OFF RADAR: ‘Late Wonders: New and Selected Poems’
In the 1970s and 1980s, a particular interest in the lives and conditions of disadvantaged people took shape among American writers. This interest arose in some ways from a historical outgrowth of the nearly century-old predilection for realism, combined with the fact that many of the new post-war writers – many profiting from the college education of GI Bill, for example – were drawn from lower middle class or disadvantaged backgrounds, unlike their predecessors who tended to write in their more comfortable ways.
By the mid-1980s, the treatment of lower-class experience was branching out in all directions. One of its peaks in Maine literature was Carolyn Chute’s novel “The Beans of Egypt, Maine,” whose surprisingly authentic depiction of poor and impoverished families (a very real social distinction in rural worlds) struck a chord. the trend at exactly the right time in 1985. Some branches have stuck with us (there is still, for example, a long vogue for the memoirs of the underdog); others have morphed into almost another phylum of sociopolitical statements barely recognizable as literary.
But what I mean is that former Maine Poet Laureate Wesley McNair became a major poet in the currents of this trend in the 1970s and 1980s. He had a lot of first-hand stories to telling and insightful observations to be made about people who live in worlds far removed from the American middle classes. He then explored and expanded on this subject over the next five decades in highly polished writing that was acclaimed by literary communities in Maine and beyond. Her new book, “Late Wonders”, features a selection of poems from that trip.
The very first lines of the book, taken from his first collection published in 1983 (“The Faces of Americans in 1853”), evoke a sensibility of the time:
Small towns pass
in the rear view mirror
mirrors of our cars.
The white houses
and the stores take
their gas pumps
in the street
Longing for these images is a component of the complex emotional foundation upon which most of McNair’s highly thoughtful poems rest. Slightly later poems such as “Seeing Mercer, Maine” (“Would it matter if I told you / the people live here”) to “Maintain” (one of the memorable poems, for me, detailing the life of a small town in Maine since his 2017 collection “The Unfastening”), McNair’s lyrics cover all the light and dark angles of life off the urban and suburban radars.
Perhaps his most telling work was the lengthy narrative poems in “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 – that is, perfectly realistic. “Late Wonders” rightly comprises a large part of this book.
Eighteen unpublished poems complete the selection, concluding with the particularly moving “Where I Woke Up”. The poem recounts the poet’s experiences when he was hospitalized after a severe head injury and came to a quintessential visionary experience of brotherhood between himself, his nurses, and other patients. The poem goes through a lifetime of struggle with the darkness and light of everyday reality, its joys, ironies and sufferings, to make sense of the transcendent roots of life, love and all surrounding humble people. Exactly how you hope to end up, it seems.
Other themes and subjects, such as nature and the art of poetry, are also represented in “Late Wonders”, of course. This is the book to consult for an introduction or summary of one of Maine’s most eminent and talented poets of the past 50 years.
Wesley McNair, of Mercer, grew up in New Hampshire and is retired from teaching at the University of Maine at Farmington. He was Maine’s Poet Laureate 2011-2016. “Late Wonders” is available at local bookstores and online.
Off Radar takes note of poetry and books with Maine ties on the first and third Fridays of each month. Dana Wilde is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Contact him at [email protected].