Michael McFee: A Long Time to Be Gone | Carnegie Mellon University Press  |  December 2022

A Long Time to Be Gone reading | Wednesday, April 5, 6:30 p.m.  |  Letters Bookshop, Durham

Life is full of everyday wonders, and Michael McFee seemingly notices them all.

It’s apt that A Long Time to Be Gone, the title of his latest collection, centers on time, a topic the book explores in both serious and playful ways. Part philosophy, part tongue-in-cheek, McFee’s writing tends to the humanity of the ways that time humbles us as we age. In a comically titled poem called “Hnnnh,” he details “an involuntary exasperation geezer noise” coming from “an old man’s mouth,” only to realize, in the end, “wait: that’s my grunting now.”

Aging walks hand in hand with nostalgia; as one’s body changes, one can’t help but remember how “I mortified my body for half a century / by simply ignoring it / taking a strong back and endurance for granted.”

McFee is an Asheville native, a Durham resident, and a longtime writing professor at UNC-Chapel Hill; his newest collection of poetry is his 12th. His signature voice finds new ways to introduce us to the delights of everyday life and living in North Carolina. Published in late 2022, and divided into four mostly unnamed sections, McFee ponders topics that have felt particularly acute the last few years: aging, mortality, and how to contemplate the world and community around us in new ways.

The first section delves into family and aging, with a wry sense of humor that reminds readers how as life passes, sometimes you barely recognize yourself in the mirror. McFee compares his own hair’s “disappearing act” to his neighbor’s balding Maltese and remembers a youth defined, in some ways, by the “nonchalant ability to make his body / do exactly what he wants.”

But aging, for all its humorous quirks, is irrevocably tied to mortality, and McFee aptly weaves the two together, laying bare the stress of aging and ill parents while pondering what comes next, with language rich with references to ghosts, angels, the afterlife, and heaven. He details his experience in a parking deck after visiting his father in the hospital with lines that toe the balance of beauty and grief: “ghosts of exhaust and rubber, of piss and cigarettes / haunt the tiered cave.”

Later, McFee’s survey of the early pandemic takes root in Durham. He explores the loneliness of isolation and how the little things mattered so much when the world shut down. He reflects on memories of crowded restaurants before the pandemic, describing companionship as a “much needed relief from loneliness.” 

The poem “Festival” offers a nod to the collection’s namesake, remembering a festival from before the pandemic and what community meant in that space, ending with the line “Got a short time to stay here. And a long time to be gone.” Living is bound up in the small things, and so it is the small things that McFee finds himself missing.

North Carolina’s past and present play an ever-present character as well, including memories of his childhood home and a dream of being buried in Appalachia. McFee taps into our state’s diverse history and geography in these ruminations, and Durhamites may particularly appreciate timely references to Parrish Street as Black Wall Street, the tobacco warehouses “gone or gone to condos,” and the historical stature of the North Carolina Mutual building.

Sometimes, time isn’t kind, like when we see parts of our cultures disappearing or when our bodies don’t behave like we’d want them to. Many of us became increasingly aware of our mortality during the pandemic, though embedded within that reckoning is the subtle reminder that it’s the quotidian things, sometimes, that make life more worthwhile. 

McFee finds art in the everyday experiences that many of us overlook, and A Long Time to Be Gone is an invitation to slow down and notice too, to take in moments like our dogs drinking from their bowls and apples that are like “a sunset yellow / glowing beneath ruddy skin … waiting for me.”

McFee also recalls childhood in vivid detail, and ponders what comes after death—but it’s in the in-between, the everyday, where McFee’s magic blooms best. It’s an invitation we should all accept.

Comment on this story at arts@indyweek.com.

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