Life of the Mind
We Were Once HereMichael McFee. Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2017. 88 pages. $15.95.
By Robert M. West
Michael McFee’s first book of poems, Plain Air, appeared in 1983 from University Presses of Florida; his second and third, Vanishing Acts (1989) and Sad Girl Sitting on a Running Board (1991), were published by Gnomon, a Kentucky small press; and his fourth, To See (a 1991 collaboration with the photographer Elizabeth Matheson), was brought out by North Carolina Wesleyan College Press. Since then, he’s been with Carnegie Mellon University Press, which every five or six years has delivered a new collection: Colander (1996), Earthly (2001), Shinemaster (2006), That Was Oasis (2012), and his latest, We Were Once Here (2017). Every one of those books is quite handsome, but none has seen the kind of distribution that, say, W. W. Norton or Copper Canyon Press would afford a poetry volume. As a result, though McFee’s work has appeared in high-profile periodicals (Poetry, The Paris Review, The New Yorker, The Hudson Review, The Southern Review, and others), he’s generally flown under the radar of the award and anthology establishment, quietly building an oeuvre of genuine distinction.
In We Were Once Here, his strengths are on bright display. Several of these poems combine his gift for illuminating aspects of the everyday—such as objects or verbal expressions—with his ability to shape evocative and moving portraits of his family. For example, in “Cast-Iron Ghazal” McFee adapts that Persian verse form in contemplating an iron skillet he inherited from his paternal grandmother, both transforming the skillet through metaphor and remembering its role throughout her life’s journey. A “heavy antique mirror,” or a “[f]ire-born bell whose clapper was a plain dinner fork,” it’s as “[b]lack as her Bible, black as her once-maiden hair, / black as a panther howling / at midnight.” Remembering that she’d been given it by her mother, McFee imagines its presence on her wedding day sharply contrasting with the whiteness of her wedding dress—a dark reminder of the hard domestic duties of an Appalachian wife of her generation. From there, McFee proceeds from one stage of his grandmother’s life to the next, always returning to the skillet in that context, thereby fulfilling the ghazal’s formal requirement of regularly repeating a certain word or phrase. The form also traditionally requires a conclusion that refers to the poet, so, after describing her funeral, he writes his final stanza:
I say McFee into its circle, hear her savory voice
giving back the family name
from her (now my) skillet.
Readers familiar with ghazals may be surprised to see this poem printed in tercets instead of couplets, but McFee, a virtuoso of verse form, knows what he’s doing: by breaking what would have been each couplet’s second line into a second and third line, and by doing so in such a way that the second line is always slightly longer than the third (visually, at least), he produces stanzas shaped like skillets in profile.
Another poem here on the relationship between a common object and family life is “Yardsticks.” After explaining how those “[s]kinny printed boards / half ad, half measurement, / [that] came home with dad / from businesses he visited” served well as childhood toys, McFee tells how they also facilitated competition with his one sibling, his late older sister:
they helped mom measure
her two kids’ progress up
the kitchen door’s jamb,
our time-lapse marathon
to an overhead finish line,
each height noted in pencil
at semi-annual intervals
Though he often writes about his parents and other family elders, McFee adroitly negotiates the line between aesthetic distance and sentimentality; just as you think he may be drifting a hair toward the latter, he can surprise you with a sudden course correction. In “Yardsticks,” for example, his recollection of that childhood height-rivalry leads deftly to the startling observation with which the poem concludes:
Then the markings stopped.
I’m the last one vertical:
they lie side by side by side
two dark yardsticks down
in the hilltop graveyard.
McFee has written some very funny poems—the best example in We Were Once Here is the hilarious “Snoring”—but, as “Yardsticks” suggests, he can also be quite somber. At the center of the book is a sequence of poems on caring for his niece Stephanie, in the months between her diagnosis with terminal cancer and her passing. This sequence recalls a similar one in Earthly, one dealing with his father’s death, and, like that sequence, this one is greater than the sum of its parts and difficult to represent well in a brief review. That said, the poem titled “The Best” stands up well on its own:
“Love is the best medicine,” said the social worker
at the beginning of her first and last visit to see my niece.
“Everything works out for the best,” my niece said
as the woman left, smiling farewell, disinfecting her hands.
No it isn’t, I thought. And no it doesn’t, I wanted to say
to the girl I held in the hospital the cold day she was born,
wishing the best to every cell in that brand-new body.
Who could imagine the doom banked in two mutated genes?
“How are you?” I went in and asked. “Oh, I’m good,”
she said. “And you’re the best uncle ever,” another placebo lie.
The whole sequence makes a valuable contribution to the literature of cancer.
Other highlights in We Were Once Here include “Roadside Table,” inspired by McFee’s memories of family picnics at the public tables found alongside many highways; “Breaks,” which will speak to anyone who has (like the poet and this reviewer) ever worked an industrial job; “The Death of Randall Jarrell,” an account that adopts the form of Jarrell’s best-known poem, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner”; “The Roentgens,” a portrait of the marriage between Wilhem, the discoverer of X-rays, and Bertha, the bones of whose left hand appear in the first X-ray photograph; “Fats Waller,” a tribute to the jazz great; “Fingal’s Cave,” on a visit to that Scottish sea cave; and “High Cross,” a salute to the Celtic cross in general and, in particular, to St. Martin’s Cross on the Scottish island of Iona.
In another fine poem, “The North Carolina Gazetteer” (titled after the geographical dictionary implicitly at hand), McFee laments the absence of any place in his home state that’s named after his family, Scottish immigrants and their descendants—despite the fact that they’d lived “in the mountains of this state / longer than it’s been a state.” It ends with a wish for any place at all “whose name / still echoes ours, if only on paper, / reminding the map that we were once here.” The family name may not be in that Gazetteer, but, book by book, McFee is surely earning a place in the literary history of his state, his country, and the language.
Michael McFee is a Phi Beta Kappa member inducted at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1975.
Robert M. West (ΦBK, Wake Forest University, 1991), the editor of both volumes of The Complete Poems of A. R. Ammons (W. W. Norton, 2017), is a professor of English at Mississippi State University.