The Family Laugh

by Michael McFee

for Miriam Marty Clark

On my way from the kitchen to the living room,
I heard you laugh while cooking and your mother
laugh while telling a story to the dinner guests

and it was uncanny, precisely the same sound,
an identical and inarticulate explosion of delight
at some absurd turn in the recipe or narrative.

I stood frozen between your matching happiness
just like the time I heard my cousin’s cackle —
its gentle unforced tone, its melodious cheer —

and shivered because it was just like Messalina,
my favorite fun-loving aunt, dead for many years
yet alive in the genuine mirth of her daughter.

What better legacy to leave my son than this?—
the family laugh, a manner of taking pleasure,
an antidote to poisonous genetics or habits,

the lethal words and looks and offhand guilt
I’ve given him without thinking; so that, one day,
somebody might hear him and his son laughing

in exactly the same way, at exactly the same time,
and hear a perfect echo of me and my parents
and all the unlikely generations of laughter

back up the Appalachians, across the dour ocean
to a place where joy was as precious as food,
all the way back to the original couple who saw

something in the garden that made them feel odd,
that inspired a sweet illogical noise, the first laugh.
It baffled the animals, but God saw that it was good.

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 Earthly (2001, Carnegie Mellon University Press), © 2001 Michael McFee. Used by permission of Carnegie Mellon University Press.