this bafflement, these

almost tender hands that once

swung hammers and drove machines

and insisted that I learn to be a man.

 

 

The Boy Carrying the Flag

 

Once, as the teenage boy marched up

and down the gutter with the wide blade

of a shovel above his head, and the goats

turned toward him in their stalls

undoing with their blats the band

music he held in his mind,

 

his stepfather, who had only asked,

for Christ’s sake, to have the barn

cleaned out, rested his hand

on his hip in the doorway.

The boy would not have guessed

when he marched in his first parade

 

that he carried the flag for his stepfather,

or for his angry mother, also raised

for work and self-denial

during the Depression. Seeing him

dressed up like that to leave her stuck

on a failing farm with chores

 

as she had been stuck when she was just

his age, his mother remembered he forgot

to feed the chickens and refused

to drive him to the football game.

The old barns and dead cornfields

along the road in the sunless cold

 

had never seen a hitch-hiker in red

wearing spats and lifting a white-

gloved thumb. Everyone stared

from the cars that passed him by,

and when at last he jumped down

from the door of a semi, the whole

 

marching band waiting in formation

by the buckling steps of the school

and Mr. Paskevitch, whose hands

twitched worse than ever, watched him

walk across the lawn looking

down at his size-fourteen black shoes.

 

Just one year from now, Paskevitch

would suffer a nervous breakdown

he would never return from,

but today, he raised the baton

to begin the only thing on earth

that could steady his hands, and the boy,

 

taller than the others, took his position

in the color guard to carry the flag

for Paskevitch, and for the sergeant-

at-arms, Pete LaRoche, so upset

by the hold-up he was screaming

his commands. For this first parade


belonged to LaRoche, too, and to O’Neill,

another son of immigrants, hoisting

the school colors, and to the rifle-bearers,

Wirkkala and Turco, the fat kid

who squinted helplessly against the wind.

Marching with a shuffle, Turco was already

 

resigned to his life in the shoe shop,

but this was before he went to work

on the night shift and drank all day,

and before Ann Riley, the head majorette

following the boy past the stopped

traffic kicking up her lovely legs,

 

got pregnant by the quarterback

and was forced to drop out

of the senior class. In this moment

of possibility in the unforgiving 1950s,

she wore nobody’s ring around

her neck, and the boy imagined

 

how easily she had forgiven him

his lateness, and the times his mind

wandered and he fell out of step.

For in his secret heart he carried

the flag for Ann as he marched onto

the football field, leaving the town

 

with its three factories and wasted

farms far behind. There were La Roche’s

and O’Neill’s mothers, on their day off

from the flock mill, and there

were the fathers in their shop-pants,

and the classmates in school jackets,

 

and the teachers who looked strange

without their ties, all applauding

and shouting while the band, capped,

plumed, and lifting up the shining bells

of their instruments, marched by

all here on this dark and windy day

 

to watch the quarterback, Joe Costello,

Ann’s lover-to-be, lead them into the sun,

as were the band and the tallest boy

in the color guard himself,

carrying the stars and stripes

for everyone who was here

 

and not here in this broken town,

and for the hope in the uncertain

promise that struggled

against his hand as he marched

to his place in the bleachers

among these, his fellow Americans.

 

 

2.  HOME

 

The Rules of the New Car

 

After I got married and became

the stepfather of two children, just before

we had two more, I bought it, the bright

blue sorrowful car that slowly turned

to scratches and the flat black spots

of gum in the seats and stains impossible

to remove from the floor mats. Never again,

I said as our kids, four of them by now,

climbed into the new car. This time,

there will be rules. The first to go

was the rule I made for myself about

cleaning it once a week, though why,

I shouted at the kids in the rear view mirror,

should I have to clean it if they would just

remember to fold their hands. Three years

later, it was the same car I had before,

except for the dent my wife put in the grille

when, ignoring the regulation about snacks,

she reached for a bag of chips on her way

home from work and hit a tow truck. Oh,

the ache I felt for the broken rules,

and the beautiful car that had been lost,

and the car that we now had, on soft

shocks in the driveway, still unpaid for.

Then one day, for no particular reason except

that the car was loaded down with wood

for the fireplace at my in-laws’ camp

and groceries and sheets and clothes

for the week, my wife in the passenger seat,

the dog lightly panting beside the kids in the back,

all innocent anticipation, waiting for me

to join them, I opened the door to my life.

 

 

For My Wife 

 

How were we to know, leaving your two kids

behind in New Hampshire for our honeymoon

at twenty-one, that it was a trick of cheap

hotels in New York City to draw customers

like us inside by displaying a fancy lobby?

Arriving in our fourth-floor room, we found

a bed, a scarred bureau, and a bathroom door

with a cut on one side the exact shape

of the toilet bowl that was in its way

when I closed it. I opened and shut the door,

admiring the fit and despairing of it. You

discovered the initials of lovers carved

on the bureau’s top in a zigzag, breaking heart.

How wrong the place was to us then,

unable to see the portents of our future

that seem so clear now in the naiveté

of the arrangements we made, the hotel’s

disdain for those with little money,

the carving of pain and love. Yet in that room

we pulled the covers over ourselves and lay

our love down, and in this way began our unwise

and persistent and lucky life together.

 

 

Happiness

 

Why, Dot asks, stuck in the back

seat of her sister’s two-door, her freckled hand

feeling the roof for the right spot

to pull her wide self up onto her left,

the unarthritic, ankle — why

does her sister, coaching outside on her cane,

have to make her laugh so, she flops

back just as she was, though now

looking wistfully out through the restaurant

reflected in her back window, she seems bigger,

and couldnt possibly mean we should go

ahead in without her, shell be all right, and so

when you finally place the pillow behind her back

and lift her right out into the sunshine,

all four of us are happy, none more

than she, who straightens the blossoms

on her blouse, says how nice it is to get out

once in awhile, and then goes in to eat

with the greatest delicacy (oh

I could never finish all that) and aplomb

the complete roast beef dinner with apple crisp

and ice cream, just a small scoop.

 

 

The Abandonment

 

Climbing on top of him and breathing

into his mouth this way she could be showing her

desire except that when she draws back

from him to make her little cries

she is turning to her young son just

coming into the room to find his father my brother

on the bed with his eyes closed and the slightest

smile on his lips as if when they

both beat on his chest as they do now

he will come back from the dream he is enjoying

so much he cannot hear her calling his name

louder and louder and the son saying get up

get up discovering both of them discovering

for the first time that all along

he has lived in this body this thing

with shut lids dangling its arms

that have nothing to do with him and everything

they can ever know the wife listening weeping

at his chest and the mute son who will never

forget how she takes the face into her hands now

as if there were nothing in the world

but the face and breathes oh

breathes into the mouth that does not breathe back.

 

 

When She Wouldn’t

 

When her recorded voice on the phone

said who she was again and again to the piles

of newspapers and magazines and the clothes

 

in the chairs and the bags of unopened mail

and garbage and piles of unwashed dishes.

 

When she could no longer walk

through the stench of it, in her don’t-need-nobody-

to-help me way of walking, with her head

 

bent down to her knees as if she were searching

for a dime that had rolled into a crack

 

on the floor, though it was impossible to see

the floor. When the pain in her foot she disclosed

to no one was so bad she could not stand

 

at her refrigerator packed with food and sniff

to find what was edible. When she could hardly

 

even sit as she loved to sit, all night

on the toilet, with the old rinsed diapers

hanging nearby on the curtainless bar

 

of the shower stall, and the shoes lined up

in the tub, falling asleep and waking up

 

while she cut out newspaper clippings

and listened to the late-night talk

on her crackling radio about alien landings

 

and why the government had denied them.

When she drew the soapy rag across the agonizing

 

ache of her foot trying over and over to wash

the black from her big toe and could not

because it was gangrene.

 

When at last they came to carry my mother

out of the wilderness of that house

 

and she lay thin and frail and disoriented

between bouts of tests and x-rays,

and I came to find her in the white bed

 

of her white room among nurses who brushed

her hair while she looked up at them and smiled

 

with her yellow upper plate that seemed to hold

her face together, dazed and disbelieving,

as if she were in heaven,

 

then turned, still smiling, to the door

where her stout, bestroked younger brother

 

teetered into the room on his cane, all the way

from Missouri with her elderly sister

and her bald-headed baby brother,

 

whom she despised. When he smiled back

and dipped his bald head down to kiss her,

 

and her sister and her other brother hugged her

with serious expressions, and her childish

astonishment slowly changed

 

to suspicion and the old wildness returned

to her eye because she began to see

 

this was not what she wanted at all,

I sitting down by her good ear holding her hand

to talk to her about going into the home

 

that was not her home, her baby brother winking,

the others nodding and saying, Listen to Wesley.

 

When it became clear to her that we were not

her people, the ones she had left behind

in her house, on the radio, in the newspaper

 

clippings, in the bags of unopened mail,

in her mind, and she turned her face away

 

so I could see the print of red on her cheek

as if she had been slapped hard.

When the three of them began to implore

 

their older sister saying, Ruth, Ruth,

and We come out here for your own good,

 

and That time rolls around for all of us,

getting frustrated and mad because they meant,

but did not know they meant, themselves too.


When the gray sister, the angriest of them,

finally said through her pleated lips

 

and lower plate, You was always

the stubborn one, we ain’t here to poison you,

turn around and say something.

 

When she wouldn’t.

 

 

3.  PLACE

 

The Last Time Shorty Towers Fetched the Cows

 

In the only story we have

of Shorty Towers, it is five oclock

and he is dead drunk on his roof

deciding to fetch the cows. How

he got in this condition, shingling

all afternoon, is what the son-in-law,

the one who made the back pasture

into a golf course, cant figure out. So,

with an expression somewhere between shock

and recognition, he just watches Shorty

pull himself up to his not-so-

full height, square his shoulders,

and sigh that small sigh as if caught

once again in an invisible swarm

of bees. Let us imagine, in that moment

just before he turns to the roofs edge

and the abrupt end of the joke

which is all anyone thought to remember

of his life, Shorty is listening

to what seems to be the voice

of a lost heifer, just breaking

upward. And let us think that when he walks

with such odd purpose down that hill

jagged with shingles, he suddenly feels it

open into the wide, incredibly green

meadow where all the cows are.

 

 

Glass Night

    

Come, warm rain

and cold snap,

come, car light

 

and country road

winding me around

darks finger,

 

come, flash

of mailbox and sign,

and shine

 

of brush,

stubble and all

the lit lonely

 

windows wrapped

in the glass branches

of tree

 

after flying tree.

Come, moon-coated

snow hills, and flung

 

far ahead pole

by pole the long

glass cobweb

                       

in my high beam

that carries me deeper.

Come, deeper

                       

and mute dark

and speech of light.

Come, glass night.

 

 

Making Things Clean

 

One would hardly recognize him like this,

the high-school shop teacher, glasses off,

bent over the kitchen sink. Nearby,

house-dresses and underpants flutter

in the window of the Maytag he bought

for his mother. Its groaning is the only

sound while she washes his hair,

lifting the trembling water in her hands

as she has always done, working foam up

from his gray locks like the lightest

batter she ever made. Soon enough,

glasses back on, he will stand

before students who mock his dullness;

soon, putting up clothes, she’ll feel

the ache of a body surrendering to age.

A little longer let him close his eyes

against soap by her apron, let her move

her fingers slowly, slowly in this way

the two of them have found to be together,

this transfiguring moment in the world’s

old work of making things clean.

 

 

Remembering Aprons

 

Who recalls the darkness

of your other life,

sewn shut

 

around feed grain,

or remembers your release

to join your sisters,

 

the dishcloths, now

ampleness and holes?

Not the absent hands

 

which tied you

behind the back,

already forgetting.

 

How thoughtlessly

they used you,

old stove-gloves,

 

soft baskets

for tomatoes, and yet

how wonderfully

 

such being

left out

shows your inclusion!

 

Oh, tough dresses

without closets,

lovely petticoats that flashed

 

beneath the frayed

hemlines of barncoats

all over Maine.

 

 

The Puppy

 

From down the road, starting up

and stopping once more, the sound

of a puppy on a chain who has not yet

discovered he will spend his life there.

Foolish dog, to forget where he is

and wander until he feels the collar

close fast around his throat, then cry

all over again about the little space

in which he finds himself. Soon,

when there is no grass left in it

and he understands it is all he has,

he will snarl and bark whenever

he senses a threat to it.

Who would believe this small

sorrow could lead to such fury

no one would ever come near him?

 


4.  AMERICA

 

 

Hymn to the Comb-Over

 

How the thickest of them erupt just

above the ear, cresting in waves so stiff

no wind can move them. Let us praise them

in all of their varieties, some skinny

as the bands of headphones, some rising

from a part that extends halfway around

the head, others four or five strings

stretched so taut the scalp resembles

a musical instrument. Let us praise the sprays

that hold them, and the combs that coax

such abundance to the front of the head

in the mirror, the combers entirely forget

the back. And let us celebrate the combers,

who address the old sorrow of time’s passing

day after day, bringing out of the barrenness

of mid-life this ridiculous and wonderful

harvest, no wishful flag of hope but, thick

or thin, the flag itself, unfurled for us all

in subways, offices and malls across America.

 

 

The Thugs of Old Comics

 

At first the job is a cinch, like they said.

They manage to get the bank teller a couple of times

in the head and blow the vault door so high

it never comes down. Money bags line the shelves

inside like groceries. They are rich, richer

than they can believe. Above his purple suit the boss

is grinning half outside of his face.

Two goons are taking the dough in their arms

like their first women. For a minute nobody sees

the little thug with the beanie is sweating drops

the size of hot dogs and pointing

straight up. There is a blue man flying

down through the skylight and landing with his arms

crossed. They exhale their astonishment

into small balloons. What the, they say,

What the,watching their bullets drop

off his chest over and over. Soon he begins to talk

about the fight against evil, beating them half to death

with his fists. Soon they are picking themselves up

from the floor of the prison. Out the window

Superman is just clearing a tall building

and couldn't care less when they shout

his name through the bars. We’re trapped!

We got no chance! they say, tightening their teeth,

 

thinking, like you, how it always gets down

to the same old shit: no fun, no dough,

no power to rise out of their bodies.

 

 

November 22, 1963

 

We were just starting out when it happened.

At the school where I taught the day was over.

As far as they could tell, it wouldn’t be fatal.

But the principal couldn’t finish the announcement.

 

At the school where I taught the day was over.

I had a dentist appointment right after work.

But the principal couldn’t finish the announcement.

By then, we now know, the president was dead.

 

I had a dentist appointment right after work.

On the way, I hurried home to tell my wife.

By then, we now know, the president was dead.

I remember Jackie’s pink pillbox hat in the film.

 

On the way, I hurried home to tell my wife.

Turn off the vacuum cleaner! I shouted at her.

I remember Jackie’s pink pillbox hat in the film.

I kept thinking I was going to be late.

 

Turn off the vacuum cleaner! I shouted at her.

I had never made her cry like that.

I kept thinking I was going to be late.

In one frame Kennedy’s head goes out of focus.

 

I had never made her cry like that.

The funny thing was, the dentist didn’t care.

In one frame Kennedy’s head goes out of focus.

We didn’t realize there would soon be others.

 

The funny thing was, the dentist didn’t care.

We were just starting out when it happened.

We didn’t realize there would soon be others.

As far as they could tell, it wouldn’t be fatal.

 

 

Smoking

 

Once, when cigarettes meant pleasure

instead of death, before Bogart

got lung cancer and Bacall’s

voice, called “smoky,” fell

 

into the gravel of a lower octave,

people went to the movies just

to watch the two of them smoke.

Life was nothing but a job,

 

Bogart’s face told us, expressionless

except for the recurrent grimace,

then it lit up with the fire

he held in his hands and breathed

 

into himself with pure enjoyment

until each word he spoke afterward

had its own tail of smoke.

When he offered a cigarette

 

to Bacall, she looked right at him,

took it into her elegant mouth

and inhaled while its smoke curled

and tangled with his. After the show,

 

just to let their hearts race and taste

what they’d seen for themselves,

the audiences felt in purses,

shirt pockets, and even inside

 

the sleeves of T-shirts where packs

of cigarettes were folded, by a method

now largely forgotten. “Got a light?”

somebody would say, “Could I bum

 

one of yours?” never thinking

that two of the questions most

asked by Americans everywhere

would undo themselves and disappear

 

like the smoke that rose between

their two upturned fingers,

unwanted in a new nation

of smoke-free movie theaters,

 

malls and restaurants, where politicians

in every state take moral positions

against cigarettes so they can tax them

for their favorite projects. Just fifty

 

years after Bogart and Bacall, smoking

is mostly left in the hands of waitresses

huddled outside fancy inns, or old

clerks on the night shift in mini-marts,

 

or hard-hats from the road crew

on a coffee-break around the battered

tailgate of a sand truck all paying

on installment with every drag

 

for bridges and schools. Yet who else

but these, who understand tomorrow

is only more debt, and know better

than Bogart that life is work,

 

should be trusted with this pleasure

of the tingling breath they take today,

these cigarettes they bum and fondle,

calling them affectionate names

 

like “weeds” and “cancer sticks,” holding

smoke and fire between their fingers

more casually than Humphrey Bogart

and blowing it into death’s eye.

 

 

Massive

 

They never guessed

the dead man had something

so large as that

in him, yet each day

 

walking past their doors

down the long, fluorescent

hall toward his, he had been

carrying this

 

crisis about to happen,

this statement so massive

that making it

took everything he had.

 

All morning they gathered

outside the identical

hums of their offices,

uncertain what it meant

 

that he of all people,

the one they hardly knew

with the small, benign wave,

had caused the absence

 

they felt now in every memo,

policy, and deadline,

had gone and left

behind something so big.



5.  THE WORLD

 

Waving Goodbye

 

Why, when we say goodbye

at the end of an evening, do we deny

we are saying it at all, as in Well

be seeing you or Ill call or Stop in,

somebodys always at home? Meanwhile, our friends,

telling us the same things, go on disappearing

beyond the porch light into the space

which except for a moment here or there

is always between us, no matter what we do.

Waving goodbye, of course, is what happens

when the space gets too large

for words a gesture so innocent

and lonely, it could make a person weep

for days. Think of the hundreds of unknown

voyagers in the old, fluttering newsreel

patting and stroking the growing distance

between their nameless ship and the port

they are leaving, as if to promise Ill always

remember, and just as urgently, Always

remember me. Is it loneliness too

that makes the neighbor down the road lift two

fingers up from his steering wheel as he passes

day after day on his way to work in the hello

that turns into goodbye? What can our own raised

fingers do for him, locked in his masculine

purposes and speeding away inside the glass?

How can our waving wipe away the reflex

so deep in the woman next door to smile

and wave on her way into her house with the mail,

well never know if she is happy

or sad or lost? It cant. Yet in that moment

before she and all the others and we ourselves

turn back to our separate lives, how

extraordinary it is that we make this small flag

with our hands to show the closeness we wish for

in spite of what pulls us apart again

and again: the porch light snapping off,

the car picking its way down the road through the dark.

 

 

Losses

 

It must be difficult for God, listening

to our voices come up through his floor

of cloud to tell Him whats been taken away:

Lord, I’ve lost my dog, my period, my hair,

all my money. What can He say, given

were so incomplete we cant stop being

surprised by our condition, while He

is completeness itself? Or is God more

like us, made in His image – shaking his head

because He cant be expected to keep track

of which voice goes with what name and address,

He being just one God. Either way, we seem

to be left here to discover our losses, everything

from car keys to larger items we cant search

our pockets for, destined to face them

on our own. Even though the dentist gives us

music to listen to and the assistant looks down

with her lovely smile, its still our tooth

he yanks out, leaving a soft spot we ponder

with our tongue for days. Left to ourselves,

we always go over and over whats missing –

tooth, dog, money, self-control, and even losses

as troubling as the absence the widower cant stop

reaching for on the other side of his bed a year

later. Then one odd afternoon, watching some

ordinary event, like the way light from the window

lingers over a vase on the table, or how the leaves

on his backyard tree change colors all at once

in a quick wind, he begins to feel a lightness,

as if all his loss has led to finding just this.

Only God knows where the feeling came from,

or maybe Gods not some knower off on a cloud,

but there in the eye, which tears up now

at the strangest moments, over the smallest things.

 

 

The Longing of the Feet

 

At first the crawling

child makes his whole body

a foot.

 

One day, dazed

as if by memory,

he pulls himself up,

 

discovering, suddenly,

that the feet

are for carrying

 

hands. He is so

happy he cannot stop

taking the hands

 

from room to room,

learning the names

of everything he wants.

 

This lasts for many years

until the feet,

no longer fast enough,

 

lie forgotten, say,

in the office

under a desk. Above them

 

the rest of the body,

where the child

has come to live,

 

is sending its voice

hundreds of miles

through a machine.

 

Left to themselves

over and over,

the feet sleep,

 

awakening

one day

beyond the dead

conversation of the mind

and the hands.

Mute in their shoes,

 

your shoes

and mine,

they wait,

 

longing only to stand

the body

and take it

 

into its low,

mysterious flight

along the earth.

 


Love Handles

 

If the bikers head where the hair was

shines in the sun while he blows

into his helmet to get the heat out                                           

of it, she doesnt mind. Its not him

with the bald spot, it's just him. And she likes

feeling the fleshy overhang in the front

when she climbs on behind and takes him

into her arms. How else could he carry her

up and up the wild, quick, five-

note scale that they float off on? Anyway,

who doesnt love a belly? Forget the revulsion

were supposed to feel looking at the before picture

in the diet ad and remember the last time

you asked a good friend you hadn't seen in years,

What’s this? patting where the shirt

stuck out. Or think of feeling somebodys

back, like the two old lovers lying in bed, she

turned away from him inquiring over her shoulder

with her finger, Whats that, right there, is it

a bug bite or a mole? And he, the one trusted

with this place so private not even she

can see it, touching it, not skin or flesh

in this special, ordinary moment but something

else, something more, like the hand the hunched

old lady has in hers going across the fast-food

parking lot. Beside her an old man, the hands

owner is walking with what you and I

might think of as a sort of kick

over and over, but what they dont think of at all,

balancing each other like this so they can arrive

together to get a burger. The point is, you cant

begin to know how to hold another body

in your eye until you've held it a few times

in your hand or in your arms. Any ten couples

at the Fireman's Ball could tell you that. Put aside

your TV dreams of youth running its fingers

over the hood of a new car, or the smiling

faces of Tammy the weather girl and Bob on sports,

she with the unreal hair and he with the hair

thats not real, and imagine the baldies

with their corsaged wives under the whirling

chunks of light at the Ball. Think of their innocence,

all dressed up to be with the ones theyve known

half their lives. See how after those years

of nudging and hugging and looking each other all over,

they glide, eyes closed, on love handles across the floor.

 

 

Why We Need Poetry

 

Everyone else is in bed, it being, after all,

three in the morning, and you can hear

how quiet the house has become each time

you pause in the conversation you are having

with your close friend to take a bite

of your sandwich. Is it getting the wallpaper

around you in the kitchen up at last

that makes cucumbers and white bread, the only

things you could find to eat, taste so good,

or is it the satisfaction of having discovered

a project that could carry the two of you

into this moment made for nobody else?

Either way, youre here in the pleasure

of the tongue, which continues after

youve finished your sandwich, for now

you are savoring the talk alone, how

by staring at the band of fluorescent light

over the sink or the pattern you hadnt

noticed in the wallpaper, you can see

where the sentence youve started, line

by line should go. Only love could lead you

to think this way, or to care so little

about how you speak, you end up saying

what you care most about exactly right,

each small allusion growing larger

in the light of your friends eye.

And when the light itself grows larger,

its not the next day coming through the windows

of that redone kitchen, but you,

changed by your hunger for the words

you listen to and speak, their taste

which you can never get enough of.

 

 










                                    

 

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A CLOSER LOOK: Wesley McNair

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