Wesley McNair, Poet
President Kalikow, Members of the Faculty, Parents and other relatives and friends of the graduates, and most importantly, Graduates of the University of Maine at Farmington class of 2012:
I am proud that Theo Kalikow invited me to give this address at the last graduation ceremony she will officiate as president, because she is my friend, and one of the most effective presidents this college has ever had. As I’ve told her more than once, I believe she has presided over a kind of renaissance at the University of Maine at Farmington, and I’m glad to have the opportunity now to say so publicly, even though I know that will embarrass her, since she hates talk like this.
Wes at the Library of Congress
What I like best about Theo – what perhaps we all like best – is that she is mercifully free of bluster. Whenever she talked to others during her time here about her desires for UMF or a college project, she didn’t go on and on, as if it were all about her; she spoke from the heart about what mattered to her, and she invited us to do the same as we collaborated with her.
Actually, that’s not a bad approach to writing poetry, at least as I want to practice it: to speak from the heart about what matters to you. So today, to honor Theo and the heartfelt conversation in which she has engaged us over the eighteen years of her presidency, I want to read to you, the graduating class of 2012, three short poems about things that have mattered to me over the course of my life as a poet. Each of these poems has a car in it and involves a journey. And each one will help me to say a few things about your life journey up ahead.
I’ll hazard a guess that all of you have a dream of how you want your life to turn out – a Plan A. And bless you for all your worthy plans. But it’s been my experience that life has a very limited patience for Plan A. When I myself was just your age, graduating from college, I was determined to start right out as a poet, getting a graduate degree that would help me do it. This was my Plan A. But then I got married and started a family and had very little time to be a poet.
Probably the best thing I ever did was to marry my wife, Diane. But the two of us were pretty young when we got married – she was barely 22, and I was 21 – and she brought two children from an even earlier marriage to our marriage, and we quickly had two more, and it was a wild and largely poem-less period, I can tell you. Just to give you an idea of how wild it was, I now read you my first poem, titled “The Rules of the New Car.”
After I got married and became
the stepfather of two children, just before
we had two more, I bought it, the bright
blue sorrowful car that slowly turned
to scratches and the flat black spots
of gum in the seats and stains impossible
to remove from the floor mats. Never again,
I said as our kids, four of them by now,
climbed into the new car. This time,
there will be rules. The first to go
was the rule I made for myself about
cleaning it once a week, though why,
I shouted at the kids in the rearview mirror,
should I have to clean it if they would just
remember to fold their hands. Three years
later, it was the same car I had before,
except for the dent my wife put in the grille
when, ignoring the regulation about snacks,
she reached for a bag of chips on her way
home from work and hit a tow truck. Oh,
the ache I felt for the broken rules,
and the beautiful car that had been lost,
and the car that we now had, on soft
shocks in the driveway, still unpaid for.
Then one day, for no particular reason except
that the car was loaded down with wood
for the fireplace at my in-laws’ camp
and groceries and sheets and clothes
for the week, my wife in the passenger seat,
the dog lightly panting beside the kids in the back,
all innocent anticipation, waiting for me
to join them, I opened the door to my life.
So I opened the door to my life, putting aside my Plan A of becoming a poet. And what I found in the end was that life is mostly Plan B. But that’s not the end of the story, because Plan B is so often life’s true source of opportunity. The bad news for me in my twenties was that I spent my time trying to support my family, living in an old, rural farmhouse over in New Hampshire, broken up into apartments. The good news was, I gradually discovered that the rural people living around me – poor farmers, or mill-workers, or elderly widows in their own failed farmhouses – that my country neighbors were making do with the lives they had, just as I was trying to do, and over time, these very people became the source of all my early work as a poet.
Which is to say, our life journey really begins when we come up against obstacles, and they force us to discover our true path, adjusting our Plan A. Sometime ask your parents and grandparents and other family relatives how Plan B led them to where they’ve ended up in their lives – not to mention Plan C or D. I guarantee they have their own stories. So here’s my first piece of advice. When unforseen obstacles get in the way of your dream, find another way to dream it. Plan B is your secret weapon. Reach out to that car with the big dent in it, and open the door to your life.
Commencement 2012, UMF (credit Daily Bulldog)
Speaking of your family relatives, Graduates, as I just was, I want to read a poem to commemorate them, the mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and cousins and anybody else who’s helped you along your way to this ceremony today.
Like the first poem I read, this one is about a car and a journey, and it takes place three or four months after my mother-in-law had a terrible stroke that paralyzed her whole left side. But after some physical therapy, she was able to stand up and even walk on her quad-cane, and we decided to take her out to dinner one Sunday afternoon to celebrate. So we packed her with her cane into the front seat of her two-door sedan – I was driving and Diane was in the back of the two-door – and we stopped for my mother-in-law’s sister Dot, a large woman then in her late seventies, who dearly loved to eat out. So I helped Dot into the back seat with Diane, and we drove off to the restaurant.
We got into the parking lot, beautiful day, and something disastrous happened: we couldn’t get Dot out of the back seat. No matter how much we pushed and prodded and rocked her, she was lodged back there. I address this poem to Diane, who was even more distressed than I was to see Dot lodged in the back seat that way, and the poem is called “Happiness.”
Why, Dot asks, stuck in the back
seat of her sister’s two-door, her freckled hand
feeling the roof for the right spot
to pull her wide self up onto her left,
the un-arthritic, ankle – why
does her sister, coaching outside on her cane,
have to make her laugh so, she flops
back just as she was, though now
looking wistfully out through the restaurant
reflected in her back window, she seems bigger,
and couldn’t possibly mean we should go
ahead in without her, she’ll be all right, and so
when you finally place the pillow behind her back
and lift her right out into the sunshine,
all four of us are happy, none more
than she, who straightens the blossoms
on her blouse, says how nice it is to get out
once in awhile, and then goes in to eat
with the greatest delicacy (oh
I could never finish all that) and aplomb
the complete roast beef dinner with apple crisp
and ice cream, just a small scoop.
Now that you’ve heard my poem, graduates, maybe you’re beginning to see why I’ve dedicated it to your family relatives. After all, the poem is about family helping family. And I’m sure you’ll remember the times you yourself have gotten stuck in this journey of yours just like Dot in that poem – times when your parents or relatives have responded to your predicament with concern and a helping hand. As I’ve already suggested, you may well get stuck again, when some well-laid plan you have for your life falls through. So don’t forget to thank your loved ones after this ceremony is over for the help they’ve given you during your last four years, and keep them close by, returning the favor of their help every so often in the future.
And yet. And yet, there are moments in life’s journey when no help from others will quite do – when what you need is not food, as was the case of Dot in my poem, but soul food, which you can only seek and find on your own. So my last poem with a car in it, the shortest of them all, is about an individual sort of travel – travel of an interior, spiritual kind.
In this poem you’re driving all by yourself at night beyond a town or clump of houses where everybody else is, into the pure, untamed darkness of Maine, and you’re on one of those skinny country roads with a solid yellow line that tells you two things: that you’re way off the beaten track, and that there are twists and turns to discover with your headlights as you go.
This poem about individual, spiritual travel is called “Driving to Dark Country.”
Past where the last
gang of signs
comes out of the dark
to wave you back,
and past telephone
with the light of someone
beyond the next hill
a slow single line
will take the eye
of your high beam. Around you
will be jewels
of the fox-watch.
Great trees will rise up
to see you passing by
all by yourself,
riding on light.
So on this auspicious morning, Graduates, I recommend three things. First of all, consider the possibilities of Plan B, finding in your very obstacles your truest and best opportunities. Second, value your loved ones, your collaborators in life, who’ve cared enough to help you out of the tight spots you’ve gotten yourself into, whether in the back seat of a car or anywhere else. And finally, never forget the need of your spirit to take that interior journey into your own dark country, all by yourself, riding on light. Congratulations, graduates, and blessings on all your future travels.
[Wesley McNair is the current Poet Laureate of Maine. U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine has called Wesley McNair “one of the great storytellers of contemporary poetry.” The author of nine volumes of poems, including Lovers of the Lost: New and Selected Poems, he has held grants from the Fulbright and Guggenheim foundations, two Rockefeller Fellowships, two NEA fellowships, and four honorary degrees for literary distinction. In 2006 he was selected for a United States Artists Fellowship of $50,000 as one of “America’s finest living artists.” Other honors include the Robert Frost Award, the Theodore Roethke Prize, an Emmy Award, and the Sarah Josepha Hale Medal. He was recently invited for the second time to read his poetry at the Library of Congress, and he has served four times on the nominating committee for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry. In June McNair will publish his eighteenth book, The Words I Chose, a memoir describing his development as a poet against the odds of a broken home, poverty, and the hardships of family life. Most importantly by far, he is the co-author with Bill Roorbach and Robert Kimber of A Place on Water, and knows cocktail hour when he sees it.][Wes’s guest head drawn by Alan Crichton]
Three Amigos with the late, great Wally
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