Wesley McNair started his career as The Son of New Hampshire and was determined to tell the story of his life. Although he initially pursued this goal in prose, he soon found poetry more suitable for his purposes. Now, at 81, he has released “Late Wonders,” which combines 10 of the best poems from his past collections with 18 new poems.
Thirty-eight years ago, when I met McNair at his home in North Sutton, New Hampshire, he had just published his first book, The Face of an American in 1853. I interviewed him about it for a local newspaper. As we spoke, he defined his ambitions in these words: “I want to write poetry for American asses”. Judging by “Late Wonders,” he remains true to this ideal.
He moved north in 1988 and wrote most of the poetry in this book after teaching poetry and composition at the Farmington campus of the University of Maine. After settling in the town of Mercer, with a population of less than 600, he came to appreciate his life well beyond the influence of his hub in Boston. People tend to identify Mercer as being in “Midwest Maine,” but as he often says, “It’s neither West nor Central. It’s way up.”
McNair and I have been friends ever since our first interview. We served together on three literary awards committees, sometimes sharing work in progress.My wives often met for meals and lodgings at their respective homes in Maine and New Hampshire. . We would often stay up well past midnight sipping whiskey while playing crazy eights and speaking poetry. We both had a long friendship with the late New Hampshire poet Donald Hall. Over the years, they have hosted several events where they and other poets read their works. Before Hall died in 2018, he asked us to remember him at his funeral, so we did.
McNair is familiar to many Mainers. In 2011, he became the State Poet Laureate. This title he considered both an honor and a description of his work. He set up a “whistling” tour of the state and provided a platform for local poets and poetry lovers in many cities and towns. For five years he provided a weekly column on Maine poetry for the newspaper. He then read the original poem at Governor Janet Mills’ inauguration.
His voice is unique, but his eyes lead him to the many stories he tells. Consider this patch of “Seeing Mercer, Maine” from “Late Wonders”.
Would it matter if I told you
people live here – old
man of the coast who made
A lobster hut in a hayfield.
couple with sign
And the landfill; that woman
her fat legs are so shy
she hangs clothes
outdoors at night?walk this road
for a while. What you see here in the daytime –
a kind of darkness coming
From too much light –
need to adjust
The hominess of that TV show,
For example, tilted
for that cupboard
Lobsterman’s hut –
do you find it, leaning
on the side street there,
daisies white hat
Just crest on the side?
Like many of McNair’s poems, this forms a path down the page, inviting the reader to join the poet’s town walk.
At a reading last month, McNair likened choosing a poem for “Late Wonders” to playing a jigsaw puzzle. “First you see a group of cattails gathering,” he said. “Then the hull, then the water, then the sky. And suddenly there was a sunny day on the pond.”
The first poem he read that night was “Shorty Towers.”
the only story we have
It’s 5 o’clock in Shorty Towers
and he’s drunk on the roof
I decided to bring cows.How
he got into this state.
All afternoon the son-in-law
who made the back ranch
On a golf course, I don’t understand. So,
With an expression somewhere between shocks
And recognition, he’s just looking at Shorty
elevate oneself to where he is not
Full height, square shoulders,
Let that little sigh like caught
In the unseen herd again
bees.Let’s imagine that moment
just before he heads for the edge of the roof
and the abrupt end of the joke
This is all that everyone seems to remember
About his life, Shorty listens
to what seems to be a voice
of a lost heifer, freshly broken
upwards.And think about when he walks
down the hill with a strange purpose
Jagged with shingles, he suddenly feels it
Open wide and incredibly green
Pasture with all cows.
McNair saw the poem as a breakthrough. While Shorty describes the fall of his Towers, he also talks about the end of agriculture, the cultural shift that happened with Shorty’s death. “One by one,” he said. This opened the door to life itself. ”
The deepest expression of this revelation is found in three long poems McNair wrote in 1986 when his brother died of a heart attack. Each poem has his two streaks. It is a deeply personal experience of the poet’s life and the state of America at the time it was written. They appear in “Late Wonders” as a trilogy.
Like McNair’s short poems, they are the works of storytellers who seldom stray from the goals they set for themselves in the first place. Among the many “wonders” mentioned in the title of his anthology, “Night of Glass” shines brightly.
come warm rain
and cold weather
come on, car lights
and country road
finger of darkness,
come on flash
mailbox and signature
of the brush
stubble and all
on a branch of glass
After Flying Tree.
come, covered by the moon
snow hills and flew away
Paul far away
long on pole
glass spider web
on my high beam
It takes me deeper.
and muted dark
and light speech.
Come on, glass night.
For many poets, consolidating their life’s work into a single book can overcrowd their collections later in their careers. “Late Wonders” is substantial, but even McNair’s loyal readers will appreciate his wisdom that less is more in such a book.
Mike Pryde is a historian and former journalist living in Bow, New Hampshire. His latest book is No Place for a Woman: Harriet Dame’s Civil War.
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