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Capacity



Awards: National Book Awards - Finalist

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About The Author

James McMichaelJames McMichael

James McMichael is the author of five books of poetry, including The World at Large: New and Selected Poems, 1971–1996. Among his awards are a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Writers’ Award, and the Shelley Memorial Prize.

photo: Cindy Love

Awards

National Book Awards - Finalist

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EXCERPT

THE BRITISH COUNTRYSIDE IN PICTURES

The frontispiece fixes as

British

a man whose

livelihood is the grass. As he had

before the take and

since,

he plies away in the sun.

"Market Day."

Storefront awnings slope into the square.

Among the occupied,

only the vendors are without hats.

Well-fatted,

sweet and full of pickle are the hooked gibbets of

beef above the pens.

The plate after

"Tractors on Parade" is untitled.

Where the village high street’s

walls converge at the far end,

a motor-car has entered and parked.

Pictured empty in another,

the new Great West Road has working

fields to either side. In the one format,

affordable and bound print by print,

grass advances as a factor

never to be run out of by a

people at home.

The farmer is to be seen as having at last put

dearth right.

Nature was on its

own side always. Necessary

against nature sometimes to forbear from making

more mouths to feed.

With the poorest twelfth begetting

half the nation,

the interests of soil and

race were served

by the politics of the straight furrow.

In the countryside

alone it was that one was spared meeting

the less right sort of girl.

Need.

It had become at last what only

others knew,

even if they were in one’s midst.

Outside in

Kenya,

Madras,

Shaanxi,

Quixeramobim,

nature had put in place

disastrous shortfalls,

need and epidemic,

nature had played out

Ireland again.

Of those invisible millions who were gone,

nothing was missing.

Nothing was missing

for them. There without need,

they were the revenant in England’s garden,

they were the ones whose absence is their sign.

Of the unperceived who keep

safehold where they hide,

vision is a forgetting.

The British were those whom nature let bring home

as graveclothes to the ones it starved

arboreal and floral plantings.

England was green.

There belonged

ill-matched to many their likely

allotments of soil.

Across the range of them from

kitchen-gardens to pleasance,

these were not brandished. They were kept up.

While there were throwback native

cottagers who grew potatoes,

a weekly show on

gardening was aired.

All crystal sets picked up the BBC.

Because those grounds least frequented

were grounds where need was least,

of most

avail was a garden if

no one was there.

The walled reserve was model.

Its expert and only

viewers were staff.

What showed above the fine clean tilth was

surplus.

From its abounding

beds each day,

staff saw to it

for one:

by the garden’s having made an

excess of nature,

nature was trumped.

Need had been made less natural.

Replaced was the old

productive ideal that the useful

good was desired.

The desired good was

useful in the new ideal.

Things become useless in the hoarding of them.

Needed for a nation’s

surfeit of goods were buyers

primed by their wanting. Desire’s

deputy

was the person in love.

An appetite need not slacken if what one

craves is the scarce,

and there is but the one beloved

only.

No hunger

feeds so on itself

as being able

never to have one’s fill of someone prized.

They had become friends.

It would not have

occurred to him that she did not

love him. Of

course she did.

Friends love one another.

It began to explain his finding now that

along with love she also

gives him desire. Under something the

sway of which is undue,

in love with her,

he learns that he has had cleared

inside him

a constructed

garden-like place.

He practices his absence

as the stilled reflecting surface of its pool.

With features of her person in his

stead there,

to what is not its

own anymore in wanting

the self is sent

back by the other.

Far enough beyond

reason already is any

one such transport. Improbable

twice over

that with the same conclusive keenness

she should want him.

He looks for cues that

he too had given

her desire.

They are not there.

There is the coming

war to think of as well.

With conscription on its way,

better to be no more than

genial with her for now.

That is why it is her

suitcases he reaches for when he

meets her at the St Pancras train.

Right from the start he is off ahead of her

efficiently down the platform.

Against him from behind,

her fingers have it in them

that she will have to break away

too soon again for her return north.

Out of her greeting hand on his

back he walks.

For no longer than withdrawal

itself takes,

her touch had been there.

Wondering at its light

circumspect grace,

he does not mistake its bidding. What

she wants

he can from this time on want

for her. There can be no

help for them now since what

she wants is him.

Made nearly

bearable by desire is one’s not being able to

withstand the desired.

The hurried meetings follow.

Their wanting one another comes to take on

greed as its base.

From the next moment between them

least likely to be surpassed

they carry

away from one another into their days away

more wanting.

It will be weeks.

To be with her

through them instead. If they could be already

beyond the war and

years on,

they might have lives.

Whole patches of days would have to be

discordant, humdrum.

Rote would help them through.

Given ordinary times to

lift her from,

have her lift him,

he would have come to

preside with her over their chances. Around them

everywhere was the petition that

dailiness might hold its gracious own.

Toward it came

sandbags on the corner pavements.

Post office pillar-boxes were rigged with

gas-detecting paint.

The mask itself smelled of rubber. What one saw

first through its eyeshield was one’s own

canister snout.

Leaflets from the Lord Privy

Seal’s Office were

"Evacuation: Why and How"

and "If the Invader Comes."

So the enemy might

lose themselves in their confusion, the stations’

signposts came down. There were now

barrage balloons overhead

and searchlights.

The Anderson shelter was

corrugated steel.

It needed a garden to be sunk in.

Two million more acres were to come under the plough.

Collected for their great trek

out of the city,

the children walked

"crocodile" to the trains,

a loudspeaker telling them,

"Don’t play with the doors and

windows, if you don’t mind, thank you."

Villages and towns were to accept a number

equal to their populations.

Each child had a pinned label.

Excerpted from Capacity by James McMichael.
Copyright 2006 by James McMichael.
Published in edition, 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

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