An Ozark Family: Wesley McNair’s The Lost Child (Part 1 of 3)
When we first moved to Kansas City, Missouri, years ago, the city seemed not much different from cities I’d known on the east coast. That is, until one June morning when I opened the door to find six, black Angus steers standing in our parking lot.
Kansas City was a cow town. And didn’t I remember that Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz” lived in Kansas? Maybe Oz referred to the Ozarks.
That summer we rented a cabin and a canoe in the Ozarks. As our host slid the boat into the Niangua River, he pointed downstream. “There’s a shy-poke,” he said with a grin. I scanned the water but had no idea what he meant.
It’s hard bringing to life the shy pockets of life hidden from the main currents. Recently attending a workshop in New York, I enjoyed meeting Maine’s (soon-to-retire) poet laureate Wesley McNair. Listening to his almost uninflected speech, I wondered what it was like for him to live as far north/east as we lived north/central. Yet though I was intrigued by his Maine poems, the book of his I bought was the newest one about his Ozark mother and her quirky, sometimes downright zanny clan.
Most American poets of our generation cut their eye teeth on family poems. Freed from more formal modes of the recent and distant past, we wrote free-verse family poems that came to grips, settled a score, or fondly revealed family traits. McNair’s poems in The Lost Child share something with such poems of early adulthood, but they also have a mature canniness, shapeliness, and depth that come only from long practice navigating the undercurrents.
The slim book begins and ends with poems about his mother’s death. In the opening poem he shows us both the shambles of her life alone and her refusal of help:
……the bags of unopened mail
. and garbage and piles of unwashed dishes.
…..in her don’t-need-nobody-
to-help-me way of walking, with her head
bent down to her knees as if she were searching
for a dime that had rolled into a crack…
Then comes the shock of what brings her low:
……When the pain in her foot she disclosed
to no one was so bad she could not stand
at her refrigerator packed with food and sniff
to find what was edible….
At first the hospital is a bit like Elysium: “her white room among nurses who brushed/her hair while she looked up at them and smiled…”
This pleasure disappears when her Ozark kin show up, the ones she’s known largely through late night phone calls: her “stout, bestroked younger brother…her elderly sister/ and her bald-headed baby brother/
whom she despised.” They file into the hospital room, come “all the way/from Missouri.”
Her suspicion cuts to the bone:
When it became clear to her that we were
not her people, the ones she left behind
in her house, on the radio, in the newspaper
she would not speak. She turned away.
The relatives plead, then accuse:
……….You was always
the stubborn one. We ain’t here to poison you,
turn around and say something.
In the last line, the poet show how she snaps shut:
When she wouldn’t.
This is only the beginning of Wes McNair’s discovery of his Ozark family. When he takes her ashes home to be buried, her sister sits talking with him. Her beautiful speech, he will tell me, used “old country expressions like ‘a-going,’ and ‘fixin’ to, and ‘this-a-way, that-a-way.'” Fictionalizing some, and borrowing some, he brings the Ozark kin to life as if we sat with his favorite aunt and listened to long looping stories, connected by and, and because, and so and when.
Wesley McNair’s The Lost Child, Part 2 (of 3)
There are many ways to be an outsider. In an email McNair wrote how, when he took his mother’s ashes to the Ozarks, he renewed his friendship with his mother’s sister. “She talked on and on in the lamplight with her beautiful country accent…using these long, unfolding sentences…as if the sentences…were timeless and could contain anything.”
These sentences, Wes explained, become the long, looping medium of The Lost Child’s second section filled with family poems and titled like the book. Describing for example, an annual Fourth of July reunion, he hears “husbands…making wisecracks at each other” as they watch Chip’s second wife Donna, sitting “near the tubs with her empties.” The men imagine she might turn out like her mother who’d “gone to partying and alcohol,” but as they all knew,
…………..in families there were things
you didn’t say to a person, storing them up
from phone calls or visits one-on-one where you first
heard them, while confessing something in confidence
which got spread until everyone knew your story too.
(“The American Flag Cake” p. 36)
Now I am back on the Niangua River, watching for riffles made by stones just below the surface, still not knowing if I’d seen a “shy poke,”
McNair’s narrative poems, constructed of these long lines grouped in five, six, or seven-line stanzas, read like the swift shifts and nuances of conversation. Talk is the family’s medium, showing off glinting, weaving alliances, and the sudden isolation that sends us toward loss and death.
One of my favorite poems in this long, middle section is “The Run Down 17 Into Phoenix.” Its underlying story is simple and part fictional as the poet says of all these poems: Even with her new house in Amarillo, Texas, Jo-Lynn starts missing her husband Floyd on his long-distance trucker runs toward Phoenix. Her new home feels empty. Even surrounded by life-size, inflatable bears doesn’t keep her teeth from chattering as they used to when her first marriage went belly up. Sympathetic, Floyd’s teeth rattle too, but he still can’t help being proud of the time he’s making to Phoenix, driving in the dark.
Halfway through these long looping poems, Ruth reappears as the outsider sister, determined to go her own way. She full of delusions that sometimes sweep her up into an end-of-the-world “rapture,” and sometimes gnaw at her, making her justify her lonely obsessions. When Ruth’s sister Mae calls “…to offer comfort on Ruth’s/ first night in the nursing home,” Ruth doesn’t know who she is. And Mae
then listened to the distant voices
of the commercials on tv, while Ruth thought about
husbands and sisters and women getting cleaner counters
and kitchen floors. “The only one who’s still alive,”
Mae added, then wished she hadn’t, because
It made her think of how useless and dead she felt
In that moment as the family helper….
Wesley McNair’s The Lost Child (Part 3 of 3)
Reading the Riffles
It helps me understand the skill and insight Wesley McNair brings to interpreting his mother’s aging and dying to remember how the Niangua rolled before us in a constant, challenging glimmer.
For as his mother tries to renew her connection to every object bagged up during her stay in the hospital, she keeps inventing motives and miracles happening around her,
…as if when she examines
each rescued object…..
the past suddenly becomes the present
and time has not happened to her at all…(“The Abduction”)
Later, as she lies dying in the hospital, the anger and hurt she vented on him as a child now, he understands, has prepared him for “the shock
Of this final unbelievable loneliness…..
…………..And never mind
her lifelong anger, and all the failures
of the heart…………
he can reach her now only “through her favorite song
he sang as a boy to lift the grief from her face,” The Tennessee Waltz. (“Dancing in Tennessee”)
In the very act of bringing home her ashes, he discovers again “the scar of/ her rejection and hurt”
disappearing into her work, then and in all
the years afterward…
Yet the river of her family affection carries him along, with an occasional scrape—her brother calls her a damn Yankee.” He joins them in lifting her soft ashes in their hands,
……………each of them speaking
to my mother in a soft casual way as if
she stood there beside them…
And because this binds him to them, and because together they have brought her finally home,
“she would never, ever again, be gone.” (“Why I Carried My Mother’s Ashes”).
In this book of humorous and humane, angry and revelatory poems, Wesley McNair renders his mother’s anger, and confusion, her stubborn, yet elated growing old, and the twining stories of her siblings who second-guess each other, hide truths from themselves and at times embrace love and persistence. Thus, he helps remind us of our own riffles and fear, what we hide from ourselves and what will ultimately puncture our certainty, even as we find joy in living to navigate at all.