Michael McFee


Nine poems:  Directions     Plain Air
                        April 4, 1968
                        Burial Eve     Sad Girl Sitting on a Running Board
                        Pencil               Recipes
                        To Work          The Family Laugh


An Introduction, by Jake Adam York





Come by the fast road as far as the river
   with a funny name. Turn left over
the shoal bridge — it will have been repaired
       since that recurrent nightmare.
Pass the valley school, standard fortress of brick,
           and the transforming power lake.
You will come to one stoplight, local joke, facing
               a mostly vacant volunteer plaza —
fire department, branch library, P.O. Turn right,
                 away from the veneer of lights.
When you face a choice at the triple fork, follow
                     the leftmost tine, toward that low
mountain; and when you buck across the sunken asphalt
                         patch that looks like Africa,
bear left again, just past the weed-cracked gas
                            station. After the underpass
the road gets narrow, convoluted — quick climb and fall,
                            gravel or trash scattered in all
the worst turns — before it unexpectedly yields
                         to countryside. Look for a field
spread to the left, a bungalow pinning its far corner:
                    home at last. Park in the yard.
If I’m not on the porch, leave your bags on the lawn,
                  come inside and lie down on
the ready bed for a while. If daylight grows lean
              and still I haven’t been seen,
go out the back, downslope, to the old logging trail,
          a star-lost lovers’ lane. You will
enter a cedar plantation, the steady rumor of creek.
       And the closer to it you get,
the more familiar everything feels, until you know,
   paused on the crossing stone,
that I have been watching you all along.


From Plain Air, © 1983 Florida Board of Regents, Michael McFee. Used by permission of author.




How hard to take the trail
as it comes, digressive,
narrow-minded with underbrush
or switchbacks, to expect
anything other than risers
of root and rock, brook and sky
retreating like careful animals.

How hard to settle for less
than luxurious prospect,
a log in a small clearing
quick with insects and curious
weeds, the song of descent
short, flat, blunt, never
hammered into a dulcimer form.


From Plain Air, © 1983 Florida Board of Regents, Michael McFee. Used by permission of author.




APRIL 4, 1968


My cousin prayed King would die
and he did. She was 13, unlucky,

a lonely girl who square-danced
instead of dating. At practice

that rainy night she whispered
in her partner’s lifted ear,

“I’m glad he’s dead, ain’t you?”
That country boy’s face grew

peculiar, warping like a trick
mirror, its surface flickering

between uneasy pleasure and fear.
Less than five years before

she’d traced a maudlin likeness
of JFK on onionskin, kissed

his blue lips, wept, then pressed
it in the family Bible under Deaths

even though she’d already boasted
on the bus that her folks voted

for Nixon. Later she would canvass
support for McGovern, embarrassed

by her ignorant parents’ politics,
angry that she somehow missed

all the wars, good causes, rights,
the clear allegiances. But that night

she danced each step with vicious joy,
her body required by all the boys

who spun and lifted it and clutched
her to their chests, their sweaty touch

sheltering her from that dark man
who deserved to die, his last sermon

crackling across the TV’s altar
a threat, she felt somehow, to her

undeveloped future, a shadow,
cast on her crisp crinoline’s glow

despite the footlights, the shuffle
of her feet not quite muffling

that echo drifting from the empty
back row of the chained balcony.


From Vanishing Acts (Gnomon Press, 1989), © 1989, Michael McFee. Used by permission of the author.





All night dad circulates the house
like a deep-sea fish inspecting a wreck.

He shuffles and pulses his flashlight
off the furniture, a nervous thief.

Nothing changes, but everything’s changed.
He paces the sunken darkness and blinks.

He checks on me in my wagon-train bed
as if I were six. He touches the covers

and sighs. I pretend to stir in my sleep,
again. He resumes his ghostly cruise.

The pressure per inch on the anglerfish
waiting for prey on the ocean floor

must be enormous, water darker than oil.
Morning is miles above our breathing.


 From Sad Girl Sitting on a Running Board (Gnomon Press, 1991), © 1991 Michael McFee. Used by permission of author.






She thinks we’ll notice her feet first,
laced into tire-colored brogans,
or the way her hand-me-down stockings
stop in a homely doughnut just below the knee,
or how cheap her crumpled sackdress looks
despite piping at collar and cuff.

But it’s the painful focus of her face
that stops us, trapped in its pageboy haircut
like chain mail, the gravity already
eroding her eyes and mouth and shoulders,
the world-weariness of those arms
folded in a half-hearted cross on her chest.

It’s that eye-level shadow of a hand
pressed into the dusty car door beside her
like fate waiting in an x-ray film,
rising to the breath-warmed surface of a dream
as if to say Halt, beware, stay back,
leaving its oily ghost of touch.


From Sad Girl Sitting on a Running Board (Gnomon Press, 1991), © 1991 Michael McFee. Used by permission of author.





Seven-inch standard the shrink fingers
as he asks about my sex life,
the lead in my pencil …

There is no lead in pencils anymore.

But maybe he’s speaking in a manner of speaking
since pencil does derive from pencillum
which is itself a diminutive
of penis, tail.

Or maybe he knows a hand completes a pencil
as a pencil completes a hand,
the focus of its fingers, its ideal digit,

shaft to the point of sketch words or lines,
the arrow of provisional thought.


Carpetbaggers saw pencils
in red cedar that survived the war intact —
fence posts, rails, log cabins, barns.

They bought to wood and shipped it north
to factories, then shipped the finished product
back south where no one could afford it.

Every Confederate obelisk is a pencil
writing remember on a Union sky,

and every pencil is an obelisk
branded with exotic gilt inscriptions —
Venus, Koh-I-noor, Blackfeet, Eagle, Ticonderoga,
Your Message Here.


Even the smoothest sheet
is sandpaper to fresh graphite points,
a file shearing off shavings,

a perfect excuse for the procrastinator
to grind pencils into sharpeners
until he has a fistful of bayonets
ready for the enemy,

until their tips snap under pressure
and he must rise to sharpen them again.

He tattoos each pencil’s facets
with teethmarks, as if his bite could bear
words from the mouth to the page.


Graded yourself, you graded us.
We broke the big test’s seal with your eraser,
riddled a standardized form with black holes
dug by a nervous #2,

prayed the key would somehow fit our guesses.

When you hit the floor, it was music,
a brief drum roll
that restored the bloody marrow to our bones.


You are made to be destroyed,
worn to a mortal stub
from rubber crown to always-broken heel.

Your drafts will smudge or fade or be erased
or finally inked over.

And yet how jaunty you look
tucked behind the ear, like a bright idea
on the verge of exclamation!


Aromatic candle
whose black wick I slowly burn,

your color is healthy caution,
your shape is home,

a cell
from the infinite hive of words.


From Colander (1996, Carnegie Mellon University Press), © 1996 Michael McFee. Used by permission of Carnegie Mellon University Press.




Concentrated manuscripts
copied out at kitchen tables after good meals
and proofed for quantity and degree,

they were handed down
from grandmother to mother to daughter,
from sister to sister, from friend to hungry friend,

pages from the never-finished history of appetite
written in a range of styles
but always in the familiar imperative.

The best ones were stained with their own ingredients.
You could find them in cookbooks or boxes
or (as with my mother) in a drawer

stuffed full as a Thanksgiving turkey
with index cards, sheets from notepads and notebooks,
whatever paper was available

blue with her impatient arthritic curve —
flavors I still remember
when I find her favorite recipes in an old envelope.

They are receipts for some unaccountable hunger.
They are prescriptions that might yet cure.
They are something given, and received:

take, eat.


From Colander (1996, Carnegie Mellon University Press), © 1996 Michael McFee. Used by permission of Carnegie Mellon University Press.





Brookshire had come to work second shift
at Walker Manufacturing the day it opened

and stayed until the recession shut it down
a dozen years later. He was an end finisher,

six-foot-four and strong enough to hang
the bent and welded tailpipes and mufflers

on a fast-moving chain that would loop them
through a room-sized oven for rustproofing.

He loaded and unloaded them left-handed
until that arm was so muscular it looked

like the claw of a human fiddler crab,
until that hand was so tickly calloused

he didn’t need to wear protective gloves
when he handled the rough or heated metal.

He liked the work, its good wage and routine
and not having to think about what he did.

He liked his forearm, its Popeye tattoo
that slowly vanished underneath the grime

of a nine-hour shift, as daylight itself
clocked out while he worked. He liked leaving

the plant at one-thirty in the morning
exhausted, especially in the summer,

walking into the cool mountain night
dark as the water that would soon be flowing

from his skin as he carefully scrubbed away
all the filth that had seeped through his clothes,

blackening his pale body utterly
except where his underwear and socks had been.

His sleep was clean and deep and very long.
To work is to get dirty and then get paid.


From Earthly (2001, Carnegie Mellon University Press), © 2001 Michael McFee. Used by permission of Carnegie Mellon University Press.





            for Miriam Marty Clark


On my way from the kitchen to the living room,
I heard you laugh while cooking and your mother
laugh while telling a story to the dinner guests

and it was uncanny, precisely the same sound,
an identical and inarticulate explosion of delight
at some absurd turn in the recipe or narrative.

I stood frozen between your matching happiness
just like the time I heard my cousin’s cackle —
its gentle unforced tone, its melodious cheer —

and shivered because it was just like Messalina,
my favorite fun-loving aunt, dead for many years
yet alive in the genuine mirth of her daughter.

What better legacy to leave my son than this?—
the family laugh, a manner of taking pleasure,
an antidote to poisonous genetics or habits,

the lethal words and looks and offhand guilt
I’ve given him without thinking; so that, one day,
somebody might hear him and his son laughing

in exactly the same way, at exactly the same time,
and hear a perfect echo of me and my parents
and all the unlikely generations of laughter

back up the Appalachians, across the dour ocean
to a place where joy was as precious as food,
all the way back to the original couple who saw

something in the garden that made them feel odd,
that inspired a sweet illogical noise, the first laugh.
It baffled the animals, but God saw that it was good.


From Earthly (2001, Carnegie Mellon University Press), © 2001 Michael McFee. Used by permission of Carnegie Mellon University Press.



Michael McFee has published five collections of poetry — Plain Air, Vanishing Acts, Sad Girl Sitting on a Running Board, Colander, and Earthly — and has a sixth forthcoming. He has also published two anthologies, The Language They Speak Is Things To Eat: Poems by Fifteen Contemporary North Carolina Poets (UNC Press, 1994) and This is Where We Live: New North Carolina Short Stories (UNC Press 2000). He has also collaborated with photographer Elizabeth Matheson on To See (North Carolina Wesleyan College Press, 1991). He currently teaches at UNC-Chapel Hill.