The Lost Child - Ozark Poems. Wesley McNair. David R. Godine Publisher. Jaffrey, New Hampshire. 2014.
Winner of the 2015 PEN New England Award for Literary Excellence in Poetry
Wesley McNair's opus is both tribute and lament. These poems sprawl across every sense you have with operatic flourish. This is narrative poetry writ large and Today's book of poetry can't get enough.
McNair's mother is reaching the end of her mortal coil and it isn't pretty. The scenes these poems illuminate are often small in scale but McNair is epic in scope, he sees the whole picture as it is happening and puts the essentials down in such a way that we cannot resist moving forward, the poems themselves compel us.
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 u
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.
Epic in scope, that's the ticket. These may be small stories of almost too intimate detail but they are wonders to behold. These poems take up the whole page just like the works of Hieronymus Bosch if they were edited by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. There is a lot going on.
There is so much going on in these poems we are unsure of where to look but McNair holds his gaze and does not back down from his mother's gangrenous toes or anything else. The Lost Child - Ozark Poems is full of tender sadness and impending doom, all of it swinging from a family tree filled with broken fruit.
Why her husband must spread his things over every
table, counter-top, and chair, just like his mother Ruth,
Dolly no longer asks, knowing he will only answer as if
speaking to someone in his head who's keeping track
of all the ways she misunderstands him and wants
to hear over and over that he's sick and tired,
though that's just what he is, and how, anyway,
can she resent him for that? -- so sick he has pill vials
for his bad circulation, bad heart, and nerve disorder
scattered around the kitchen sink, so tired
after staying up all night at his computer feeding
medication to the stinging in his legs, he crashes
for one whole day into the next. "Thurman?" she asks,
coming home from work to find him lying on their bed
in his underpants, still as the dead, his radio on
to tape the talk shows he's missing, and then the old
thought that he really is dead comes into her mind
all over again, so strong this time she can't
get rid of it, even after she sees him with her
own eyes just above the partition in the kitchen
making coffee in the way he's invented, boiling
his grounds, them putting in more grounds and a raw
egg, his bald head going back and forth under
the fluorescent light like the image of his continuous
obsession, which she can't escape and can never enter,
though now it's her own obsession that troubles her.
Stupid is her word for it, the same word he always
uses for the crazy things she gets into her head,
and it was stupid, still thinking Thurman was dead
though he was right there in front of her, and then,
when she tries to make herself stop, her heart stops
pounding until she can hardly breathe. "It is nothing
more than simple anger," the pastor tells Dolly
after the service at the church in Seymour
she attends each Sunday with the other women
who live nearby, and he recalls with a frown
of disappointment the anger he discovered in her heart
during their talk a year ago. How, she wonders,
could she have forgotten that after she wiped away
her tears in the earlier conversation about Thurman's
leaving things he wouldn't let her touch on every
surface in the house, even the couch and chairs,
the pastor made her see the malice she had carried
so deep inside not even she understood that all
this time she had been gradually filling the spare room
and the closed-in porch with her own discards,
broken figurines, old mops and mop pails and Christmas
decorations, out of a secret revenge. "And now,"
the pastor shakes his head, "this thought about your
husband, whom you have pledged to honor, lying
in his underpants, dead, the day before your fortieth
anniversary." When Dolly returns home at last
and opens the door to find the two pairs of sneakers
next to the recliner with the ankle brace in it,
and old videos on top of the half-read magazines
and newspapers by the TV, and the bathrobe and shirts
and pants folded over the backs of chairs, she does not
feel, as she sometimes has, that she might suffocate,
but instead, a relief that Thurman hasn't risen yet.
He won't mind, she thinks, that she's used one
of his sticky notes when he has read the words
she writes on it, I still love you, meaning how sorry
she is for blaming him behind his back to the pastor,
and for the secret anger she has kept so long
in her heart, yet because, unlike most things
in that house, it is hers alone, Dolly continues
to ponder the anger and keep it, even after Thurman
takes the note from the screen of his computer
with a smile, and gets his camera out to take
the anniversary photo he takes each year for his emails
of her holding plastic flowers, irritated with her
because she never could pose right, then sitting down
among the wires and the stacks of CDs and computer
paper to photoshop it, going over and over her teeth
and eyes to whiten them and taking all the wrinkles out
of her face until she looks like an old baby. "Oh
this is nice," Dolly says when he brings the picture
to her, sitting on her small rocker in the only
uncluttered corner of the house, and she almost
means it, she has become so calm in her pondering
as she looks out the window and through the other
window of the closed-in porch, where a flock
of the migrating birds she loves linger for a time
under the roof of her feeder, and in an unaccountable
moment, lift their wings all together and fly away.
Pace and timing. Wesley McNair's The Lost Child - Ozark Poems is a brisk march that never lets up. McNair has a metronome inside his mechanism that seemingly never lets him down, it certainly punctuates these stories, pathos rains down like a forest falling.
McNair really does have a narrative gift unlike any other poet Today's book of poetry has been lucky enough to read. These poems have Ballad of the Sad Cafe holding up a corner of the card table.
Dancing in Tennessee
How was he to know, when his father left them
and his mother took him by the hand
to her clothes closet, screaming
because he did not understand how to behave
and because, alone and lost, she herself
did not understand how to behave,
that this was the room she led him to,
20B in the nursing home, where he sat
once more in the dim light among her slippers
and shoes, calling out to her, "Mama, Mama,"
though now she was right there
in her bed, half-deaf, eyes wide open
in her blindness, her teeth out,
breathing rapidly through her mouth?
How could he have known when she whipped him
as if she would never stop because his father
loved someone else, it was the shock
of this final unbelievable lovelessness
she was preparing him for? All gone, her years
afterward with the new man, and the house
and farm she helped build to replace
the hopes that she once had. Gone
to ruin, the house and the farm,
but never mind. And never mind
her lifelong anger, and all her failures
of the heart: this was not his mother.
Lying on her stroke side, her nose
a bony thing between her eyes that blinked
and blinked so he could see behind them
to her fear, she was a creature
whose body had failed, and he had no way
to reach except through her favorite song
he sang as a boy to lift the grief from her face,
and began now to sing, "The Tennessee Waltz,"
understanding at last that its tale of love stolen
and denied was the pure inescapable
story of her life -- his father the stolen
sweetheart she never forgave
or forgot. It didn't matter that she could not
see him beside her there or, struggling for air,
she was unable to eat or drink
or sing. He took her good hand in his
and rocked her and sang for them both,
his mother discovering once more in the tips
of her fingers what touch was like,
and he discovering too, while he sang on
and on, stealing her back from this moment
in the small, dim room where she lay dying,
and they danced and danced.
And now all you Tennessee Ernie Ford fans know what Today's book of poetry knows, Wesley McNair can cook. The poems in The Lost Child all come from one narrative, tied together with barbed wire and blue ribbon, like most family histories, moments of kindness remembered among the tatters of old frustrations and never fully sated dreams.
Love and those we love often bring out the sorrow.
Wesley McNair writes grand scale with a stethoscope planted firmly on the readers heart.
ABOUT THE AUTHORWesley McNair is the Poet Laureate of Maine. He is the author of twenty books, including ten volumes of poetry, three books of nonfiction, and several edited anthologies.. His most recent books are The Lost Child: Ozark Poems (Godine, 2014), The Words I Chose: A Memoir of Family and Poetry(CMU, 2012) and Lovers of the Lost: New & Selected Poems (Godine, 2010).
McNair is the recipient of fellowships from the Fulbright and Guggenheim Foundations, a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship in literature, two Rockefeller fellowships for creative work at the Bellagio Center in Italy, two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships for Creative Writers, and in 2006 a United States Artists Fellowship of $50,000 as one of "America's finest living artists." He was recently named as the 2015 recipient of the PEN New England Award for Poetry, for his latest collection, The Lost Child: Ozark Poems. Other honors include the Robert Frost Prize; the Jane Kenyon Award for Outstanding Book of Poetry (for Fire); the Devins Award for poetry; the Eunice Teitjens Prize from Poetry magazine; the Theodore Roethke prize from Poetry Northwest; the Pushcart Prize, and the Sarah Josepha Hale Medal for his "distinguished contribution to the world of letters."
He has received five honorary degrees for literary distinction.Wesley McNair has twice been invited to read his poetry by the Library of Congress and has given readings at a wide range of colleges and universities. A television series aired over affiliates of PBS on Robert Frost for which he wrote the scripts received an Emmy Award. Featured on National Public Radio's Weekend Edition (Saturday and Sunday programs) and 22 times on Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac, his work has appeared in the Pushcart Prize Annual, two editions of The Best American Poetry, and over 60 anthologies and textbooks. He has served four times on the jury for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.
BLURBSBy the faculty of his attention—to people, to their talk—McNair’s compassion turns itself into art. – - Donald Hall, The Harvard Review
[He is] a master craftsman with a remarkable ear.
– Maxine Kumin,Ploughshares
He has produced one of the most individual and original bodies of work by a poet of his generation.
He has produced one of the most individual and original bodies of work by a poet of his generation.
– Ruminator Review
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