August 2022 Poetry Feature: Nathan McClain—from PREVIOUSLY OWNED

This month we welcome back TC contributor NATHAN McCLAIN, whose new collection, Previously Owned, will be published by Four Way Books next month.


Nathan McClain is the author of two collections of poetry—Scale (2017) and Previously Owned (2022)—both from Four Way Books, a recipient of fellowships from The Frost Place, Sewanee Writers Conference, Bread Loaf Writers Conference, and a graduate of the M.F.A. Program for Writers at Warren Wilson. A Cave Canem fellow, his poems and prose have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Guesthouse, Poetry Northwest, Zocalo Public Square, The Critical Flame, and the Plume Poetry Anthology 10. He teaches at Hampshire College and serves as poetry editor of the Massachusetts Review.


Where the View Was Clearer

Had I not chosen to live there—
among the oaks and birches,

trees I’d only ever seen in poems
until then…spruce, pine,

among the jack-in-the-pulpit
(though I much preferred “lady slipper”),

the tiger lily, milkweed, the chickadee
and blue jay, even the pesky squirrel

that toppled the feeder in the backyard?
There were organic farm stands

and I had a job lined up

with excellent dental,
so I should have felt satisfied,

in that way I was taught
God was satisfied

after (like any father, I would guess)
He’d finished with all His work

because He saw everything
was good—the world

we were in, and part of,
so we could marvel and point

to our heart’s content
if we wanted—to the conifer,

the pond with its still water,
the frog leaping, its splash

right out of a book
of haiku. My wife asked,

What are you thinking?
or What’s the matter? but

I was a stand of trees by then. Impenetrable
as the wood from which I imagined

Bishop’s moose first emerged,
otherworldly, taking shape

in my mind even now, though
I’ve never actually seen a moose,

only signs warning of moose,

as we drove Route 9 to the trail.
If it was indulgent to take it all in—

what that flower was called,
which was edible or toxic,

which should never be touched,
such useful information—

the way one might take in breath,
slowly, almost without effort,

then I was indulgent. And why not be?
Nothing seemed to threaten to kill me

here. No careless hunter. No bear.
Just us, the trees, and contentment,

unfamiliar as it all felt, having come
of age in a part of the country where

the sun didn’t so much glint
as glared, and there seemed

no shelter from it. This was
the ‘80s, in Joshua Tree.

Tom & Jerry on the TV. Mountains
everywhere else. From that

house, I could still point out the rock-
face I slid down once, because

my stepfather shouted,
shouted my name from its base—

I was dead. He was
going to kill me. I

had lost track of
time and lost

my brother, or
left him behind on

a boulder
to watch our

gallon jug
of water, our bag

of green apples,
because he wouldn’t

climb any
farther, even so

close to the peak, maybe
didn’t want to

see what was just
below, in the valley,

or beyond
the ridge, where

the view was
clearer and farther, but

I had to
see if it matched

what I imagined
and had

no time
to spare, not

with my stepfather’s
voice below—he was

was going to kill me
if the rattlesnake hadn’t.

Or my scraped elbow.
My shredded knee.

And we walked back in silence,
he and I, like Abraham

and Isaac must have
after leaving what had to be left

on the mountain, after Isaac saw
what his father was

capable of, the price
of obedience, which I paid

that day while my brother watched
E.T. and would not look at me. Ouch,

the alien said, its finger pulsing
like the lightning bugs

here on the trail as evening begins.
How even to describe it,

which seems my duty alone?
My wife and I walked, and I was silent

as a distant mountain
where something important

might have been lost.
Do you like it out here?

she asked—the steep ascent, bony trees
we used like trekking poles, the skittish

deer or chipmunk bounding off,
the poisoned oak. She hoped I liked it,

wherever I was in thought.
And I think I did, I wanted to.

Though I might have left that boy
on the mountain, caught in a thicket,

long ago. You should have seen it
up there, I told her. From the peak,

looking down into the grassy valley,
unexpected after so much

sand and cactus needle. I watched,
for what seemed an eternity—

it was like some new holy land,
some long promise—clouds parting,

low rumble of thunder, then
light, a voice, however garbled—

finally fulfilled. I wish
you could’ve seen it, I said.

You’d have hardly believed—
a family of rams, I swear,

in the valley, in the desert,
unbothered and unchanging, and still

there I bet. Grazing. Eating their fill.

August 2022 Poetry Feature: Nathan McClain—from PREVIOUSLY OWNED

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