by Wesley McNair

Wesley McNair came to the EIU Campus on April 11 as our chosen reader for the Allen Neff Memorial Series, thus joining such writers as Charles Simic, Linda Pastan, Seamus Heaney, Heather McHugh, Donald Hall, and Gwendolyn Brooks. Following his well attended reading at the Tarble Arts Center, he was kind enough to give us permission to reprint a number of his poems. "What Became" and "Smoking," below, are from his new collection Fire:Poems, soon to be issued by David Godine Publishers. "The One Who Will Save You," "Hair on Television," and "The Bald Spot" are from his 1989 collection The Town of No, reissued in 1997 as part of a double edition which also included My Brother Running.

Wesley has been the recipient of fellowships from the Rockefeller, Fulbright, and Guggenheim Foundations, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Among many other awards, he has received the Sarah Josepha Hale Medal (also awarded to Robert Frost, Donald Hall, Maxine Kumin, Robert Lowell, May Sarton, and Richard Wilbur) for his "distinguished contribution to the world of letters." He received an Emmy Award for the script of a recent PBS series on Robert Frost. His work has appeared in the Pushcart Prize Annual, two editions of The Best American Poetry, and over forty anthologies and textbooks. Some of the magazines and journals in which his poems and essays have appeared are The Atlantic Monthly, Del Sol Review, Gettysburg Review, Iowa Review, Kenyon Review, and Mid-American Review. He directs the Creative Writing Program at the University of Maine at Farmington, where he received the Distinguished Faculty Award and the Libra Professorship. It is a pleasure to present his work in Agora. For further information about his books and his approach to his craft, including an informative interview, visit his home page.

I have always conceived of the Visiting Writers' Series as an extension of the classroom. Thus, the poets, fiction writers, and essayists that I've had a hand in bringing to campus over the last twenty-four years have had to be good teachers as well as fine writers. They have had to be accessible to our students before, during, and after their readings, and no one we've had here did any better job at this than Wesley McNair. His humor and simplicity, together with his wonderful knack for storytelling, made poetry a palpable and vivid experience for both the Neff audience and for the high-school creative writing students visiting EIU the next day. My own students spoke of his ability to relate to them through language that "didn't seem like poetry," as one of them put it. Or as another said, "I wouldn't mind going to another one of those"—another poetry reading, that is. As Wes said himself, "We've only got a chance or two to touch them and to turn them on to poetry," and he did so.

Thank you, Wesley McNair, and all the other wonderful writers we've had at EIU who have helped make our task as teachers of literature a little easier by giving the lines in our anthologies a human face, two hands and a voice. —Bruce Guernsey.]

What Became

What became of the dear
strands of hair pressed
against the perspiration
of your lover's brow
after lovemaking as you gazed
into the world of those eyes,
now only yours?

What became of any afternoon
that was so vivid you forgot
the present was up to its old
trick of pretending
it would be there

What became of the one
who believed so deeply
in this moment he memorized
everything in it and left
it for you?



Once, when cigarettes meant pleasure
instead of death, before Bogart
got lung cancer and Bacall's
voice, called "smoky," fell

into the gravel of a lower octave,
people went to the movies just
to watch the two of them smoke.
Life was nothing but a job,

Bogart's face told us, expressionless
except for the recurrent grimace,
then it lit up with the fire
he held in his hand and breathed

into himself with pure enjoyment
until each word he spoke afterward
had its own tail of smoke.
When he offered a cigarette

to Bacall, she looked right at him,
took it into her elegant mouth
and inhaled while its smoke curled
and tangled with his. After the show,

Just to let their hearts race and taste
what they'd seen for themselves,
the audiences felt in purses,
shirt pockets, and even inside

the sleeves of T-shirts, where packs
of cigarettes were folded, by a method
now largely forgotten. "Got a light?"
somebody would say, "Could I bum

one of yours?" never thinking
that two of the questions most
asked by Americans everywhere
would undo themselves and disappear

like the smoke that rose
between their upturned fingers,
unwanted in a new nation
of smoke-free movie theaters

malls and restaurants, where politicians
in every state take moral positions
against cigarettes so they can tax them
for their favorite projects. Just fifty years

after Bogart and Bacall, smoking
is mostly left in the hands of waitresses
huddled outside fancy inns, or old
clerks on the night shift in mini-marts,

or hard-hats from the road crew
on a coffee-break around the battered
tailgate of a sand truck—all paying
on installment with every drag

for bridges and schools. Yet who else
but these, who understand tomorrow
is only more debt, and know
better than Bogart that life is work,

should be trusted with this pleasure
of the tingling breath they take today,
these cigarettes they bum and fondle,
calling them affectionate names

like "weeds" and "cancer sticks," holding
smoke and fire between their fingers
more casually than Humphrey Bogart
and blowing it into death's eye.



If some afternoon you
should pass by there,
and the woman comes out swooping
her blue bathrobe back
from her path and crying, “Baby, oh my
sweet baby,” it won’t be you
she means, nor you
the hubby wearing motorcycles
on his T-shirt and jumping
down from the stairless
sliding glass door
says he wants to kill, so just
stand still. It’s the dog
they’ll be after, the shadow
under the not-quite sunk pink
Chevy, ratcheting itself up
with a slow, almost inaudible
growl into the biggest, ugliest
cross West Central Maine
has ever seen. It won’t matter
if the two shirtless fat kids
come from around back with
hubcaps on their heads and shout
even louder than their father does,
“Queenie!” By then Queenie,
less a queen than a chain-
saw lunging at the potential
cordwood of your legs,
won’t know or care what
humans have named her. There’ll be
no hope for you, Pal, unless,
that is, the teenage daughter,
who comes across the front lawn’s
dandelions in her tank top
every so often to set me free,
releases you, too – shaking her head
as if only you and she
could see how impossible
er stupid parents and this uncool
dog really are, and lifting it,
like that, by the collar
to create a bug-eyed
sausage that gasps
so loud her mother gasps – not
that the daughter will care. “Mother,”
she’ll say, eyeing the sorry choice
of afternoon attire, “you should see
how you look.” Then, flicking
Dad out of the way
and renaming the creature
she’s created “Peckerwood,”
she’ll march as if she
herself were now queen
back through that kingdom
of California raisins and tires
and Christmas lights decking the front
porch in July, and past the screen door
with the sign saying This
Is Not A Door, to disappear,
rump by rump with a bump
and a grind to you,
through the real screen door.



On the soap opera the doctor
explains to the young woman with cancer
that each day is beautiful.

Hair lifts from their heads
like clouds, like something to eat.

It is the hair of the married couple
getting in touch with their real feelings for the first
time on the talk show,

the hair of young people on the beach
drinking Cokes and falling in love.

And the man who took the laxative and waters his garden
next day with the hose wears the hair

so dark and wavy even his grandchildren are amazed,
and the woman who never dreamed tampons
could be so convenient wears it.

For the hair is changing people’s lives.
It is growing like wheat above the faces

of game show contestants opening the doors
of new convertibles, of prominent businessmen opening
their hearts to Christ, and it is growing

straight back from the foreheads of vitamin experts,
detergent and dog food experts
helping ordinary housewives discover

how to be healthier, get clothes cleaner
and serve dogs meals they love in the hair.

And over and over on television the housewives,
and the news teams bringing all the news faster
and faster, and the new breed of cops winning the fight

against crime are smiling, pleased to be at their best
proud to be among the literally millions of Americans

everywhere who have tried the hair, compared the hair
and will never go back to life before the active,
the caring, the successful, the incredible hair.



It nods
behind me
as I speak
at the meeting.

All night
while I sleep
it stares
into the dark.

The bald spot
is bored.
Tired of waiting
in the office,

sick of following me
into sex.
It traces
and retraces

the shape
of worlds

beyond its world.
Far away
it hears the laughter
of my colleagues,

the swift sure
sound of my voice.
The bald spot
says nothing.

It peers
out from hair
like the face
of a doomed man

going blanker
and blanker,
walking backwards
into my life.


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