Poem of the Week, by William Butler Yeats

IMG_5657This was back in the days of dial-up modems with their squealy screechy sounds. The first line of the first review of my first novel came shimmering up on that clunky old computer screen: “First time novelist tries but fails to move or matter.” 

Or matter.”

I sat staring at the screen, my little kids looking at me silent and troubled, knowing something was wrong. I turned to them and smiled. I laughed about the review, pretended I didn’t care. But the photo above is what I typed into my journal that night.

This is not a story about a writer who got a bad review – all writers get bad reviews. Nor is it a story about a plucky young woman whose novel went on to win a bunch of awards so haha. It’s a tiny story that stands in for a much larger story of casual, ongoing cruelty in a world in which those two words –or matter–should never be written by a human being about another human being. 

Those two words broke something in me a long time ago that can’t be fixed. That’s what cruelty does. When judgment rears its ugly head inside me, as it does way too often, I recite the last two lines of this poem to myself.


He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven, by William Butler Yeats

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
enwrought with golden and silver light,
the blue and the dim and the dark cloths
of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

For more information on Yeats, please click here.

Twitter and Instagram: @alisonmcgheewriter 


From the archives, in honor of Lissa

All day today I kept returning to the photo of an old friend, lying in a bed pushed against a bank of windows in her house. Her husband sat in a chair and leaned over the side of the bed, her son held one of her i.v.-tubed hands and her daughter the other. She was smiling and so were they. The photo was taken yesterday morning, on the last full day of her life as her long and mighty battle drew to a close. No one who knew her was left untouched by her grace, her dark humor, her ferocious love of being alive. She left nothing unsaid. All those she loved knew they were loved. If energy remains constant, then she is still with us. From the archives, in honor of Lissa.

* * *

You get a reminder of it sometimes, when you walk by a house being built. Or when you’re tearing out a wall damaged by one of last winter’s ferocious ice dams. Or when your electrician friend comes to put in a new outlet in the room that has only one.

Touring a factory can do it too. A brewery, for example. The cavernous rooms, the grind and hum of machinery, the rattle of conveyor belts, the machines that fill the bottles, the giant vats of beer, the sour smell of fermentation.

Followed by the sight of perfectly packaged six-packs: brown bottles in their bright boxes, silently stacked on shelves. You see them in the store and, unless you consciously remind yourself, you forget where they came from. You don’t think about the mess, the grind, the chaos of their beginning.

When the wall of the house is torn open, it’s impossible to forget. Rough lathe and crumbled old plaster, newspapers from 1945 stuffed inside for insulation. Electrical cords writhing their way in twisted bundles up and down between floors.

If you hover in the room when the electrician is working on the outlet, watching and waiting, you will see sparks fly, the tiniest of fires.

This too will remind you of what is beneath the surface. All these reminders, all the time, should you choose to notice them: there is another life alongside this life.

Now you’re thinking of when writing is the easiest, which is when you’re not thinking. Your fingers are just tap-tapping away, and words appear on the screen and you look at them with interest, as if they were written by someone else.

Were they?

An image appears in your mind: a little bracelet made of red plastic beads next to a blue child’s ring. These were the treasures that you and some of your friends in fifth grade played King of the Mountain with one brief winter week. The snow piles at the elementary school were so high that year that you dug snow caves into them, made snow roads on top of them.

You buried the jewelry and searched for it. Why this game was so entrancing you don’t know, but all of you were entranced. Then came the day when the jewelry couldn’t be found, and the game ended.

The thing is, though, it’s still there. That red plastic bracelet, that little blue ring: they are still out there. Probably feet under the ground in the grass by the side of the red brick elementary school, but there.

All these years –almost your whole life, at this point– you have thought about them. The red bracelet. The blue ring.

Nothing goes entirely away. Some part of it stays.

Look at that small, square brown pillow with a pattern of leaves needlepointed on top. It was the first thing that caught your eye just now when you looked up. It’s carefully placed by the armrest of the couch in this room. Your grandmother made that pillow.

You look at it and she immediately fills your mind. You can hear her voice. You can see her hand, arthritic fingers and ropy veins. Now she’s laughing. Now she’s urging more raspberry popover and ice cream on you.

Doesn’t this mean that she’s still here? That some part of her is still with you, like the silent, unseen electricity running its way up and down every wall of this house?

Yesterday, a lovely day when the outdoors was made indolent by the sun, you passed two girls and a boy, late teens all, sitting on a stone bench by the lake. Laughing. Tugging down the shoulders of their tanks, flexing their biceps, each insisting their muscles were the biggest.

You wanted to stop and watch them, they were so beautiful. Smooth, smooth brown skin, white teeth, dark hair tied back. You walked away from them, listening to their easy talk. You tried to picture them fifty years hence, what they would be like then, if they would still know each other, still be together.

Then you imagined the bones and blood and ligaments and arteries just under the surface of that silken skin, how it is there right now. Hidden. Invisible. Doing its silent work.That shadow world, indivisible from the outer one in which we move. A world of spirits and memories, things you once held. The world where the stories begin.

Sometimes you get a glimpse of it. The torn-open wall, a presence on the stairs, a long-lost voice come whispering into a dream. Your grandmother, and that one line in that one letter: “What a beautiful life we had.”

Sometimes, falling asleep or waking up, there is the sensation of something just out of reach. A familiar stranger with you, hiding his face amidst a crowd of stars.

– and hid his face among a crowd of stars

When she was a girl she built a treehouse in the giant maple. She wanted to be high up, above the earth. There she lay on the wooden platform, looking up into the green leaves. She carved her name on a limb and watched as, over the years, the tree fattened around her initials, finally absorbing them.

tire-swing1This was in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains, in far upstate New York, where on summer mornings she walked down the road to see the sun rise over the fields. When she grew older she chose a college in Vermont, in the Green Mountains, because it was the most beautiful place she had ever seen. She wanted to live there, those silent mountains rising around her, turning themselves to flame in the fall.

All her life she has loved to hike. Up the mountains and then down, but not before standing on the summit and looking down at the rivers and valleys and towns below. No sound but the wind, whooshing about her.

She used to call her sister Oatie with her location, in a haphazard, human GPS-ish way, before starting up the trail.

“It’s me,” she would say. “I’m at the base of such and such mountain. If you don’t hear from me in eight or nine hours, you can start to worry.”

The rhythm of an upward hike through greenery, twigs and leaves snapping underfoot, trail winding steeply ahead, calms her like nothing else, soothes her highstrung nature and sets her mind free. Some of her best conversations take place in the mountains, back and forth between her mind and some invisible presence.

Wide open treeless spaces scared her, and had scared her as long as she could remember. Giant parking lots, shimmering with heat under the sun. Wide flat treeless land. A photo of a Kansas horizon, flat land stretching forever, could make her turn away, inwardly shudder.

Mountains were like shoulders, shrugging their way up from the vast living body of the earth. Sheltering. Someone like her could live in a valley among mountains and feel herself hidden and safe, while knowing that anytime she wanted she could strike out for the summit and be standing above what felt like the entire world.

She wanted always to live among mountains.

But she moved far away, to Minneapolis. At first, she refused to believe that she was living so far from mountains. She charted a hills course through the city, and when people came to visit she would drive them or bike with them on her personal Hills of Minneapolis course.

“See?” she would say, zipping up Dupont just above the Walker Art Center.  “This is a hill!”

“See?” she would say, zipping down 54th by Penn. “This is a hill too!”

She didn’t leave the city much. When she did, she avoided those wide flat lands, those lands that wild winds sometimes came writhing through, snatching up cars and houses and flinging them about at maniacal will. Snow that drifted forever, covering up roads and fences.

“Nowhere to hide,” she tried to explain to a midwestern friend once. “Nowhere to take shelter.”

Nowhere her thoughts could smooth themselves out, be free of her clutching mind.

“But the plains are beautiful,” the friend said. “Endless and rolling, like the ocean.”

She could not see it. She wanted those mountains back. Sometimes she subdued a sense of panic. The plains are not beautiful, she would think. They scare me. Get me out of here.

Now she wonders if she ever gave them a chance, back then. She has lived on the plains for more than twenty years now, and it’s only recently that she has begun to see them, really see them. She charts the change to a road trip she took a couple of years ago, following Route 12 from Minneapolis to Montana. She looked forward to Montana – the mountain part of it – but thought of the drive out as something mostly to be gotten through. Flatness to be endured, in order to get to the good part.

But, a couple of hundred miles west of the city, something changed. She looked out and saw not emptiness, treelessness, but a land of silent majesty as profound as the particular kind of stillness she sought at the summit of a mountain.

Her sense of this land shifted from what it lacked – lack of trees, lack of mountains, lack of shelter – to what it held, which was fullness. Soil that could grow anything. Miles of prairie with grasses taller than her, undulating in the wind.

If mountains are the shoulders of the earth, then the plains are its belly and breasts, its long, curving flanks. Had she turned away from these plains for so long because all she could see was what they weren’t?

She imagined herself on top of a mountain, looking down at the earth spreading itself to the horizon, and she felt her own self changing, widening out, able finally to encompass both the mountain and the plains.