Friday, October 03, 2014
From the Desk of a “B” Student: A Review of Wesley McNair’s The Lost Child: Ozark Poems: Review by David DiSarro
From the Desk of a “B” Student: A Review of Wesley McNair’s The Lost Child: Ozark Poems
Review by David DiSarro
Consider the following paragraph a disclaimer. When asked to review Wesley McNair’s latest book, The Lost Child: Ozark Poems, I had to pause – not because of a lack of interest (far from it), but because I had to contend with a potential dilemma, or, more accurately, a possible conflict of interest. Specifically, I spent three and a half years as a long-haired, unshaven, and somewhat dimwitted student in the undergraduate creative writing program McNair helped to establish at the University of Maine at Farmington; a program where his reputation brought poets like Philip Levine, Lucille Clifton, Donald Hall, and Sharon Olds (just to name a few) to us enthusiastic, doe-eyed, and occasionally blubbering creative writing students; a program where I had the privilege of his mentorship, albeit for one semester in my junior year. And now, nearly 12 years since sitting in his classroom, with considerably less hair and slightly more wisdom (well, hopefully, anyway), I find myself in the unique position to give McNair’s book a read and provide some semblance of a review, all while trying to remember one of the valuable tools he taught me in those early workshops – to separate the work from the author. This, of course, is a tough chore, even for McNair to follow, considering the central figure in The Lost Child is his mother, Ruth, and “the homeplace that shaped her,” but I figured, why not? I might as well give it go, if only to make myself feel a little better about that “B” I earned in his class.
Hyperbole aside, it should be no surprise to readers of McNair’s work that the concept of “place” plays an important role in the text. As with many of McNair’s other volumes, characters constantly attempt to reconcile the physical “places” they occupy and those internal “places” frequented in the mind. Ruth, in poor health and moved to a nursing home in the opening poem (“When She Wouldn’t”), is a protagonist continuously under siege throughout the book, surrounded by an array of eccentric and disillusioned family members, struggling with an aging body, deteriorating mind, and the disorientation of being forced into unfamiliar surroundings. McNair skillfully illustrates the sorrow involved when those things we remember or cherish fade, change, or are violated, and yet he also leaves room for contemplation, resolution, and even comfort amidst chaos. Remaining true to his reputation as a storyteller, McNair preserves the places of his mother in the cadence of a southern drawl, the depiction of a dysfunctional family barbeque (“The American Flag Cake”), those quiet moments by Ruth’s deathbed (“Dancing in Tennessee”), and, finally, her journey home so that “she would never, ever again, be gone” (“Why I Carried My Mother’s Ashes). Indeed, while numerous poets focus heavily upon image or, to borrow a phrase from William Burroughs, a “frozen moment,” and unpacking the emotional baggage of the speaker or characters therein, McNair is one of those rare poets who balances the delicacy and nuisance of image with the plot of the poem, the storylines woven between characters, and ultimately the craftsmanship involved in revealing those uniquely human emotions of love, jealousy, resentment, and compassion.
While the story of Ruth and her family is compelling (and even wrenching at times), McNair offers some relief in poems such as “Gratitude,” which chronicles the homecoming of a veteran by the name of Elgin, a soldier recently deprogrammed upon his return from Afghanistan. Struggling with what one ancillary character refers to as “homefront syndrome,” or when “…the people back home don’t understand the war and his sacrifice,” the poem is removed from the usual suspects of Ruth and her family, and McNair skillfully portrays the psychological complexities of returning from war – of faces familiar, yet somehow not. While there are certainly brooding passages in the poem, one of the most poignant moments, perhaps in the entire collection, transpires when Elgin reconnects and recognizes beauty for the first time since coming home; not from some foggy memory or a rekindling romance, but in the aging face of his mother:
So none of the others were there to see Elgin’s mother,
uncomfortable with expressions of love, brush
an imaginary fleck of dust from the lapel
of his uniform and say how much she enjoyed
his speech as Elgin looked down at her, studying
her face and hair. Then he held her in his arms
and said thank you, this time for just growing old,
which had made her beautiful, he said, a word
he had almost forgot, causing her to weep all
over again in the blinking red, white, and blue light
of the crèche, while Myla, nudged between them,
cried to hear how loud her grammy cried.
This moment, I would argue, is a metaphor for speaker in The Lost Child coming to terms with the deterioration and death of his own mother, in realizing the inherent beauty in those moments that cause us the greatest difficulty and pain, and to remember those people and places (whatever their faults), even after they have gone.
Wesley McNair’s The Lost Child: Ozark Poems is a compelling read that solidifies his reputation at the forefront of contemporary poetry and storytelling. Not a collection for the emotionally weary or fainthearted, The Lost Child takes McNair’s mastery of language, his penchant for certain subject matter, and implants these musings in the landscape of Southern Missouri for all to see. Whether coming to McNair’s work for the first time, or, in my case, for the first time in a long time, this collection is a must-have for any bookshelf. And, hopefully dear reader, this was an “above average” or “B” review for what is undoubtedly a remarkable work.
David R. DiSarro is currently an Assistant Professor of English and the Director of the Writing Center at Endicott College in Beverly, MA. He received his Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Composition from Ball State University, his M.A. in Creative Writing from Southern Connecticut State University, where he was also a graduate research fellow, and his B.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Maine at Farmington. David's creative work has previously appeared in The Hawaii Pacific Review, Shot Glass Poetry Journal, The Ibbetson Street Magazine, The Orange Room Review, Breadcrumb Scabs, Third Wednesday, among others.Â In addition, David's article entitled "Let's CHAT:Â Cultural Historical Activity Theory Goes into the Creative Writing Classroom" will be forthcoming (Spring 2015) inÂ New Writing:Â The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing.