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Poet's Sampler: Wesley McNair

Wesley McNair is a New England poet, preserving the speech and character of a region intimately known. Because he is a true poet, his New England is unlimited: Shorty Towers walks off a roof everywhere; Dot has troubles extricating herself from a backseat everywhere. Whole lives fill small lines; other people, real to this poet and therefore to us. By his art, Wesley McNair gives us the strangeness of the ordinary: old radios of strangeness, towns of strangeness, strangeness imposed by senility, by rage, by thrombosis; and nothing strange–in The Town of No–is anything but everyday.

TheTown of No, for David Godine, is McNair’s second book; The Faces of Americans in 1853 won the Devins Award from the University of Missouri in 1984. An award for a first book makes McNair sound like dozens of poets–as does a Guggenheim and a professorship in creative writing. But Wesley McNair grew up in a small town in New Hampshire, graduated from high school in Claremont, majored in education at Keene State, and taught high school. He did not do a MFA at Iowa. After four years of high school teaching, with a summer school M.A. in English, he put in twenty years at a small college where he taught all day long, then drove elsewhere to teach part-time at night. Two years ago the University of Maine at Farmington hired him to do a normal load of work.

In 1975 two of his old high school students brought Wesley McNair to my house; when I looked at his work, I was dazzled to find the art displayed. The first thing to notice, reading Wesley McNair, is the noise he makes–or the noises. He has a gorgeous ear for the rubbing-together of adjacent words, as in "fat/tails of cord" where the two t’s, widened by the line break, open a hole you can drive a pickup through. But this mouth-sound is less wonderful than his cadence or rhythm, the magnificent speech-like jerky dance of his free verse, with its unexpected and accurate pauses its enforced New England pitches. Fat Dot, stuck in the backseat in "Happiness," indirectly tells us "how nice it is to get out/ once in awhile," and "with the greatest delicacy (oh/ I could never finish…)" eats everything. The line break on "oh" is perfection.

This language is our speech observed-preserved in poetry. By speech are McNair’s people fixed in the album of McNair’s art: life’s ruins mostly, drunks, victims of strokes or accidents or general decline, people holding on or trying to hold on, like the mother who tells how one daughter "wasn’t/ over Fool’s Hill/ yet" —and then in the confusion of her illness reveals a man’s name, "not father or brother." --Donald Hall


Mina Bell’s Cows

O where are Mina Bell’s cows who gave no milk
and grazed on her dead husband’s farm?
Each day she walked with them into the field,
loving their swayback dreaminess more
than the quickness of any dog or chicken.
Each night she brought them grain in the dim barn,
holding their breath in her hands.
O when the lightning struck Daisy and Bets,
her son dug such great holes in the yard
she could not bear to watch him.
And when the baby, April, growing old
and wayward, fell down the hay chute,
Mina just sat in the kitchen, crying, "Ape,
Ape," as if she called all three cows,
her walleyed girls who never would come home.


The Traveler’s Advisory

The main streets of towns
don’t go uphill,
and the houses aren’t
purple like that
tenement with one eye
clapboarded over. Never mind
how it wavers
backward, watching you
try to find second gear.
You’ve arrived
at the top of the town:
a closed garage
where nobody’s dog
sits, collarless,
and right next door
a church which seems
to advertise Unleaded.
Who’s hung this
great front door
above no steps? No one
you’d know.
And what suspends
the avalanche
of barn? Nothing,
and you will never escape the bump,
lifting shiny with tar.
And you won’t
need the sign that says
you are leaving Don’t Blink,
Can’t Dance,
Or Town of No.  

 
The Name

At the end of her life,
when the fire
lifted her house away,
and her left side
vanished in a stroke,
and she woke
in that white room
without apron or shoes;
she searched each face,
including his,
until she found her twice-
divorced daughter, the one
she’d always said wasn’t
over Fool’s Hill ye,
and, taking her hand
as if they’d all along
been close, began
to call the name
the frightened daughter
never heard before,
not father or brother.


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 couldn’t possibly mean we should go
ahead in without her, she’ll 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 Last Time Shorty Towers
Fetched the Cows

In the only story we have
of Shorty Towers, it is five o’clock
and he is dead drunk on his roof
deciding to fetch his 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, can’t 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 roof’s 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.


The Man With the Radios

Beyond the curtainless
bay windows of his room
on the side street,
he kneels
among old radios, left
from a time of belief
in radios,
some dangling fat
tails of cord
from end tables, some
in darkening corners
sprouting hairs of wire
from their great backs,
and this strange one
he has chosen,
standing on the paws
of an African cat.
The man with radios
is so far away
in his gaze you would swear
he hears nothing,
so still you might miss
how he concentrates
on not moving
his hand. Slowly,
slowly he turns
its ridged
knob in the dark,
listening for the sound
he has prepared for,
watching with his absent eyes
the film that clears
from a green eye.

Originally published in the June 1989 issue of Boston Review



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