Paula McLain has published two collections of poetry Less of Her and Stumble, Gorgeous, both from New Issues Poetry Press, as well as a memoir about growing up in foster care, Like Family: Growing Up In Other People’s Houses, and the novel, A Ticket to Ride, which was published by Ecco in 2008 and named a “top read” by the Today Show. A second novel, which fictionalizes Ernest Hemigway’s first marriage and upstart years in Paris, will be published by Ballantine in 2011, as well as internationally. A recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Academy of American Poets, the Ohio Arts Council, Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, and the Ucross Foundation, McLain’s work has recently appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post Magazine, and Real Simple. She teaches exclusively for New England College’s low-residency MFA program in poetry, where she has been on faculty since 2002.
BE NEAR ME
Bleating, as you are, just under
the sound of starvation,
I want to give you anything
plainly—string or makeshift scripture,
the ball of torn grass
that seems to stand for you.
And if I make a nest
or cathedral or stack of split
and kindred doors.
If I pleat my skin so you might
reach without blanching,
blanking the hard white sun
that’s stuck, somehow, between
your raw house
Anchored and lost,
Anchored and lost.
When I say tell me how it is,
I mean the dark under the dark.
When I say be near, I mean please fall
and skin something please.
Once, she was a bride in recurring diorama,
A rub of phosphorescence, two small sparking shoes.
What was her groom, exactly? I mean,
What was he to her—that double-blue suit?
At most a faster hammer, a warmer syllable
Than the nests of small potatoes or the straw
Ticking where she crouched to watch a mouse
Counting her father’s teeth. Perched beautifully
On his white cheek. She’d never been that close
This is how a wedding starts, sometimes,
And sometimes with smoke—curling,
Pitching, and no one able to find the doors, a sharp edge
To prick the scenery, the bolstering, the lie of it.
She’s crawling for the ladder. He’s scarlet with faith,
All his angles igniting.
In the straw of her first bed, her fingers itched
To touch anything. A father, a mouse.
The itching itself. To recast the small crippling thing
Alive in her. A last resort then.
A target, a scheme. Something nearer than summer
Or the tainted stream. In the straw,
She was a manger, the manger of herself.
Magnificently lonely. A cluster of perfect sins.
Before she was a bride, she was her whole self.
She doesn’t know she’s always known the way.
Morro Bay, California, 1974
It takes effort to lie to yourself like that,
turning over a sand dollar and not thinking
how the sea is one long suck on the black rock out there,
the sky gone gray then just gone.
We hadn’t learned to swim. Didn’t know how tired you could
get that way, your limbs taking on a taffy feeling
as the waves pawed and stretched
and took the sea lions off
replacing them with a little foam.
We’d never seen the ocean,
never felt wrinkled beach sand—how sad it was—
on our feet, never slept alone,
never wept for any of it or felt the horseshoe crab
tap its message on a paper cup,
paper palm turned up.
And then there were the fish alive
in a soup of moonlight, thrashing out of the bucket,
hurling their crushed silver at the other dying fish,
sexing themselves to death and making foam.
We had to walk on our cold hands to find them,
herding them back to the bucket.
How this was fishing I couldn’t tell you,
only that we ate the little envelopes of their bodies
with salt and breadcrumbs and drove home on mountain roads
tumbling through sleep salt-white, and salt-gray