Two Poems by Michael McFee
Now risers and treads aren’t steps I rush up
or down in a rackety headlong blur,
running late to another class or meeting,
but a question of acclivity and declivity,
a cliff of receding slopes to figure out
with a less certain foot and eye and brain.
I saw Weldon below me in the stairwell,
each looming step a slow deliberate event.
Stopping beside him on a landing, gently
touching his elbow, I said, “Are you okay?
Can I help in any way?” He turned to me
and smiled, shaking his bald dizzied head:
“Oh Michael,” he said, his hand on mine,
“I’m just old. And there’s no help for that.”
Today I’m the one reaching out to touch
grimy iron banisters as I trudge vertically
on a staggered series of ledges, pausing
to recover my balance before resuming
the hairpin zigzag diagonals, self-ascending
or -descending inside this echoing well
of stairs, a case of stairs that must be solved.
How good it was to coincide with Randall
in the stairwell, headed down to teach
or up to office hours, hailing each other
in that fluorescent dimness, our alternative
to a student-crowded elevator: sometimes
we’d pause to gossip, or to tease each other,
his playful face blossoming into smiles,
our laughter filling that dingy space before
it was time to wave goodbye and disappear.
The way up is not the way down, no matter
how profound that paradox may sound.
The way down—to floor after fainting again
and falling and being stretchered by EMTs,
to door exiting building, to idling ambulance,
to grave—is the way out: gravity haunts us,
it hunts our bodies, it grounds us in the end
no matter how hard we try to stay upright,
to avoid that dreaded slip or trip or tumble,
that fatal misjudgment of a too-deep step
on a flight of stairs leading to our final level.