Two Poems by Michael McFee

A Grudge


She said, “You sure know how to hold a grudge.” 

Guilty as charged. That’s one skill my parents 

taught their children well, part of our heritage—

clutching a grudge tight, nursing a slight or insult

from kin or nearby clans who’ve dishonored us,

sipping its bitter spirits distilled out of sight

until the grievance explodes into a bloody feud

or simply turns inward, a private resentment

darkening the sore heart, a still-open wound 

we can’t seem to keep ourselves from poking, 

secretly pleased to suffer that unhealed hurt.


Grudge sounds like a kicked stray mutt growling,

its rough velar grumble ending in clenched teeth,

the aggrieved party grousing with every breath

while trudging forsaken ridges in stiff wind,

a grumpy descendent of gruesome highlanders

stirring the acrid sludge stuck inside his skull,

judging one by one by one the wrongs inflicted

on him, poor drudge, always the innocent party,

grunting as he stumbles on, plotting revenge.


How satisfying, to convert such indignities

and irritation into something smooth, a pearl

nobody beholds inside your homely shell,

its worry stone a slowly-growing treasure,

a roundness your fingers can’t stop rubbing,

polishing the surface until it finally gleams

like a moon whose cold flat light reminds you 

hate can be sweet and spitefulness endures.  

It’s Old Testamental: Thou shalt bear a grudge 

against thine enemies forever, if they deserve it.

It may be all you have, when you have nothing. 


The Stairwell


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.

Michael McFee is the author or editor of sixteen books, most recently Appointed Rounds: Essays (Mercer University Press, 2018). One of his poems in this issue, “A Grudge,” is from A Long Time to Be Gone, to be published by Carnegie Mellon University Press in October, 2022. A native of Asheville, and a recipient of the James Still Award for Writing about the Appalachian South, Michael teaches poetry writing at UNC-Chapel Hill.