Wesley McNair


Wesley McNair’s forthcoming book of poetry, due in September of this year from Godine, is Late Wonders: New & Selected Poems. The collection will include the six poems published here and an assortment of other new poems. It will also feature work from his previous ten books of poetry and a trilogy of long narrative poems he has been publishing separately for more than thirty years, each linking a crisis in his family to a related crisis in America. Among his awards in poetry are the Robert Frost Prize, Theodore Roethke Prize, the Jane Kenyon Award for Outstanding Book, and the PEN New England Award for Literary Excellence. Wesley McNair was the subject of our Closer Look series in Innisfree 23http://authormark.com/artman2/publish/Innisfree_23WESLEY_MCNAIR.shtml.

Late Wonders


Every unheeded warning
Ed gave his father in outrage
was borne out in the end:
the kangaroo mice outside
the retirement home in Florida
settled in and multiplied, rising
from so many nests in the front yard
when his father appeared
for twilight feedings
that a wildlife specialist
had to remove not only the rodents,
but the landscaped bushes
from which they emerged.
Yet on this night when Ed
tells me the story of his father,
who’d spent his worklife
in the loneliness of an office, now
walking among the multitudes of mice
as he reached into a bowl
to offer them a special mixture
of peanuts and breakfast cereal,
calling the favorites by name, he laughs,
and his eyes shine with wonder.



Oddly, it was their flawed
conversations the old man
missed most, a wisp
of her white hair


loosened beside her face
as she looked to him
across the table at breakfast
or dinner for the word


or thought that had lifted
by surprise from her tongue
as if he were the only
one who could save her


from the loss of it,
not a cruel absence
as he looked back,
but something in her dear


blue eyes he wanted
to know and be with
as he helped her find
what she meant to say,


her stammering
the fullest



Set apart, forgotten, in Diane’s figurine
cabinet, a multiplicity of terriers
she once collected sit or stand
inside the glass, each lifted paw


or cocked head chosen by grief’s
recognition of a single lost terrier,
each not enough of the dog until the next
and the next, and today three dozen


crowd together staring out of their room
in the back room as if her longing
had become their longing, though if anyone
should open the door for them, they’d turn


passionless and still. Death’s like that. Life’s
in the sunlit kitchen, where other miniatures—
a windup cat, a bird on a wand, a fish
with streaming feathers—lie upside-down


or sideways on the floor. Meanwhile,
her new tuxedo kitten watches her search
with a poker under the wood stove
for its favorite, a green mouse with a long,


coiled tail. Now, the kitten insists
with nearly black eyes, in a voice
that’s twice as big as itself. Now.


The Holdout

My friend Barbara, age 94, is out of patience

with her body, in particular, her bandaged foot

that stumbled over the threshold, and now,

she says, while describing her plans to renovate

her house for her grandson and his family,

her damn thumb’s decided not to work. For Barb,


even death has become an annoyance. I wish
I would hurry up and die, she says in her excitement
about the house project, so the family could get
started with it. After dessert at Will and Betty’s,
I tell her story, which makes us feel our own aging
isn’t all that bad. Diane rolls her eyes about her fake


shoulder joint that sets off alarms at the airport,
and Betty laughs out loud when I tease her
about getting to second base with the young
physical therapist who massages her knees. But that’s
not the reason Will doesn’t smile. He’s thinking about
the friend he had lunch with yesterday, a nice guy,


three years into retirement, Will explains, and he’s got

Parkinson’s so bad that when he watches you speak,

his head swings back and forth as if your mouth

is some book he’s reading line by line. So he’s

watching, Will says, and suddenly this confusion

comes over his face, and I realize he’s trying


to figure out who the hell he’s listening to. That

anecdote, you can imagine, puts quite a damper

on our after-dinner mood, not that this stops Will,

even in the kitchen, where, as Diane and I are about

to go, he recalls that the very same expression

his friend wore used to come over his mother’s face


when she got old, and then remembers his father

wasting away to bones, though if he’d only gotten

a routine checkup, he could still be alive right now—

not the now of this moment when you’re reading

my poem, but back then when my friend Will, always

prone to worry, talked about death in the stove light


of his darkened kitchen, while Betty begged him

to change the subject, for God’s sake, before

our company goes home. Now, it’s several years

after Will—I tell you this in sorrow—fell mortally ill

himself and died, and the one thing I wanted

to remember for you about him is how on that night,


while the rest of us went on with our small-talk, humor

and distraction, Will kept warning anyone who might

listen to pay attention to time, which doesn’t care

for amusement, telling his stories that aren’t so funny.


Last Words

I don’t feel like who I am.

My pants don’t even match my shirt.

I never wear my hair like this.

It feels like my legs have turned to sand.


My pants don’t even match my shirt.

My roommate doesn’t make any sense.

It feels like my legs have turned to sand.

I have a headache in my hand.


My roommate doesn’t make any sense.

Tomorrow, my son is taking me home.

I have a headache in my hand.

The doctor won’t tell me what he’s going to tell me.


Tomorrow, my son is taking me home.

You can call all day here and nobody comes.

The doctor won’t tell me what he’s going to tell me.

There’s a little cyclone in my brain.


You can call all day here and nobody comes.

I never wear my hair like this.

There’s a little cyclone in my brain.

I don’t feel like who I am.


The Arrangement

The sky and pines, and the blue

and green waves that shift

their reflection on the surface


of my pond had made

an arrangement with me,

which was to preserve the peace


while I made poems by myself,

apart from the trouble of the world,

but earlier that morning,


a mother moose wandered

down to the nearby shore to bathe

her shoulder, which had been hit


by some vehicle that she was no

match for. When I started out

at the camp to my cabin


on the water, she was still

leaning into the pond, though now

collapsed and dead. What happened


to the yearling I’d watched

her teach all spring to forage

and swim, I discovered


in the twilight, paddling past

the inlet where they’d spent

so much time together. No way


I could tell him how I felt,

and he wouldn’t have been interested

anyway, seeing I wasn't


his mother. All he wanted now

was to stand and stare at me

in the half-light with his ghost


stare, and the next day,

as I started out

for my cabin, to be gone.


The Blinking Child

I remember the secret places, the hallway

with its fancy banister left from when the tenement

was a house, and the cellar under the apartment,

where I kept the stray cat I wasn’t supposed

to have on account of my stepfather's asthma.

But he was all black with green eyes, and when

I brought table scraps, calling him by the secret name

I invented, he ran only to me. Above the grooved

rubber stairs of the hallway was a domed light,

always on, and I listened to the footsteps and voices

of the family upstairs, thinking about the family

of before, when my father was at home. “They lived

happily ever after,” I read to myself under the light

as I finished each story I wrote with my bitten

pencil. But one morning, walking down into the new

stillness of the cellar, I discovered my cat was gone.

For days I called its name, searching the shadows

of the coal bin, and the space behind the furnace,

and the water tank with its cold, wet pipe, and the sills

of the cobwebbed windows. “When are you going

to come out of the clouds and join the world?”

my mother asked, shaking me. Then she sent me

outdoors to play with the upstairs children on the lawn,

which was where the confused man stumbled off

the sidewalk and went down on his knees

in front of me, asking me, among all the others,

to help him. I remember the handkerchief

he lifted from his weeping eye, and I recall

my sense of his fear as I bent close to his face

and he moved his pupil upward to show me the small,

retreating sliver which was the source of his pain

and weeping. I was unafraid, and I held his head

in my hand while I touched one corner of the cloth

on his open eye to remove the hurt, and when he stood

up at last and looked down at me, smiling, I felt

the happiness he felt, a child again, blinking and changed.


The Lectern

When I remember the lectern

with its beautiful grain

on my high-school desk,


I do not think, as I did back then,

of my teachers in graduate school,

or my A-track students


bent over their desks in rows

taking notes, but of the boy

in C-track so determined to show


my lessons had nothing to do

with his life that he stopped

the class with his anger over


and over; or of the C-track girls

who wanted to know

my dog's name, and if


I was married, not incurious,

but curious in their own way;

or of the shop boy, Brad Butcher,


who made me the lectern,

asking his unexpected question

before he made it:


“Couldn’t you sit down

on the edge of your desk,

like this, and just talk to us?”

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap