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.