Puzzling Through Life with “A Long Time to Be Gone”

Deeply exploring humanity and existence’s delights and oddities, Michael McFee’s A Long Time to Be Gone is the portrait of a speaker keenly aware of the world around them and their place in it. It bears astute reflections about North Carolina life, nostalgia for family long gone, and quiet observations about current events such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Occasionally, its speaker even embraces death-positive ideas about mortality and stands in wonder at the unknown that comes after a life well lived.

The collection’s initial poems humorously and philosophically tackle the one process which all humans share — aging. The opening poem, “Brother Ass,” declares, “That’s what Saint Francis called his body, / an obstinate donkey.” These humorous, initial lines segue into deeper, individualistic reflections about the way humans use and abuse their bodies. The speaker declares, “I mortified my body for half a century / by simply ignoring it.” They acknowledge they took strength and endurance “for granted.” The aging process becomes a comic tragedy as the speaker states, “that’s what pack animals do,” and reflects that aging is an inevitable process which, as one grows older, “brays, baring crooked yellow teeth” that humbles each person accordingly.

In the poem “Please,” the speaker embraces a Caitlin Doughty-like death-positive attitude. The inevitable experience of death — another process that humanity shares yet encounters and succumbs to differently — is the poem’s conversation piece. In this poem, the speaker commands what should be done with their ashes: “take what’s left of me, desiccated stormcloud / of bonegrit inside a weight bag inside a box, / up the high way to Pisgah or Craggy Gardens.” Instead of a daunting, terrifying void, death becomes a new means of experiencing the world and a transformation of being — for both the deceased and those who survive. The speaker’s directions about what to do with their ashes give their loved ones a purpose in death’s aftermath, while the speaker’s ashes become one with nature and develop a new role in the biological world.

Because of its focus on the COVID-19 pandemic’s ravages on the individual, an Appalachian region, and the globe, A Long Time to Be Gone parallels other Appalachian collections such as Kari Gunter-Seymour’s Alone in the House of My Heart. “Puzzles” possesses a light, humorous tone. The puzzles are a “way to pass stranded blurred-together weeks.” The puzzles, and how the speaker solves them, are also representative of an individual’s navigation of the pandemic. For many, the work-from-home situations blurred with other family responsibilities, such as virtual school for children, which they solved via trial and error. The poem concludes with the speaker and their partner “continuing the search for another pastime / to help us puzzle our way to the other side.” Interestingly enough, the following poem, titled “The Other Side,” again utilizes a simple daily act as a metaphor for experiencing the pandemic.

“The Other Side” opens with the speaker’s assertion, “We’re all taking an overlong nap.” The speaker observes that, collectively, the “we” were not ready to take a nap and “fought it hard, hard.” For some readers, these images of resistance might conjure images of mandate-resisting, mask-refusing MAGA acolytes declaring that their individual rights surpassed the need to protect others. The speaker’s usage of phrases like “red-faced” perpetuates such images. The poem’s structure plays an integral role in its messaging. It alternates between longer, image-packed three-line stanzas and looser one-line stanzas which make the poem “contract” and mimic the emotional, societal, and political undulations endured during the pandemic’s first few months.

Poems like “Skull Orchard” take on a more serious, philosophical voice but continue the collection’s focus on mortality. It is a dark poem, where the speaker ponders how death blends with life in a single space. Simultaneously, it reminds readers of life’s fragility, and how the border between life and death can be crossed without one having the time to notice.

By the collection’s end, the allusions to saints once again march in, most notably in the poem “Portrait of the Poet as Saint Jerome.” Again, the speaker’s humor creates a noticeable opening:

No wonder I look miffed:
all I wanted to do today
was sit here at my desk
in a dazzling crimson robe.

The speaker’s lone desire is to write, but distractions abound. The poem reads in a meditative, prayer-like manner thanks to its simple nine-stanza structure. Most notable are the four lines that center the poem:

Christ is exsanguinating
on a black cross outside,
His gaunt body ruining
my view of the world.

A Long Time to Be Gone is the kind of poetry collection one curls up with on a Saturday afternoon. It’s inviting and contemplative, and it reads like sitting down with an old friend to discuss the wears, the tears, and the laughable absurdities life offers. Like Dan Veach’s notable collection Lunchboxes, A Long Time to Be Gone offers readers accessible, human, poetry that remind readers that life is a puzzle being put together one day at a time.

A Long Time to Be Gone
By Michael McFee
Carnegie Mellon University Press
Published December 20, 2022