Wesley McNair, “The Abandonment”

Climbing on top of him and breathing

into his mouth this way she could be showing her

desire except that when she draws back

from him to make her little cries

she is turning to her young son just

coming into the room to find his father my brother

on the bed with his lips closed and the slightest

smile on his lips as if when they

both beat on his chest as they do now

he will come back from the dream he is enjoying

so much he cannot hear her calling his name

louder and louder and the son saying get up

get up discovering both of them discovering

for the first time that all along

he has lived in this body this thing

with shut lids dangling its arms

that have nothing to do with him and everything

they can ever know the wife listening weeping

at his chest and the mute son who will never

forget how she takes the face into her hands now

as if there were nothing in the world

but the face and breathes oh

breathes into the mouth which does not breathe back.

This is a virtuoso sentence–strung out over twenty-three lines, with little and big surprises at every turn, it’s both a full sentence and an entire poem. Full disclosure here: I taught a workshop after a talk Wes gave last night, and, seeing him, I was reminded of this poem, which was first thrust into my hands by one of my teachers, about a decade before I ever met Wes.

As a poem, it makes splendid use of its line breaks, both to increase the surprises along the way and to help score our reading of it. If it was prose, which it could be, say, a moment from a novel or a memoir, it’d be a bit breathless and maybe require few commas and a dash or two, but it would still work as a sentence. Syntactically, it all hangs together.

I’m struck by how it takes a short few seconds or half-minute at best of real-time and gives us this moment in super slow motion. It brings us inside the moment, makes us stand there next to the wife and her son–their world irrevocably, suddenly shattered. 

The almost sexual imagery in the first few lines, and the way sex and death get switched, jump-starts the beginning of the sentence. I’m also astounded by how, right in the middle, we see the father having a pleasant dream, as if this were all a bad dream. The final turn of the poem (and the turn of that knife) is in that cruel and true last line–this mouth will never breathe back again, and, in the world of the poem, this jaw-dropping sentence, we realize that at the exact same moment as the wife. It’s stunning, and crushing.

One Response to “Wesley McNair, “The Abandonment””

  1. wesley mcnair

    Gib — Though I knew about this poem on your site, I never caught up with your praise for it till right now, Sorry to be so clueless, and thank you for your appreciative insights. Coming from a poet and fellow sentence-freak like you, your commentary means even more. — Very gratefully, Wes

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