The American Journal of Poetry
"Strong Rx Medicine"®

 

Wesley McNair

I Praise My Mother, the House Lover, At Last

 

who came through the sudden death of my stepfather
        and the fire from the wood stove, ready
        to love the house as she never had before;
 
who went to the dumpster after the workmen left to carry
        the blistered chairs, and the books, swollen
        by fire hoses, and the childhood dresses of her grown
        daughter – all back to the house where they belonged;
 
who carefully saved each newspaper and magazine
        and circular and unopened bill addressed to it;
 
who walked through the stacks of them, and the bags
        of clothes and empty cans, and the disused lamps
        and flowerpots, armed only with her cane;
 
who kept her door closed to anyone who didn't understand
        her daily, thoughtful housekeeping, speaking in a firm
        voice to neighbors, home-health nurses, tax assessors,
        and me through the screen of her bathroom window;
 
who imagined a family to bring into the house, handymen
        just like her husband, and a gardener, more like
        her daughter, she said, than her real daughter;
 
who never noticed the work left undone as she wandered
        with them in the yard, past the collapsing fence,
        and the buckling outbuildings and the gardens
        where morning glories and vetch bloomed;
 
who, loving the house with her whole mind, did not see how
        bereft it looked with its cracked walk and dipping roof;
 
who ignored the wishes of the doctors in acute care
        and returned to live among the pathways inside
        her house just as it was, her greatest wish;
 
who called for it from her bed in her small, shared room
        at the nursing home with a longing so deep, I felt
        the blow of each stroke that undid her love for it.

 

 

Wesley McNair

Clem's Stroke

 

A silent lightning
cracked him
in two, one leg
dangling a foot
 
that can't feel
the floor
when he walks,
the other guiding it,
 
a zig-zag dance,
and he the impresario
with his cane.
My Uncle Clem,
 
the military man
once so tucked in
nobody
could dig him out,
 
now unable
to tuck himself,
or trust his slack
tongue with only
 
what he wants it
to say. Yet see
him smile
with bunny teeth
 
when he whispers
to the new girlfriend
he sits beside,
and the feeling
 
that rises into
his fingers as he not
quite touches
her white hair,
 
arriving despite himself
out in the open,
his little death
bringing him to life.

 

 

Wesley McNair

Kay

 

Everybody in the family knew the story
of how Henry's war bride got out of the car
in the yard dressed up in a kimono
and bowing. Their father was so surprised
he dropped his pail of feed. None of them
ever wondered about the shock she
must have felt to find her new father-in-law
among a gang of hogs in the Ozarks
wearing bib overalls and a straw hat.
She being a foreigner, it was her job
to understand him. “Over there,” Henry said,
they eat fish raw,” and he had his older
sister show her how to make biscuits
and pork gravy. In the end, sorrow opened them
to her. After just seven years, Henry,
who'd been drinking, drove his truck over
an embankment and died in the accident,
leaving her with two young girls, and hardly able
to speak English. Henry's brother got her a job
as a waitress at the local restaurant, and his sisters
took turns babysitting. “You could eat right
off her floors,” one of them told a friend,
and later, when the restaurant's owner
promoted her to bookkeeper, they bragged
about how fast her fingers moved on the abacus
she'd brought from Japan. There, no one
would have understood how her first daughter,
who looked like Henry except for her black hair
and her eyes, could have been so wild
as to jump on a motorcycle at fifteen behind
her new boyfriend, and her mother couldn't make
herself understand it, either. “Oh, Kay,”
the women said at the funeral, holding her,
for by then she was part of the family.
None of them ever wondered about her real
name, or knew how pleased she was long before
to have this one, which Henry gave her
on the way to America, where she would spend
the rest of her life discovering who Kay was.

 

 

Wesley McNair

My Mother's Harvest Centerpiece

 

Out of the space of supper plates
pushed back, out of her all-night falling asleep
and waking up to arrange it on the tray

under the hanging lamp, this perfect, twined
circle of twigs and autumn leaves she collected
from the dirt driveway of our tarpapered
garage-house. Out of the next day's forgotten

breakfast and lunch – no appetite now
but for making it -- this cardboard wish
of a house with a picture window, floating

on the soft, unseasonable green
of Easter grass, with longer tufts of grass
on each side of the front door, wide open
to let out a long line of pipe-cleaner kids,

enough to make the women who'll view them
tonight at the square dance club dinner laugh.
Under her smile as she thinks of their laughter

and turns the small world she constructs like a god
to glue on the kids' paper dresses and pants,
the sorrow of her own childhood
raising six younger siblings in the Ozarks,

and pregnant now herself for the fourth time.
Underneath the mother she has made
at the center of the centerpiece –

a faceless clothespin woman that the children
converge upon – who else but herself,
her endless chores on my stepfather's would-be
farm like the woman's impossible chore

of feeding with no hands a flock of jurassic
plastic chickens, nearly as tall as she is?
Underneath this clothespin farmer leaning

toward the woman with no way to touch her,
who but my stepfather, the man now pacing
in the twilight and shouting that she's taken so
damn long with the centerpiece, the dinner

is going to start without it? Out of the deep dream
my mother goes right on dreaming, the wide
outer circle of vegetables from our family's unhappy

harvest in the back field: turnips and baby winter
squashes and potatoes like gloomy hills
the little family can't see beyond. From her old
grudges as a wife and the fights of her father

and mother, from her life as the oldest child
far from town in the Ozarks, a pipe-cleaner girl
set apart, waving with a hole in her hand.

 

 

 

WESLEY McNAIR's new book of poetry, his ninth, just out, is titled The Unfastening and includes the poems in this volume. His last collection, The Lost Child, won the PEN New England Award for Literary Excellence in Poetry.

 

 

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