March 24, 2013

Book Review: Poet's work shares how torn family shaped him


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"The WORDS I CHOSE: A MEMOIR OF FAMILY AND POETRY." By Wesley McNair. Carnegie Mellon University Press. 176 pages. $19.95.

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.


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