James McKee enjoys failing in his dogged attempts to keep pace with the unrelenting cultural onslaught of late-imperial Gotham. His debut poetry collection, The Stargazers, was published in the spring of 2020, and his poems have appeared or are forthcoming in New Ohio Review, The Ocotillo Review, Illuminations, CutBank, The Raintown Review, Flyway, Saranac Review, THINK, The Midwest Quarterly, Xavier Review, and elsewhere. He spends his free time, when not writing or reading, traveling less than he would like and brooding more than he can help.
There were never many trains for us to take
and most are long gone by now.
The big arrivals board is blank. Or broken.
The help desk went dark hours ago.
That scruffy local crosses the decrepit hall
for another quick one at the bar.
He seems amused to find us still here, still spiked
on our droll illusion, departure.
Phone-faced children sprawl like flotsam. Another family
is escorted off: when you ask why, a uniform shrugs.
The woman feeding the trash pyramided over its bin
pivots away as it gently avalanches.
On the newschannel, floodscapes, char, a cataract
of protest. Heart attack orange splatters
map after map. Arrows knit cartel hierarchies
or evacuation routes. Red carpets fritter.
They’re garbling the announcements now, unless I’ve lost my ear
for the beige idioms of official disregard.
Adscreens on endless loop splash an ice-blue glow
that eases our passage from outraged to bored.
Your turn to luggage-sit, mine to scavenge a concourse
of forlorn boutiques. For some change, the soldier
with no legs offers the eye-contact I instantly regret.
If it’s too late, fuck it, his placard reads.
A Poem about Love (Not a Love Poem)
The best way to hold on to something is to pay no attention to it. The things you love too much perish. Dmitri Shostakovich
Around here, I never know how much I’ll have to care
when the next thing fails, or goes missing, or just ends.
For example, along the avenue I walk down every day
I don’t always have to notice that for every tree
there are far more ex-trees: thick amputated columns,
or stubby little stumps, or scraped plots of dirt
the color of cement, or squares of actual cement
where someone just said OK, enough with this. They pass like boxes checked on some medical form.
So many? That can’t be good.
There’s a way I go sometimes, not often, a sidestreet
I’d say I almost loved, if asked to name my favorite street,
though only children ask such questions and I don’t have kids.
And to admit it’s because of some tree, well, you can imagine
how that’d go. Still, it is why: one tall silver maple,
the grain of whose pewtery bark records how the trunk
arched away from the buildings and flexed up, out,
and over the street, reaching for light and space.
Its posture reminds me every time of Michelangelo’s Libyan Sybil,
though a quick image search shows no resemblance
beyond an excuse to remember a place where I was happy.
Which brings me to Shostakovich. His advice,
like most good advice, is inarguably true
and impossible to follow. Because I know
how one desolating day I’ll finally come upon that tree
freshly cut down, do I avoid this block, start the farewell now? No,
I just forget about it, like I forget everything except
the next thing I need to do and maybe the thing after that, and walk
anyhow, and go on finding myself there, low orange sun behind me,
the non-sybil still not cut down. Time again to wonder if I so love Rome
only because I can’t live there, and what love for his children
did to Shostakovich during the Great Terror, and how much
it has cost me to survive the violent love that is the opposite
of both pretended neglect and real neglect,
and when, at long last, our Earth will have had enough
of whatever it is—call it love—that goes on cutting down more
and more of the trees it didn’t even have to plant, along with those it did.
Off-Season Beach Takeaway
You’ve got to respect it, how at first the cormorants
pretend not to notice us,
each one perched atop
its pole, every dark-crested head now
as we approach, until,
out of subtly tensing postures
and a rippling flock-wide flutter,
they vault as one into flight, skimming
over wind-crisped cobalt water,
west over the bay, east over the sea, away from nothing
And so what, if there’s only some mirage of a project
to stoop us down into our cool indigo shadows,
scrabbling for shells that quote the sun, gold-
flecked, gold-spritzed, gold-lacquer-
chinkling for now in your pocket,
will be bundled home, short-, then long-listed, perused
then bottom-drawed, unthought-of, cracked, lost,
No regrets either when, in return
for dawdling along the braid of tidewrack
two miles farther,
its fossil-white driftwood, pecked-over
crab carapaces and scribbles of kelp
not only in no way differ,
but cost us that much more late-afternoon sun
hard at our faces for the walk
back, now that we’re walking back, since there’s no other way
Because what’s left for us at last,
after retracing our paths
out onto the tidal flats,
and sloshing ahead some more
through the onward gush of the current,
then just wading on past
while the prints of people, birds, a dog,
blur under one swipe from a wavelet
is to acquire,
as a tempo fit for our own occurring,
this fluent local rhythm
of, for some time now,
A Brief Loss of Momentum
I somehow seem to be leaving my apart-
ment late a lot these days, in fact pretty much
every time. I know it’s a bad habit,
but I’m OK with how it vectors me out
into this, the hive-roar of New York City,
plated afresh in that alloy of purpose
my oyster-shy life otherwise lacks.
There’ll be no swerves. No no-you-firsts.
None of the idle noticing that makes the tug
of analog vistas such a nuisance.
If it’s raining, as it is tonight, I’ll let
the onyx prongs of Manhattan’s overworld
outmenace the first Blade Runner’s LA
all they want, so long as my trajectory can arc
through its boulevards’ arterial spurt and throb
undeflectably. Like I said, a bad habit.
So now, with ant-black traffic slithering up Third,
a sift of pinpoint drizzle diffracts
lunar haloes from streetlamps, my cue to note
the contours of every hard thing diluted and blurred.
As my privileged pace sputters out, I must register
first the old woman with a walker hurrying
slowly across the avenue, who gets almost
halfway before the red hand starts flashing,
then the homeless man, no coat, no hat,
no shoes, who’s shaking a crumpled cup
at a river of umbrellas plunging past.
I’m crowded aside while I peer around,
wondering if I really care to know
how much of this might be other than it is
were I not of what keeps it so.
Which is what I get for slowing down.
The Silence Treatment
From beyond those shaggy pines our horizon crackles behind
you’d hear it—
a kind of smothered enormous indignant bellowing,
doing what shitstorms do—
if you listened.
So don’t listen.