A past recaptured

“The Lost Child: Ozark Poems”

By Wesley McNair

David R. Godine, Publisher

Jaffrey, N.H., 2014

80 pages, trade paperback, $17.95.

Maine Poet Laureate Wesley McNair’s new collection offers 13 narrative poems — short stories in verse, really — about a semi-fictional family in small-town Missouri. “Semi” fictional because, as the book’s guide for reading indicates, the characters in the long middle section “are invented, except for my mother, whom I call by her real name, Ruth. She came from the Ozarks of southern Missouri, where she had many relatives.”

It’s not possible to tell from the stories themselves if the events depicted are drawn from Ruth’s actual experiences. A guess, based on the fluidity of the storytelling and the ring of reality, is that fact and fiction are woven together.

It is a seamless weaving. Each poem tells a story of small-town life whose events are completely familiar and whose emotional conflicts are tangled beyond belief – which is to say, thoroughly realistic.

In the memorable “The American Flag Cake,” the Sykes family has decided to use their annual Fourth of July reunion to honor their stroke-bound patriarch, Homer, 87, a decorated war veteran and successful real estate man in his better years. His older sister, Mae, is proud to not have been the one to suffer the stroke. Grandchildren, great-grandchildren, an Afghanistan veteran with his jaw wired shut from having been beaten up by his stepsons. A long-prepared spread of July 4th food, Bud Lights and Coronas.

Inside the comings and goings of the various troubled Sykeses, we get the thoughts percolating behind Homer’s stroke-failed face, and they are bitter. Finally, the hypocrisy of the war-loving, service-dodging, self-appointed master-of-ceremonies brother Wendell prompts Homer to try to find words that might convey the pain that “grew inside him as he thought about these repugnant strangers, who were the family and extended family he’d always known.”

Homer rises to lash out in unintelligible syllables, and collapses. The family, unable to make out his words, decide afterward while he’s dying in the hospital, that a long-dead family patriarch (whom Wendell had just invoked) had at that moment “come back through Homer to speak to them in tongues, a sign.” This fantastic misunderstanding of Homer’s intentions affords a sense of irony so bitter, piercing and true to life, that it makes you want to cry.

The rest of the stories in the middle section, telling similar stories on similar themes from working-class America, are bookended by three poems that, apparently, directly address the poet’s relationship with Ruth. They are characterized by strong feelings of love and regret: “never mind / her lifelong anger, and all her failures / of the heart: this was not his mother.”

The directness of expression in these lines has been a hallmark of McNair’s poetry for decades. Its accessibility (a word used in writing workshops to mean, roughly, that the poem’s literal meaning is easy to grasp) springs from an extremely adept handling of syntax, sound and poetic rhetoric that tells the story clearly while encoding complications of class and emotion complicatedly. “The Lost Child” is fairly easy reading that isn’t easy to read because it’s so lucid about pain and suffering.

McNair has been Maine’s poet laureate since 2011, and is professor emeritus at the University of Maine at Farmington. He will be reading from his works at 7 p.m. tonight, at the Farmington Public Library; at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 17 at the Portland Public Library; and at 5:30 p.m. Oct. 23 at the Rumford Public Library.

Off Radar appears about twice a month in the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel’s What’s Happening section. Contact Dana Wilde at [email protected].