“The Unfastening: Poems” By Wesley McNair

David R. Godine Publisher Inc., Boston 2017

80 pages, paperback, $17.95

If Edgar Allan Poe was right, then Wesley McNair’s most recent collection of poems, “The Unfastening,” is a very beautiful book indeed.

Poe said in one of his influential essays about poetry that the tone of the highest manifestation of beauty is sadness. In other words, inherent in your most intimate experiences of beauty is a feeling of sadness. Or to say it the other way around, sadness has a beauty too, and profoundly. And make no mistake, the central intelligence of “The Unfastening” is sadness.

For what is being unfastened right from the start of the book is life itself. The first section, sharing its title with the book, comprises eight poems on the end of life. They are exquisitely sad poems. “The Button,” to open, is a brief evocation of the difficulty an old, old man has fastening the top button of his dress shirt; even a helper is unable to make the button fast, with the old man’s “helpless hands / dangling at his sides / imagining themselves // doing what they’re now / unable to do as you struggle.” The unfastening of the man from his life is so universally vivid in just this one poem, you literally want to cry. “Nursing Home Haikus” is a set of open-form tercets on the sense of ending inherent in the home, with the concluding wistful, penetrating observation:

Once this whole floor was

the ballroom of a mansion.

Think of the rooms cleared

away for dancing,

the gowns, the music that said

now, and only now.

One of McNair’s lifelong poetic themes has involved the complex emotions of his family past, and he’s still tackling it in this collection. “The Afterlife” is a meditation — as the poetry world clumsily names it — on the speaker’s complex of responses to his mother’s death. “When They Lay Down” is a variation on a poetic form that repeats lines in different order throughout, and these lines on his parents’ rocky lives echo like hauntings, the way, perhaps, the poet himself is repetitively haunted by the memories themselves.

The book’s second section, titled “The Master of Loss,” goes deep into the different ways memories crop up to color and give tone — often of sadness — to the everyday, even much later in life. The title poem of the section, in the narrative mode of McNair’s previous collection “The Lost Child,” tells the story of an expedition by family members to the disheveled home of the speaker’s elderly mother, who presumably has been removed from there recently. “‘How can she live like this?’ Dot asked.” And later, Uncle Truman says: “‘She’s lost her grip for sure.'” She is, in other words, unfastening from her long, emotionally turbulent life.

The poems in the third section, “The Longing to See,” focus on the making of art and poetry, from which the poet’s personal life never detaches. The departed mother haunts even these good-natured, if somber explorations of the drive to create, and so does the sense of sadness. “The Poem” concludes, on a shadowy note: “It’s not only itself // the poem waits for / moving line by line / into its own dark. / It waits for you.”

My own favorite passages appear in the last section, “Maintaining,” in which we get a variety of glimpses of everyday life in “this post 9/11 nation,” which (it probably should be understood) is also the venue of the poet’s own retirement years. In the vicinity (presumably) of the poet’s hometown, Mercer, spots of time like this section in its entirety:

By the register at the store, truckers,

carpenters and mill workers

count their change while telling

the morning clerk how they are:

“Not too bad.” “Could be worse.”

“Maintaining.”

Sad, but true, these glimpses are, and beautiful. And indeed, the book, like fall and life itself, finishes on the tone of beauty’s highest manifestation: “Consider the frosted heads / of the goldenrods / bending down to the ground, / and the milkweeds standing / straight up, giving themselves away.” Nature, itself, unfastens.

All this is cast in some of the most skillfully processed poetic language practiced in Maine in recent decades, which accounts, in part, for the force with which these poems impose themselves on your Poe-incited imagination. But while the fluidity and near-perfection of language is one thing, the effect is the thing. The effects of this poetry are remarkable.

Wesley McNair is professor emeritus of English at the University of Maine at Farmington, and served as poet laureate of Maine 2011-2016. He is the author of nine volumes of poetry and several books of prose. “The Unfastening” is available through www.godine.com/book/unfastening/ and local and online book sellers.

Off Radar takes note of poetry and books with Maine connections the first Thursday of each month. Contact Dana Wilde at [email protected].