Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Lovers of the Lost

Poems by Wesley McNair

     If, dear reader, you are anything like me, you have tidy (or not) piles of books in strategic locations around the house--in the bathroom (Hegel, Kierkegaard, and Heidegger),  something in the kitchen to pass the time while the water boils (Machado's poems--brief enough to rescue the pasta before it boils over), the main-reading-chair (an overly-ambitious, disorganized, and ever shifting mountain of books, newspapers, journals, tea cups and half-eaten sandwiches),and, most importantly, at the bedside. The pile next to the bed (or on a table if you happen to have one; I don't) is the central pile, the one whose content, size, arrangement, and at-handedness are essential to the bibliophile's happiness and survival. I spend a great deal of time on my bedside pile and have various categories of literature arranged there: one or two mysteries by George Pelecanos for long, insomniac nights; two or three serious novels (Antal Szerb's Journey by Moonlight, Boleslaw Prus's The Doll, and Christie Watson's Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away at the moment); and some poetry, usually the poets I never tire of reading: William Matthews, Stephen Dunn, Wallace Stevens, Kay Ryan, and, right now, Wesley McNair, a new addition to my bedside reading, a poet I have come to enjoy immensely. I wanted to take a minute to share some of his work with others who are attracted to a certain kind of understated, sardonic view of the human condition. Meet Mr. McNair:


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,
the 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.

Those last lines are perfectly pitched--anyone who writes knows the feeling of moving between what one has, or is, and what one dreams of; the poignancy is greater here as McNair imagines himself at eight, trapped between yearning and anger, absent father and beloved parent.

Wesley McNair is the author of nine books of poetry, the poet laureate of Maine, and the recipient of numerous awards. He has also written four books on the craft of poetry, including a fine book entitled Advice for Beginning Poets. My personal favorite among his books of poetry is Fire, from 2002. I love his wit, his sadness, his fine eye for the commonplace (the poem "Love Handles" is among my favorites)--many of his poems recount a difficult childhood in what used to be called a 'broken' home but is now simply a home.
Wesley Mcnair

As I Am

Behind my false beard
and the frown line between
the eyebrows I have have developed
by trying to pay attention
to the world, I am the same kid
who could never remember
his library books or what
he had been sent to the store for.
"Fog" was the name my teachers
gave to where I spent my time,
a haze that even today
can descend while I'm having
a conversation, or suddenly lift,
revealing the wrong
landmarks drifting past me
on the wrong road I took ten
miles ago. God, it has been lonely
to turn up all these years
where everyone else has arrived
long since. Yet how, without
looking just beyond
the shoulders of others
as they spoke, or searching
everywhere for the pen
I found in my own hand,
could I concentrate on the thought
I learned to write down
at last, back from the place
that has wanted me off-course
and bewildered, just as I am.

The book I am now holding is one of those beautiful David R. Godine paperbooks--heavy, creamy paper, clear fonts, Edward Hopper's Cape Cod Morning for a cover. A book I love to pick up when I first climb into bed; I open it, and come upon this gem:


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, you're here in the pleasure

of the tongue, which continues after

you've 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 hadn't

noticed in the wallpaper, you can see

where the sentence you've 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 friend's eye.

And when the light itself grows larger,

it's 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.

I can't claim to know Maine well, but I do know Vermont; there at least speech proceeds largely through misdirection, allusion, and long, at times painful, silences. McNair has the gift of leading slowly to the point: "Only love could lead you/to think this way..." such a quietly powerful line after the build-up of work and sandwiches and talk. And, like the metaphysical poets--or, like Dunn, Matthews, and Ryan--McNair performs with ease the trompe d'oeil of placing the unexpected in the middle of the everyday--the you that is changed by the "hunger for words" filling the kitchen, and not the morning light. For this and other fine works of fiction and poetry.


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