American Life in Poetry: Column 100

BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE

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.


We do not accept unsolicited submissions. 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 © 2002 by Wesley McNair, whose most recent book is The Ghosts of You and Me, David R. Godine, 2006. Reprinted with permission of the author. Introduction copyright © 2017 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.