the museum of americana

a literary review

Four Poems by Claire McQuerry


In those tangled years, I’d refresh the page obsessively—drawing
and re-drawing boundaries, clicking—as if each opened tab
held an answer to my pain. So many things had seemed possible

until nothing was, the recession inseparable from my own failure.
What I wanted was an address: a doorbell, a ledge on which
to grow orchids. What belonged to me then but longing—

a catalog with corners bent to each room in which a future self
might come to rest, her life drifting down like the particles
in a righted snow globe. If the man I loved belonged

to that future, I couldn’t say. By then even love was foreclosure.
The fragile thing between us strained as the markets fell
to pieces. It wasn’t just the togetherness, it was the what and how,

the crossing the threshold to settled I couldn’t see. Who was I,
anyway, to want so much? Staircase, patio, trees draping
their green cocoons. I’d scroll and scroll as if tugging a line

strung with need, as if a house could save, our lives sleeved
in its weatherproof skin. I’d filter by zip code, lot size,
square feet, the screen a magic mirror, lit from within, glow

through which the impossible neared and nearly belonged to me.




Window, Northeast Pennsylvania

On clear days, you can see the ridge
only a small notch of which
has been clear-cut. The rest
could almost be called a view

of nature. It depends on what
you choose to see. You have to lift
your gaze past the street, crazed by years
of ice; the convenience store’s

patchwork lot; the steel sign posts
with rusting bolts that once held up
the price of gas, that now bracket air,
a tableau of the street’s despondency:

the leaning telephone poles whose wires
play cat’s cradle, the old miners’ houses,
aslant, tarnished with mold; the wasted
lawns. This town only changes

as stone changes, depleting
by degrees, rooted fast in the earth
and in what lies below it,
the sealed off tunnels long-ago plumbed.

Above the bend in the road,
hills of similar houses, the highway
glittering like a seam of anthracite,
the red and green neon of a truck stop,

smoke from one of the last factories.
Past that, a strip of trees, blue
with distance, climbs the ridge,
along which a line of wind turbines,

usually invisible in its curtain of clouds,
spins the future by seconds,
round those enormous blades.




Morse’s Code

On the occasion of his eldest daughter’s marriage,
Morse crafted a secretary desk from mahogany
and satinwood. The marvelous drawers slid open
as if on ice, each a cradle of differing size:

one that might hold no more than several
spools or thimbles laid end-to-end, another flat
and broad enough to nest a ledger. Morse planed
the mahogany by hand and matched the dovetails

snugly with a chisel. Because at that time,
Puerto Rico—where Susan was going—
had no banks, Morse gave the desk false
compartments, sliding panels, boxes within boxes.

He cast brass pulls and hinges with scrollwork
the sheen of Susan’s hair. He glazed the wood
with shellac. There was nothing like it anywhere,
that desk. It may have been his last work of art.

He’d sold The Muse, his daughter’s portrait, three
years earlier; he’d already relinquished his brushes
for good. (Today, that portrait hangs in the Met’s
early American wing, its brightest parts are

Susan’s left shoulder, the blank page beneath
her hands; the light falls on these, or perhaps—
it isn’t clear—emanates from them). I don’t know
how the desk survived the shipwreck in which

Susan drowned on her return, when she
left the husband’s plantation, finally, forever,
or how the desk came to my great-grandfather’s
ranch in California. It remained there for decades

accumulating ballpoints, and paperclips,
and other prosaic artifacts—though nothing filled
the tombs of the hidden compartments but a faint
scent of rot. I know how the desk was lost again,

but that’s another story. Nothing could replace it.
I’d recognize that desk anywhere, Dad said, years
later, when we saw it on a televised antiques auction.
The auctioneer didn’t say—for how could he know?—

that when loneliness closed its lead cloak around her,
a woman would lay her head against the silky
surface, a surface with the sheen of wet stone.
She dreamed a hidden cabinet for regret, another

for the blades of rage she couldn’t loose. Too much
light in that place, raining its needles through the quiet
shutters, knots of the curtain lace. All lost. The desk
itself spoke a code from father to daughter—

the artistry plain as dashes and dots, though there’s
no one left, on either end, to give those symbols
voice, to call back the source: the words, which are
themselves only substitute for what’s not.




Poem Ending with Duvet

When a friend takes you to her friend’s house
& the crowd in the kitchen’s drinking spritzers
& smoking electric cigarettes,

you retreat to the yard, which is smaller
than the living room, & search out a moon,
given the sky has been bleached of stars.

The grill’s covered neatly, the patio swept.
What is home to someone else
feels blank. A cinderblock wall,

the rooftops of other houses beyond it.
Someday the couple will trade up for a hot tub
in place of decorative rocks, a bigger grill,

the right kind of next. You remember a little
jingle—We’re your home supplier.
We’ll be with you for life
—which sounds

more sinister than nice. “Nice” is everything
new & alike, clean. Inside, the friend exclaims
over drapes, something grapey

& damask. Standing here, at the edge
of a stranger’s life, makes strange
the fact of a life at all, the wanting

like blades of a well-watered lawn.
If you could somehow unzip the surface,
lift it off, a slipcover over a more real

where— Sometimes it’s as if there’s
something flickering at the periphery
but then you turn & see only smoke,

a few moths striking the security lights
into moth oblivion, & the screen door
slides open. Come in! your friend says.

Lisa’s going to show us the redone master suite.

Claire McQuerry’s poetry collection Lacemakers won the Crab Orchard First Book Prize, and her poems have appeared in Tin House, Poetry Northwest, Fugue, Waxwing, and other journals. She is an Assistant Professor of English at Bradley University.