by Michael McFee

Seven-inch standard the shrink fingers
as he asks about my sex life,
the lead in my pencil …

There is no lead in pencils anymore.

But maybe he’s speaking in a manner of speaking
since pencil does derive from pencillum
which is itself a diminutive
of penis, tail.

Or maybe he knows a hand completes a pencil
as a pencil completes a hand,
the focus of its fingers, its ideal digit,

shaft to the point of sketch words or lines,
the arrow of provisional thought.


Carpetbaggers saw pencils
in red cedar that survived the war intact —
fence posts, rails, log cabins, barns.

They bought to wood and shipped it north
to factories, then shipped the finished product
back south where no one could afford it.

Every Confederate obelisk is a pencil
writing remember on a Union sky,

and every pencil is an obelisk
branded with exotic gilt inscriptions —
Venus, Koh-I-noor, Blackfeet, Eagle, Ticonderoga,
Your Message Here.


Even the smoothest sheet
is sandpaper to fresh graphite points,
a file shearing off shavings,

a perfect excuse for the procrastinator
to grind pencils into sharpeners
until he has a fistful of bayonets
ready for the enemy,

until their tips snap under pressure
and he must rise to sharpen them again.

He tattoos each pencil’s facets
with teethmarks, as if his bite could bear
words from the mouth to the page.


Graded yourself, you graded us.
We broke the big test’s seal with your eraser,
riddled a standardized form with black holes
dug by a nervous #2,

prayed the key would somehow fit our guesses.

When you hit the floor, it was music,
a brief drum roll
that restored the bloody marrow to our bones.


You are made to be destroyed,
worn to a mortal stub
from rubber crown to always-broken heel.

Your drafts will smudge or fade or be erased
or finally inked over.

And yet how jaunty you look
tucked behind the ear, like a bright idea
on the verge of exclamation!


Aromatic candle
whose black wick I slowly burn,

your color is healthy caution,
your shape is home,

a cell
from the infinite hive of words.

Michael McFee has published five collections of poetry — Plain Air, Vanishing Acts, Sad Girl Sitting on a Running Board, Colander, and Earthly — and has a sixth forthcoming. He has also published two anthologies, The Language They Speak Is Things To Eat: Poems by Fifteen Contemporary North Carolina Poets (UNC Press, 1994) and This is Where We Live: New North Carolina Short Stories (UNC Press 2000). He has also collaborated with photographer Elizabeth Matheson on To See (North Carolina Wesleyan College Press, 1991). He currently teaches at UNC-Chapel Hill.

From Colander (1996, Carnegie Mellon University Press), © 1996 Michael McFee. Used by permission of Carnegie Mellon University Press.