Jake Adam York

Introduction to Michael McFee

If you talk about poetry in North Carolina, you have to talk about Michael McFee.

Born in Asheville, educated at UNC-Chapel Hill, where he is now a professor, and a long-time resident of Durham, McFee is one of the state’s most constant creatures. But his literary contributions make the true testament. His early work as poetry editor for Carolina Quarterly and his current professorship at UNC-Chapel Hill prove a continuing and contributing interest in the state’s literary institutions. More visible, though, are his achievements as an anthologist and as a poet.

As an anthologist, McFee has produced what seems to me the best state poetry anthology in existence. In 1994, UNC Press brought out his The Language They Speak Is Things To Eat: Poems by Fifteen Contemporary North Carolina Poets, a volume that stands out in both its concentration and its breadth. Unlike many similar anthologies (such as Ralph Hammond’s Alabama Poets), The Language They Speak does not seek to represent everyone writing in its geographical purview. Here, McFee has chosen fifteen poets of considerable accomplishment, some well-known, some not, and has presented very generous selections of their work that enable a reader to develop a good sense of the richness of each poet’s work. The anthology has traveled and aged well and remains a shining example of what can be done to record and promote the work of a place.

Clear as such commitments are, the more captivating testimonies to North Carolina emerge in McFee’s poetry. The dedication is clear in “Visiting Cape Hatteras,” one of McFee’s earliest collected poems, for which he won a “Discovery”/The Nation prize in 1980. Here he writes, simply:


                                    one might persist,

for a while, in merely seeing

   beach, sea, or sky….”


This, I think, has been McFee’s abiding revelation — that “one might persist, for a while, in merely seeing….” The objects of his attention shift, but in every case, he convinces us that we might persist in the moments of his poems.

McFee’s convincing power is founded, in part, on his ability to identify the persistent detail. Though we don’t know where we’re going till we’re deep into his “Directions,” the vividness of the poem’s landmarks, and the seemingly ineluctable concatenation conduct us to a sense of inevitability. We will arrive where he wants us. Because he can make us see.

In poems like “Directions” and “Pencil,” McFee proves himself a brilliant poet of the object. But these poems just begin to evidence the extent of McFee’s work as an observer. His fourth collection, Colander, stands, I believe, as his greatest concentrated effort in this vein. It contains a number of excruciatingly good poems we could not present — including “Buzzard,” “Change,” and “Colander” — which I recommend to everyone.

McFee’s combines his genius for selection and observation in elegy, which is his most persistent mode. In “April 4, 1968,” for example, McFee folds his cousin’s history of questionable remarks and her future self-ignorance into the moment at square-dance practice when she whispers to her partner, “I’m glad he’s dead, ain’t you?” This implication, this compression, makes the moment potent: this is where it gathers; this is where it begins to explode. Just so, history and future branch forever from a single moment in “The Family Laugh,” a poem whose accumulation is positively terrific.

These poems may not seem particularly elegiac, especially when compared to a poem like “Burial Eve.” But the combination of memory and projective imagination lies at the heart of the elegy’s dual function, to remember and to console. The elegy places us at the moment in which “Nothing changes, but everything’s changed” — both because of what has come before and what will, or will not, happen afterward.

And McFee is a master of the moment. In his last three books, Sad Girl Sitting on a Running Board, Colander, and Earthly, McFee has repeatedly revisited the lives of his parents, working back through memory to the moments in which he can re-connect. Of particular brilliance is the sequence “Afterlives,” the heart of Earthly, the power and craftsmanship of which has been recognized recently with the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association’s 2001 Roanoke-Chowan Award.

It’s clear, throughout his oeuvre, that whatever his subject, McFee is somehow writing about North Carolina, either as an observer of the state, its landscape and circumstances, or as a witness — to the lives of his parents, as in “Sad Girl Sitting on a Running Board,” or other local characters, like Brookshire in “To Work” — or as a creature of North Carolina who represents the state in all his acts.

I should think any state would be lucky to have so fine a representative, but I am sure that North Carolina is blessed with so dedicated and consciously thankful a one. Had each state such a witness, we would, I think, be better off at home.