American Life in Poetry: Column 100


Here the Maine poet, Wesley McNair, offers us a vivid
description of a man who has lived beyond himself. I'd guess
you won't easily forget this sad old man
in his apron
with his tray of cheese.

The One I Think of Now

At the end of my stepfather's life
when his anger was gone,
and the saplings of his failed
nursery had grown into trees,
my newly feminist mother had him
in the kitchen to pay for all
those years he only did the carving.
"You know where that is,"
she would say as he looked
for a knife to cut the cheese
and a tray to serve it with,
his apron wide as a dress
above his workboots, confused
as a girl. He is the one I think of now,
lifting the tray for my family,
the guests, until at last he comes
to me. And I, no less confused,
look down from his hurt eyes as if
there were nothing between us
except an arrangement of cheese,
and not this bafflement, these
almost tender hands that once
swung hammers and drove machines
and insisted that I learn to be a man.

American Life in Poetry is made possible
by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org),
publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported
by the Department of English at the University of
Nebraska, Lincoln. Poem copyright (c) 2002 by Wesley
McNair, whose most recent book is "The Ghosts of
You and Me," David R. Godine, 2006. Reprinted from
"Fire: Poems," published by David R. Godine, 2002,
by permission of the author. Introduction copyright (c)
2006 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author,
Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant
in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.
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