Small towns are passing
into the rear-view
mirrors of our cars.
The white houses
are moving away,
and stores are taking
their gas pumps
down the street
backwards. Just like that
whole families picnicking
on their lawns tilt
over the hill,
and kids on bikes
ride toward us
off the horizon,
leaving no trace
of where they have gone.
Signs turn back and start
after them. Packs of mailboxes,
like dogs, chase them
around corner after corner.
Like many of the poems in Late Wonders, “Small Towns Are Passing” turns our attention away from the well-traveled highways of the United States and towards the poorer, mostly rural pockets of Vermont, New Hampshire, and Western Maine that McNair has called home for the last 40 years. These are the parts of New England that historical tours and leaf peepers tend to avoid, if only because their natural beauty exists side by side with a dilapidation caused by decades of disappearing industry and an aging population. The combination gives the area’s famously timeless halo a surreal and even slightly unsettling edge, as if its Indian-summer sleepiness were only seconds away from curdling into the kind of dream where you wake up to find yourself in another dream. And yet, driving through many of these small towns, it is easy to fold their contradictions into a more seductive vision of rural life, one in which the desperation of the people actually living there is muffled by the passerby’s desire for a simpler alternative to wherever he is coming from.
As a longtime resident of and literary spokesperson for the region — among other honors, he served as poet laureate of Maine from 2011 to 2016 — McNair is clearly aware of the complicated and often compromised relationship involved in this dynamic. His willingness to embrace that complication, digging beneath the usual Yankee Magazine photo spreads to focus on the less picturesque aspects of New England life, has to be one of the most appealing aspects of his poetry. At the same time, he has often displayed a refreshing desire to question the clichés that New Englanders live by, avoiding the complacent regionalism that makes so much writing about the area feel as if it were taking place inside a snow globe. In this way, his work is less the inside story that it is sometimes taken for than an inside-outsider’s poetry: a writing that accepts its middle distance as a perch uniquely capable of keeping the poet’s pledges honest while at the same time keeping his dreamlike visions aware of a reality shared with other people.
The advantages of such positioning are on full display in “Small Towns Are Passing,” a poem that, despite its stripped anonymity, describes very specifically the symbiotic reverie that can spring up between small-town dream and dreamer. Appropriately for a poet of McNair’s immense skill, it does this formally first, combining the propulsive syntax of direct speech with line breaks that recur like potholes, slowing our attention down at the same time as they rock it forward (a syncopation that makes the poem feel a bit like a bluegrass cover of Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz”). The deft enjambment launches us into the poem, buoying us in a way that is both relaxed and charged, as if we were floating down a river. Movement and stasis switch places, making it difficult to tell whether we are passing through the small town or the small town is passing through us — to the point that, arriving at last at the abrupt final line, we find ourselves reeling, as if we’d just stepped off a ride at a county fair. We are unsure if we want to stumble off or get back on and go again.
It is not a comforting feeling, but it is not exactly uncomfortable either. In many ways, the activity that it recalls most is the meandering, purposeless walk that used to be so common, but which has become increasingly rare in New England as roadside shoulders shrink and property lines calcify. This kind of walk was exemplified most obviously in American poetry by Robert Frost, a poet whom McNair’s crafty estrangement often recalls. But putting the two poets side by side, we see that, despite their similar gait, a huge gulf lies between them. They travel different roads, or the same road differently; for where the dens of his neighbors fill Frost with a terror at his own separateness (“And lonely as it is, that loneliness / Will be more lonely ere it will be less — / A blanker whiteness of benighted snow / With no expression, nothing to express”), the same sight inspires McNair with cozy wistfulness — as if keeping his distance from the glowing houses paradoxically gives him the room he needs to feel closer to the people inside them. “[A]nd yet / how wonderfully // such being / left out / shows your inclusion!” he writes in another poem, clueing us in to how much he relishes, and profits from, his present absence. His kindred spirit in American poetry thus turns out to be not Frost but Walt Whitman, the meditative night nurse who, in a poem like “The Sleepers,” is freed by his subjects’ unconsciousness to wander through their dreams, gathering them into himself via a sympathy that is uncomplicated by the challenges of actual human interaction.
If this dynamic sounds sentimental and maybe even a little opportunistic, we should remember that such mixed motivations are not unique to McNair. On the contrary, they’re baked into the genre that his early poems typically work in — the pastoral, a problematic but irresistible form whose contradictions have been central to Western culture since Theocritus first decided that those shepherds in the distance were gamboling, rather than haggling over bread. The mechanisms of such poetry have been refined, perfected, and debunked over the centuries, arriving in our time with the clunky putter of an antique car that most poets would prefer to keep in the garage. But as the poems in Late Wonders remind us, so long as there are country things (and people), there will be poets telling us of the need to be versed in them — even when, in doing so, they risk sounding like they’re simplifying or prettifying their subjects.
The danger is a real one, as we can see in Late Wonders, many of whose poems (especially in the first third of the book) radiate a clear sympathy for the men and women of small-town New England while describing those people using exactly the eye-catching details that a tourist passing through town would notice first and have no need to look beyond. Often the two impulses — sympathetic portrait-painting and glimpsed caricature — appear side by side, working together with a complicity that makes McNair’s strongest pastoral scenes feel interestingly cleft. In the wonderful “Reading Poems at the Grange Meeting in What Must Be Heaven,” for example, he imagines the group listening to his poetry using a series of vivid touches. But these details, again, are so often what an unsympathetic outsider would expect them to be — fatness, baldness, injury, disability — that the effect is to make us feel that the realities of the people themselves do not extend any further. Meanwhile, the poet himself both is and is not treated in the same way, taking part in the meeting with an enthusiasm that feels slightly disingenuous, if only because, despite the quasi-mystical togetherness that the grange creates, he is still the one standing apart to write about it:
It does not matter
that in some narrower time
and place I did not want
to read to them on
Hobby Night. What matters is
that standing in — how else
to understand it — the heaven
of their wonderment,
I share the best
thing I can make — this stitching
together of memory
and heart-scrap, this wish
to hold together Francis,
Dolly Lee, the Grange Officers,
the disabled men and everybody
else here levitating
above the dark
and cold and regardless
world below them and me
Whether we buy the moment of community at the end of the poem depends on whether we accept its repeated claim that “[i]t does not matter” — that the complicated circuit of dream and reality involved in the grange meeting are made unimportant by the moment of uplift at its end. In this way, the poem is a parodic Pentecost, one in which the Holy Ghost of Poetry inspires the poet to feel that he can speak for his disciples, instead of simply understanding them. His articulation is presumptuous, of course (maybe Dolly Lee was actually just miffed at the lack of enthusiasm over her blueberry buckle?), but McNair’s awareness of his own presumptuousness convinces us to look past them. If the transcendence his poem achieves feels more brittle than “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” or “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” (“Come live with me and be my love”), that’s because the way it finds to stay calm is by granting that its dream is just that: a dream. The peaceful feeling of everything fitting together (a feeling that is essential to the appeal of pastoral poetry) is one that can only be achieved for a moment, and maybe only in the poet’s imagination. A “green thought in a green shade” — but one worth having, anyway.
In their awareness of their own outsiderness — and their willingness to invite that awareness into themselves, like an ornery but still valued guest — the best lyrics in Late Wonders do indeed manage the “stitching together” that McNair dreams about, creating a picture of small-town New England as a crazy quilt whose inhabitants find or build what community they have around a shared sense of loss, brokenness, and rejection. McNair holds this patchwork in place not just through immense technical skill but by his particular combination of reverence and humor, which pitch against themselves in many poems with an inventiveness that makes us feel as if we were watching a complicated silent comedy gag, or the fan/chicken/bowling ball accumulations of a Rube Goldberg machine. At the same time, the care with which he carpenters his miniatures radiates seriousness too, since it implies a larger world that values such attention — a world in which the well-made thing, whether it’s a sentence, or a house, or a person, is valuable not for what it does but for what it is. As flawed objects ourselves, we want to live in this world, even if a part of us knows that the only way we can do that is to forget the real one for a few minutes, the way the lion in “The Last Peaceable Kingdom” “forgets that he is doomed / to browse the luminous hay forever.” So, the question that Late Wonders increasingly poses is less how to make our burrows more impervious to attack and more how wide we can cast our imaginative embrace before reality itself begins to buck our affirmation.
It’s a good question, and a pertinent one for this era in which the American pastoral dream has begun to wonder whether its withdrawal has been the rebellion it said it was, or a more high-minded form of participation. The point is never put directly in Late Wonders, although one of the interesting results of McNair’s inclusiveness is that, increasingly as the book goes on, we feel a centrifugal pressure beginning to build, as if the poems themselves were trying to break out of their eloquent chrysalises and into a form that could meet their moment. McNair himself describes this shift in his preface, where he links the writing of his first long narrative poem, “My Brother Running,” with both the intense emotion he felt after his younger brother Robert’s early death from a heart attack and the curdling political atmosphere in the United States when this happened. His ambition is impressive, and it speaks to the sincerity of his project, although, perhaps appropriately given its scale and scope, the results are a more mixed bag than we find in the other sections of Late Wonders. Released into larger vistas, McNair’s voice grows urgent, like a detective who has begun to suspect that whatever local misdemeanor he’s been investigating for years is actually only a sliver of some vaster conspiracy. The probing hesitancy of the lines suggests a weather that the shorter lyrics could shrug off, but which makes the longer poems groan and creak:
Don’t think I haven’t noticed it,
this thing that comes into my voice
when I talk about him,
but four years later, here’s
how it is: I still find myself staring
at the puzzle of leaves outside my window,
suddenly awake in the dark just before
the time of his running and saying
“No,” right out loud […]
Passages like this, from an early section in “My Brother Running,” build on the self-awareness of the earlier lyrics, using the poet’s uncertainties as a stage on which the contradictory vectors of memory, poetry, and sympathy can play themselves out. The poet stumbles through the world he describes, which is not just the world of personal grief caused by a beloved family member’s death but the troubled backdrop of the United States during the Reagan era. It’s a place in which the pastoral desire to harmonize — a desire that the poet and literary critic William Empson famously described as “putting the complex into the simple” — inverts into a will to make sense: to unpack from an intuited connectedness of things a pattern capable of explaining everything. But doing this requires either that such a pattern exists or, failing that, that the seeker discover a way to express his helplessness — to make sense in art out of his inability to do so in life.
Other long poems have tried to do this too, of course — and in this way, the sections of self-reflection in “My Brother Running,” as well as the other two long narratives that McNair collects here under the title “The Long Dream of Home: A Trilogy,” really do feel like echoes of the “fragments […] shored against my ruins” impulse that has crystallized over and over again in American poetry over the past century. As with those efforts, McNair’s do not always gel into a whole that is more than the sum of its parts — although this is less, I think, because they get bogged down by the complexities they are surveying than because they ultimately shy away from a sustained grappling with the effort of the poetic “I” to make sense out of its confusion. They look outward, listening with typical McNairian generosity to the broken, unheard, unconsidered inhabitants of his expanding small-town universe, but in doing so they lose sight of the one character who is critical to all three poems — the poet himself, who, though he hovers suggestively over “The Long Dream of Home,” never really materializes in it, remaining instead the kind of sensitive but opaque narrator that we find in a related but still very different literary genre, the 19th-century short story cycle — the placid barin of Turgenev’s Sportsman’s Notebook (1852), for example, or the inquisitive writer of that foundational work of small-town New England literature, Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896).
Is it unfair to want “The Long Dream of Home” to be something more than this — something like Robert Lowell’s Life Studies (1959), say, except without all the rich people? But that’s not what we want; what we want is for the poems to embrace the contradictions of their drama, weighing the cost of their struggle to achieve the pastoral virtues of perspective, understanding, and equanimity. The sections that feel closest to doing this directly confront McNair’s own presence, reflecting on either the part he played (or didn’t play) in the sudden or slow tragedies he’s narrating or, failing that, the part he is playing now by writing about them. Though it questions many things in its attempt to put the world back together, the one subject that “The Long Dream Home” treats as unquestionable, ironically, is poetry itself. “It’s not / my job to worry / I’m riding with my brother […] But of course it was my job,” McNair says at one point, folding his prevarication around the white space that in other poems is charged and poignant, but which here comes off as evasive: the graphic equivalent of the slipped-in “of course.” “Of course, it was my job” (i.e., the brother’s job, which is here also the poet’s job) “to worry” — except isn’t there something about art that separates the two offices, dividing the poet into a man who is really two men: the one who drives the car or attends the meeting, and the other who writes about it? Or, to put it another way: doesn’t the “worry” of writing, in its unquenchable need to stitch together, pull the writer away from the “riding with” that is really what his loved ones desire of him, suspending him in the middle distance that, for all its comprehensiveness, can feel like its own kind of punishment — a bardo that he drives and drives, without ever reaching a destination?
Questions like this may sound hopelessly self-reflexive and abstract for poems as resolutely tangible as “The Long Dream of Home,” but one of the side effects of a “selected poems” collection is that it encourages us to see through lines in a poet’s work, finding solutions in late poems to problems that were raised in the earlier ones. Sometimes, interestingly, it does the opposite as well, making clear how a mature work’s seemingly less-disciplined form is in fact the result of a poet raising questions he has previously treated as settled. This is the case in Late Wonders, which, despite its many individual high points, also reads like a novel — a progress whose poet-protagonist is compelled by inner restlessness to trade his comfortable homeland for broader horizons and riskier adventures.
Whether what he finds there ends up being the high point of the journey (as, judging by his preface, McNair expects it to be), or only a necessary detour, is impossible to tell at this point — although there is no denying the feelings of gratitude and, yes, relief that we feel upon moving past the three long narratives in the middle of the book and into the final offering of new, previously uncollected poetry in its last third. These are the poems that fully justify the title of Late Wonders, offering a vision of the late-in-life writer that answers the question posed by the cultural critic Edward Said in his own posthumously published On Late Style (2006). “Each of us,” Said noted, “can readily supply evidence of how it is that late works crown a lifetime of aesthetic endeavor. […] But what of artistic lateness not as harmony and resolution but as intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction?” In keeping with Said’s hypothetical writer-rebel, McNair’s new poetry uses its lateness as a way to bring new things into its art, standing as both a return to form and a revision of it — for example, in the troubled poem “The Exit”:
For days the earth has turned back
to the spreading wildfires of California
and Oregon and Washington
in its rotation, carrying vast clouds
of smoke all the way to our sunsets
in Maine. Tonight as I drive home,
an ambulance comes out of the darkened
twilight and flies past, warning everyone
it can reach with its siren of the crisis
waiting just around the corner […]
Finding McNair still behind the wheel 40 years after “Small Towns Are Passing,” it is tempting to ask if he’s gone anywhere, or if he’s spent the last four decades encased in his own pastoral amber. But in the foreshortened perspective provided by Late Wonders, we see that at the same time that nothing has changed in his poetry, everything has. The languid cheek-kiss that the New England air once offered has become a smoke-filled cough, and the pleasant drive a zombified lurch in which the thing waiting behind every corner is not the earlier flock of mailboxes but a siren of alarm. Something has happened, and though the poet rubbernecks like the rest of us, the only thing that he can see is not a thing at all. “‘Bad visibility’,” he informs us later in the poem, “is the phrase / the flagger uses to explain the accident / caused by the greater accident.” This is the kind of casual yet careful profundity that we have learned to expect from McNair — except now the object of its critique is the dream itself. Poetry, which once offered a way to be “left out” of the world, is now included in it, reduced from a breezy reverie to the self-aware playacting that, McNair admits, only carries on “as if there was an exit.”
He is not telling us anything we don’t know, unfortunately, but one of the unexpected consolations of the latest poems in Late Wonders is the way that their moments of honest helplessness make us feel that our anxiety and distance are not unusual — that they may, in fact, have been hiding in the pastoral vision the whole time. These are the moments in which the haunted stare of Frost and Whitman’s more insistent yearning merge into a tender but unflinching watching — a readiness that opens itself to whatever may come, whether that is old age, disappointment, or just an orphaned moose:
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 Arrangement” restages the typical Frostian encounter with an indifferent Nature, and yet the scene it creates is curious and even a little funny (like a baby moose). McNair’s distinctive line, which once leapt over its breaks with impossible agility, now steps around them surely, returning our attention to the white space that has always been charged in his poetry, but which now glows with an inner light fully worthy of the third predecessor whose presence suffuses these latest poems: Emily Dickinson. Like Dickinson, McNair has always understood the way that blankness can work, strangely, as both a comfort and a goad, drawing us to further feats as it assures us that civilization’s most convincing structures are, at best, no more than sophisticated misunderstandings. But in these poems, he reaches a comfort with silence that feels even more articulate — as if he were recognizing the distance that exists between himself and the world as the subject that his poetry has been pointing to all along.
In its rediscovery of the nothingness unfolding at the heart of even the most simple-seeming pastoral encounter, Late Wonders reinvigorates that tradition — or maybe returns it to its roots (the genre being itself a product of a Greece that, like our contemporary America, was haunted by the suspicion it had passed its prime). It shifts our understanding away from the pastoral’s ostensible subjects — the galloping goatherds and dandelioned fields — and on to the mood of the pastoral poet himself, which is one of distance, waiting, even loss. It’s the mood of someone observing something beautiful while staying aware that we are separate from that thing — the feeling of lateness, in other words, which McNair seems to see less in terms of time than as a kind of metaphysical state: the position of being always late for the party, after the fact, outside the circle. The eternal flatlander, staring in wonder at the everyday life that his neighbors take for granted, but which strikes him as a weird and miraculous dream he can appreciate despite being unable to wholly take part in it.
Such a mindset may seem retrenched and even a little hopeless to readers looking for poetry to put the broken pieces of the world back together (or at least prevent them from falling even more catastrophically apart). But in abandoning the hope that brokenness can be somehow repaired or, God help us, avoided, McNair’s poetry offers us something even more valuable — that is, the faith that a deeper coherence exists, not despite our brokenness, but through it. This is the faith that we feel in so many of these poems, which open through the disasters they consider with a grace that is strangely fresh and metamorphic, like an animal shedding its skin. Their acceptance — of loss, defeat, even a kind of ruin — is rejuvenating, insofar as it suggests, by the very act of speaking, that these things can be survived, and that therefore part of the pain we get from contemplating them stems from the anxiety of their not having yet arrived — an anxiety that, in the book’s majestic final poem, “Where I Woke Up,” turns to relief and, yes, wonder, now that the fall has finally come:
On the morning
I myself changed, a doctor in a white coat
looked down on me in my bed,
holding his clipboard to assess, he said,
my present situation. Then a small,
balding man in an ordinary sweatshirt
gave me a cane and walked with me,
assessing only the possibility of my hands
and feet. Did I know, he asked,
that Ben Hogan held a golf club as if
it were a baby bird crying to open
its wings? I felt the warm bird breathe
in my own hand as I loosened my grip
and walked step by step down the lit hall
of that hospital […]
With its dewy tone and recapitulating rhythms, “Where I Woke Up” stands as one of McNair’s most gorgeous and compelling idylls: a grove whose stricken warriors put their balance back together one missed step at a time, like children balancing rocks on top of one another. Their progress, like the poem’s own, is unassuming, ordinary, and deeply equivocal, meaning that it is not really progress at all — but it is real, as McNair asserts, guiding our hands (as a fellow rehabber guides his) “over the fine / mysterious stitching no one could see.” His affirmation is convincing, outside the poem as well — for one of the most incredible facts about “Where I Woke Up,” at least within the context of Late Wonders, is that it appears at the end of the book, where most similar volumes would be tucking juvenilia, haiku, half-baked translations. Its placement suggests a conclusion that is as unavoidable as it is unexpected. At 81, Wesley McNair, an unassuming, avowedly regional pastoral poet from Western Maine, is writing the best poetry of his life — poetry uniquely capable of, and interested in, addressing our larger moment. Wonders never cease.
Josh Billings is a writer, translator, and nurse who lives in Farmington, Maine. He can be contacted at [email protected]