Dull, bulky, previously owned, it was
usually tucked in my backpack
next to Algebra or Earth Science, and my gym shorts—
U.S. History. Some old scene drawn
on the cover. There was a teacher,
a classroom number, I was this
many years old. There was time, which was
set aside every day. I had a locker,
a combination. I sat at a distance
that softened the edges of white chalk
on the board (poor vision) though even
that didn’t make me much care to commit
the past to memory except to darken
the right bubble on the test sheet—
Christopher Columbus discovered
America in __________;
The Declaration of Independence
was first signed by ____________;
__________ assassinated Abraham Lincoln.
Answers were simple and dependable.
Black and white. You were remembered,
for better or worse, for what you did, what
you refused to do—every year, Rosa Parks
sat unmoved, Dr. King dreamed, and I
recorded it, as if for the first time. I’ve heard
textbook sometimes used to describe an act
as flat and predictable as a stretch
of country road—miles of the same
cow lying in cut grass, slowly chewing cud
with the effort or patience it might take
to grind the difficulty of any fact down.
Robert E. Lee surrendered at __________
to end the Civil War. At the end,
my mother once said, every battle
is lost by someone, has its casualties.
Bronze monuments erected
to the story, or some other,
some old scene just as dull and clunky.
Until __________, years before
I met my wife, I could have been
dragged off for simply glancing at her—
which I do often and too long. The moral?
Who knows? Maybe, if you’re lucky,
you outlive the usefulness of such knowledge.
Besides, it’s a new world. I own
The Riverside Shakespeare. Two biographies
of Coleridge. My shelves lined with the past
and its usual despairs. Its joys as well.
Sometimes I look. Sometimes
I get swept up in all the looking. There
is rain. Someone returns home.
A letter arrives with the expected news.
A cat, on the window sill, asleep.
My wife in a rocking chair. Quietly
reading. Everyone keeps asking when
we will finally have a baby,
because it’s a thing we can choose
now. I mean, how lucky is that?
Nathan McClain is the author of Scale (Four Way Books, 2017); his forthcoming collection, also with Four Way Books, will be published September 2022. He teaches at Hampshire College.