Reviewed by Luiza Lodder
The human reluctance to confront unpleasant truths constitutes the principal conflict of Wesley McNair’s poetic sequence The Lost Child. To honor his elderly and ailing mother, Ruth, and her Ozark origins, McNair crafts a constellation of stories and characters who silently avoid difficult emotions and problems. This conflict permeates McNair’s presentation of the fictional Sykes family, his imagery, and his approach to language.
McNair evokes the Sykes’ inability to express their emotions through stark visual cues, suggesting an unexamined acceptance of infirmity, domestic violence, and poverty. In “When She Wouldn’t” for example, the gravity of Ruth McNair’s secret foot pain unfolds through a depiction of her trying “to wash/ the black from her big toe [yet] could not/ because it was gangrene.” Similarly in “Graceland”, McNair treats the swinging arms of Aunt Mae’s abusive husband as part of the scenery, no more alarming than the “arms of the fan above…swinging.” Finally, in “Going Home”, McNair alludes to the abject poverty that plagues the Ozarks. He offers a Dust Bowl-era memory of Ruth as a girl “with her family in the truck…/…chairs tied to the roof and a dust/ storm swirling around them.” By casually and infrequently referring to this poverty and by downplaying the seriousness of disease and violence, McNair draws attention to the foundational (yet unacknowledged) hardships suffered by the Sykes family.
McNair’s language discloses his compassion towards the Sykeses and his filial devotion to Ruth while simultaneously trawling for uncomfortable images and realities. In the titular poem for example, his elongated sentences and rambling dependent clauses delay the poem’s essential revelation. At the poem’s close, his mother says, “I am/ the lost child, Mama,” in response to a query about the fate of a family member’s unplanned baby. Ironically, to her family, Ruth’s moment of lucidity sounds like senile babbling, but McNair understands its significance: his mother has verbalized a fundamental truth about herself and found words to express the sense of displacement and vulnerability that has hounded her all her life. This approach substantiates McNair’s talent for balancing compassion and bluntness without resorting to sentimentality. Instead of relying on the nostalgic filters that tend to characterize homages to loved ones, McNair empowers his mother and her beleaguered family through the words they could not say and the emotions they could not express. Thus The Lost Child strives not only to celebrate Ruth and her fictionalized family, but to understand them.
Steeped in this desire to understand unfamiliar points of view, McNair’s empathy for the Sykeses radiates throughout the collection. He weaves in and out of different minds to reveal individual anguishes with piercing clarity, dignifying his mother’s family and humanizing the inhabitants of this forgotten American backcountry home. In The Lost Child, McNair marries honesty with tenderness, voicing the sorrows of those too weary to speak in a poignant testament to the healing that results from communicating one’s truths.
Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 18, Issue 1.
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