“Late Wonders: New and Selected Poems” by Wesley McNair; Godine, Boston, 2022; 294 pages, hardcover, $29.95.

In the 1970s and ’80s, a special interest in the lives and conditions of underclass people took shape among American writers. This interest arose in some ways as a historical outgrowth from the roughly century-old predilection for Realism, combined with the fact that a lot of new postwar writers — many taking advantage of GI Bill college educations, for example — were from lower middle class or underclass backgrounds, unlike their predecessors who tended to write about their more comfortable means.

By the mid-1980s the treatment of lower-class experience was branching in all different directions. One of its peaks in Maine literature was Carolyn Chute’s novel “The Beans of Egypt, Maine,” whose startlingly authentic depiction of poor and dirt-poor (a very real social distinction in rural worlds) families hit the trend at exactly the right moment in 1985. Some of the branches remain with us (there is still, for example, a longstanding vogue for memoirs of the downtrodden); others have morphed into almost another phylum of sociopolitical pronouncement barely recognizable as literary.

But what I’m coming to is that former Maine poet laureate Wesley McNair came of age as a poet in the currents of this trend during the 1970s and ’80s. He had a lot of firsthand stories to tell and perceptive observations to make about people who live lives worlds removed from the American middle classes. He went on to explore and develop this subject matter over the next five decades in highly polished writing that has won acclaim in literary communities in Maine and beyond. His new book, “Late Wonders,” offers a selection of poems from that journey.

The very first lines in the book, from his first collection published in 1983 (“The Faces of Americans in 1853”), evoke a sensibility of the time:


Small towns are passing


into the rear-view

mirrors of our cars.

The white houses

are moving away,

wrapping trees

around themselves,


and stores are taking

their gas pumps

down the street



The wistfulness in this imagery is a component of the complex emotional foundation most of McNair’s highly reflective poetry is built on. From somewhat later poems such as “Seeing Mercer, Maine” (“Would it matter if I told you / people live here”) to “Maintaining” (one of the, to me, memorable poems detailing small-town Maine life from his 2017 collection “The Unfastening”), McNair’s lyrics cover every bright and dark angle of life off the urban and suburban radars.


Maybe his most probing accomplishments have been the long narrative poems of “The Lost Child: Ozark Poems” (2014), about his family in Arkansas. Each poem in the book tells a story of working-class life whose events are completely familiar and whose emotional conflicts are tangled beyond belief — which is to say, thoroughly realistic. “Late Wonders” appropriately includes much of that book.

Eighteen previously uncollected poems complete the selection, concluding on the particularly affecting “Where I Woke Up.” The poem narrates the poet’s experiences when he was hospitalized after a serious head injury and came to a quintessential visionary experience  of brotherhood among himself, his nurses and other patients. The poem in a way breaks through a lifetime of grappling with the dark and light of everyday reality, its joys, ironies and sufferings, to a sense of the transcendent roots of life, love and all the surrounding humble people. Exactly as you would hope to end up, it seems.

Further themes and subject matter, such as the nature and craft of poetry, are represented in “Late Wonders” as well, of course. It’s the book to go to for either an introduction or a summation of one of Maine’s most prominent, skilled poets of the last 50 years.

Wesley McNair, of Mercer, grew up in New Hampshire and is retired from teaching at the University of Maine at Farmington. He served as Maine’s poet laureate 2011-2016. “Late Wonders” is available through local and online book sellers.

Off Radar takes note of poetry and books with Maine connections the first and third Fridays of each month. Dana Wilde is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Contact him at dwilde.offradar@gmail.com.

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