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
with FRESH CORN,
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,
and NO PASSING ZONE signs
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
to watch our
of water, our bag
of green apples,
because he wouldn’t
farther, even so
close to the peak, maybe
didn’t want to
see what was just
below, in the valley,
the ridge, where
the view was
clearer and farther, but
I had to
see if it matched
what I imagined
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.