Near the end of his extraordinary memoir, “The Words I Chose: A Memoir of Family and Poetry,” award-winning Maine Poet Laureate Wesley McNair states, “Poets are menders of broken things.”
McNair is noted for his poetry about “broken New England” and the brokenness of his childhood, in having a father who abandoned the family and a mother whose rage over it made her a “terrifying figure.”
“I am a poet who has been shaped from the start by the threat of things dear to me coming apart, the sense of disintegration,” he writes.
The sublime beauty of “The Words I Chose” is truly that it is a memoir about both family and poetry. It is a short work — what you might expect from a poet who is economical in the words he chooses — at only 176 pages.
But his skill as a poet and writer are evident as the reader comes to the end and realizes how much he has packed into these pages, weaving an often spellbinding tale between major incidents in his life and how they were catalysts for his navigating the journey to find his voice and his poetic form.
McNair opens the book with seeking to glean from a photograph of his parents taken in 1943 who they were when he was a small child. “At first glance (it) offers no clue that he will soon leave her.” He describes his father as “movie idol handsome,” and his mother, even after the birth of three children, as “an attractive woman with a youthful figure.”
Ambitious though they were, neither was able to escape the constraints of their own hard upbringings. His mother, the oldest of five, grew up in extreme poverty, was charged with the care of the younger children and was whipped for her siblings’ transgressions. His father was relentlessly belittled by his father with sarcasm and ridicule. Although both of McNair’s parents entered college, neither graduated.
But McNair credits them both for “contributing” to his becoming a writer. His mother by reading to him and helping him create his first “book” as a young boy; his father’s “most obvious contribution was his disappearance itself, for it showed me once and for all that the world is a broken place, and filled me with the need to mend it.”
But there were numerous people along the way who aided and abetted his journey to a world he could mend with words. One of the first was a guide at a summer camp, a student from Columbia University who sent him a box of books by prominent early-20th century writers. Another was poet and distant neighbor Donald Hall, who early on told him his poems were “dazzling.”
No one inspired, nurtured and had McNair’s back as much as the young waitress who “walked into the kitchen with an order” when he was washing dishes at a local Howard Johnson’s while he was a student at Keene Teachers College. Though married with two young boys, she and McNair became friendly, slowly opening up to one another about their hopes and dreams. McNair learned she was in the process of getting a divorce.
Although frightened at the prospect of becoming a father to two young boys and of the obligation of being a husband and whether that would fit into his dream of becoming a poet, they married the day before Christmas in 1962.
Diane McNair quickly became the foundation of his world. Through their early struggles with too little money and very large dreams, they built a family and a life that continues to be a sustaining power to them both. The chapter dealing with their meeting, courting and early marriage is lovely and deeply affecting.
Although pregnant, Diane encouraged McNair to go to Vanderbilt in distant Tennessee to get a master’s degree while she and the boys remained in Vermont. And although he went, he missed her terribly and soon returned.
Giving up “Plan A,” he crafted “Plan B,” which included temporarily “turning my back on poetry.” He took a job teaching at a high school, and while it was a period for him of “unfinished manuscripts,” he serendipitously developed a sense for how to tell narrative poems through teaching on the short story to his students. Summers at Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College enabled him to secure the advanced degree necessary to achieve one of his dreams: Teaching at the college level.
Each chapter opens with one of McNair’s poems. The one at the beginning of the book, “Wanted,” is equal parts stunning and haunted. The one opening chapter eight, “My Father Going Away,” is also haunting. It is made all the more so by the narrative tale that follows — of his father suddenly reappearing in his life — which reads like a revelatory scene from “Death of a Salesman.” It is one of the grand pivots in the memoir’s “family” storyline, mesmerizing in its power.
One of the grand pivots in the “poetry” storyline recounts McNair’s crafting of his poem, “Leaving the Country House to the Landlord, Five Years Later.” McNair describes watching the landlord’s son-in-law cut down a beautiful shade tree in the yard as he and his family are forced to pack up and leave.
The event and the effort to write about it drives him to delve deeper into his poetic craft, seeking to meld “my pain and sorrow, revealing both the outside and inside of my experience at the same time.”
When the poem is accepted for publication — his first published poem — he weeps, then shouts — “I’ve found a form.”
Near the end, McNair writes: “For life is all Plan B. And from life comes poetry, which thrives on disappointment and the aching heart. Poets are menders of broken things, as I have been, creating my first poem in one word at the bottom of a wanted poster on which I drew the face of my father. ‘Wanted,’ I wrote, suggesting two things at the same time, an accusation and my deep desire to be with him.”
In “The Words I Chose,” McNair again has created two things at the same time: A deeply evocative memoir about family, and also a fascinating one about his passionate drive to be a poet.
Frank O Smith is a Maine writer whose novel, “Dream Singer,” was a finalist for the Bellwether Prize.