James McKee ~ Four Poems


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 left unchecked 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
but us—

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-
dipped, which,
chin­kling for now in your pock­et,
will be bun­dled home, short‑, then long-list­ed, perused
the once,
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
but back—

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
after anoth­er,

is to acquire,
as a tem­po fit for our own occur­ring,
this flu­ent local rhythm
of, for some time now,
noth­ing mat­ter­ing.


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.


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.