16 April 2013

Wesley McNair, The Words I Chose

Confession: This isn't a review as much as a jumbled mess of thoughts and feelings.

Reading Wesley McNair is surreal in the extreme for me. I am still processing.

Wesley McNair
He writes about people and places I know with aching frankness.  He writes about the abuse and sadness inflicted on him, in particular by his stepfather.

Even the photos are familiar.

Wesley's stepfather, Paul Joly, is my great-uncle.

McNair's work is Jeannette-Walls'-Glass-Castle brave. And oddly, it was just weeks after reading and blogging about Half-Broke Horses that The Words I Chose landed on my radar.

Although this is my dad's family, but my mom is a big Wesley fan. Shortly after his book was released, Mom called to tell me about it and in the course of the conversation mentioned that the Joly family members in Claremont were pretty "shook up" over it. Here's the article she sent to me:

So naturally, it landed on my "to read" list. This is just too good to pass up.

But I gasped when I saw The Words I Chose on the "new book" shelf at the library. Not because it was there, but because there on the cover was a house that I know, that I visited as a little girl.

Paul Joly, 1955
(detail of photo from
"The Words I Chose")
Although my grandmother (Paul's older sister) passed away several years ago, Paul Joly still has living siblings. It's gotta be tough when the dirty laundry gets aired out. But how can they be newly "upset"? Haven't they read all his work already? (And if they haven't, they should). I don't feel angry about the unpleasant details that Wesley reveals. I'm a few generations removed, and I'm not surprised to learn more about frightening or sad incidents McNair has already revealed in his poetry. Paul Joly's father, Evangeliste, my great-grandfather, was notorious for his hardness and anger. He wore it like a badge. He picked fights for money. Family lore is that my great-grandmother (Paul's mother) would pray novenas during every pregnancy that her baby would not inherit his/her father's personality.  I'm not sure how that worked out.

My great-uncle & -aunt's house
(photo: http://wesleymcnair.umf.maine.edu)
My brother looks a little like Paul Joly. It's eerie. Totally different personality though. Where Paul was rough and harsh and negative, my brother is kind and gentle and caring.

I am most gripped by the first few chapters of the book, learning of Wesley's "growing up." This is where he's discussing the things that are personally familiar to me. Other reviewers have been more moved by Wesley's adult life and his journey toward finding his own poetic voice.

I appreciate that it's also a journey of transformation and patience. Even though the "right now" might be really bad, really scary (How do we pay the bills? Where will we live? Why am I not where I "ought" to be in my career? What can I do to help my struggling child? Where have I gone wrong?) it really can and does work out in the end.

I'm beginning to feel like a bit of a McNair stalker.  Last week I watched the episode of New Hampshire Authors featuring Wesley.  I'm pretty pumped about the Maine Poetry Express.  Don't worry, I'm a fan, but not "your number one fan."


It's unavoidable that I'm about to veer off topic a bit. Like many others, I am grieving today about the horror in Boston.

Yesterday afternoon I saw Alasdair Conn, Chief of Emergency Services at Massachusetts General Hospital being interviewed. During the interview Conn was asked, “Would you characterize these as almost something you would see in a military setting?” He replied, “Oh absolutely, absolutely this is like a bomb explosion that we hear about in the news in Baghdad, or Israel or some other tragic place in the world."

A passage in The Words I Chose is ringing true for me today.

"The Faces of Americans in 1853," which eventually became the title poem of my first book, had a great impact in my poetry, small and quiet as the verse was.  Over the years it led to a range of poems, short ones about the popular culture, and long ones about my own family, in which I undercut the American assumption of a special destiny, both national and personal, and questioned the obligation we in the United States commonly feel to transform ourselves and others.  The alternative these poems invariably propose is an acceptance of ourselves and the world as they actually are in their full complexity, outside before- and after-promises of happiness and contentment.  I believe that the most political poem one can write is not a protest of some current event, but a critique of the myths which continue to guide Americans in their politics and their daily lives to this day, in the early twenty-first century, even as our sense of possibility dwindles, and the connection between American myths and life's realities become harder to find. (p. 137-138)
Even an educated, erudite man like Dr. Alasdair Conn seems to believe we are insulated from those "tragic places" in the world. That's not us; that's someone else, somewhere else. But that is just an American myth. We are as vulnerable as people in any part of the world. Hate and violence are just as possible in Boston as in Tel Aviv. Sadly, we are now "a tragic place" too.

What should we do: Cling to a failing myth? Or face a new reality?

I don't know. Do you?

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