Poetry by Nancy McLelland
About Us Complete Works Eight Poems from Tuscarora Rat's Country

Rat's Country photo

"Rat's Country" is the name I have given these observations and images culled from my journals, the name chosen from the quote
above by Loren Eisley in his book: All the Strange Hours. At this point, all I want to do is to save them.
Some may become poems or starting points for creative nonfiction pieces.


I feel like a weak patient
who is being carefully
walked down a hospital
corridor by a sturdy,
competent nurse.
The weak patient part
of me is surprised
that I require so
much trained attention.
I will sit in the bottom of the pond with the
moss and bugs in the soft, rich ooze. What
is wrong with the underside of rocks, of
dark hiding places? Leave me alone.
How easy to bash
myself again
and again,
like a child whacking
a doll against the
fender of a car.


I feel like a
balloon, wasted,
shriveled, and even
in its glory filled with
nothing but air.

I notice how WIDE my buttocks
feel in this chair, my stomach a
package on my lap.
Good days:
I have a flexible wit,
to the
situation. I am kind, caring, bold sometimes. I have a great
imagination. I am a beautiful woman—today—who deserves
refinement, care, nurturing,
who should have manicures,
pedicures, exquisite clothing. I am
strong in my movements—today.
Inside is a rare spirit: intuitive
and deeply feminine, an ancient
priestess who could rule a
kingdom and read the stars..
Where am I when I rub my
eyes and blink? Same body
Bad days: It is a sorrow
when the world conspires to
make me feel awkward,
unimportant, lacking in grace.
On those days I am disguised
as a thick-waisted lumpenprole
with small affectations autistic
burst of knowledge, without
context, without training. Dress
a slab of bacon and it would look
better than I do—thick,
middle-aged, bird-faced, bad hair.
I have labored in the soul’s salt mines,
the cold Siberian winters of the spirit,
working in darkness, seeing silhouettes
of trees, black and bare. I have been
the guard walking my prison walls.
I can remember, but I
don’t have to go back.
That’s why I like reading
Thomas More so much.
He says over and over that
this is the soul’s journey:
the blocks, the detours,
the rubble, scree slopes,
the long boring
stretches of highway.
Accept that and
see the mystery in it.

Probably her husband will die
and leave her with lots of money
and she will have a pleasant,
comfortable remainder of her life.
She will dress beautifully, have a
charming, simple bungalow,
eat well, got to art films.

What is going to happen to me?
Bad haircuts, broad hips, ragged
fingernails, closets filled with old
clothes, dishes in the sink, grown
children with problems,
impulses of joy mixed
with gin and remorse..

Sometimes waking up
positive and cheerful
can seem as miraculous
as spontaneous healing
I feel good this morning.
I wonder if I should make icons
for my mood—sunny, partly
cloudy, rain—just to see
what my emotional weather
pattern is over the period
of a month.
I could no longer swallow
my resentments whole. The
heartburn was overwhelming.


If Grace Paley wrote me a letter, this is what she would say:

You are suffering from the angst of midlife.
I know you have awareness and strength and all that,
but I think you are brooding about the lost face, the youthful
attractiveness that went with you everywhere, even on the days you
felt fat and ugly. You are not one to romanticize those years,
but I sense you feel helpless, and a little chagrinned, about the way you look.

My advice? Nothing too profound.
The things that give you a lift—hold on.
What weighs you down—I don’t know what to tell you.

I understand it shouldn’t be so hard and I understand
that you are grateful that the wolves are not outside your door—
bad health, real tragedy. You are not one to scan the newspapers
or your friends’ lives for heartache, disappointments, and disaster.
As if those things make the trials of again any easier.
You get a little too fixated on worth. Look at me. My hair is a blown dandelion.
My body is square. But I write, keep busy. I have always rejoiced in my own sensibility.
You are that way too. Take care of yourself.

Don’t be frightened. Don’t be frightened...

Be compassionate
and know you will have
no trouble
distinguishing kindness
from self-indulgence



I feel like a

Red Cross volunteer,

likely to get shot

by either side.


Whenever I
come to a
one-way street,
I usually look
the wrong way first.




I feel lonely,
but I don’t.
That’s what is
strange about me.
I often carry two
sets of emotions,
like two sets of genitals.
It makes me feel freaky, weird.

I started
New Year’s Day
wearing a
cashmere sweater
and reading a
seed catalog:
luxury and hope..


Sometimes I feel like a
small town resides in my head.
Nosy neighbors, perverts,
beautiful girls, men mowing
lawns, and strangers passing
through. They show up in
my dreams. That’s the only
way I know they are there.

I am not going to sacrifice this time
in my life for this time in your life.

Falling off the wagon: this is what it is like:

You are the driver of this wagon, looking ahead, going down the road. You are also riding in the
wagon, sitting on a pile of loose hay. The road is straight, curved, smooth, bumpy,
all the things a country road can be. You keep falling off. You go along for a while and
then you fall off. Sometimes it is because of the rutted road, or maybe the team shies at a rabbit,
or the driver goes “gee-haw” without warming. Sometimes it is for no discernable reason.
You simply fall off the wagon.

You run to catch up, clamber back on, rearrange your body and your thoughts. It’s always a
feeling of satisfaction when you are safely back on the wagon, just you and the driver going
down the road. That always feels good. But the next thing you know, you have fallen off again.
You are surprised, irritated, frustrated. You have to catch up. Sometimes you panic that you
won’t catch up. Sometimes you stop in the road and say, “To hell with it. I didn’t want to be on
that wagon.” Then you have to run faster to catch up, get back on, just to be where you
were in the first place.

Watching you from a hillside high above the road is a comical sight. There’s a long road and
a driver and a team of horses pulling a wagon down a road. And there’s this person who keeps
falling and running, climbing on, riding a while, then falling and running.

From a distance, it seems like a hard way to get down a road.

If I had other lives to live?

I'd be a stern judge throwing
people in jail, left and right.

I'd be a Queen with
access to a guillotine.

I'd be a tiny mouse in a tiny
hole in the grass ,
somewhere in England,
living a short, frightened life.


Standing on the porch of the
first day of the rest of my life,
thinking it is dawn,
realizing it is

His face was about
six inches from mine.
He looked me right in
the eye and said,
"God , you're beautiful."
When I thought about it
later, it was a gift from
that old drunk. He didn't
say, "You used to
be beautiful."


I feel like I can imagine what is behind
that door. But I am on the outside
pushing, and have only
managed to open the door
enough to get a glimpse.
On the other side, keeping me out
of this beautiful room,
is a huge mean resentful me,
bolstered by every bad
influence in my life, pushing me
to keep me out. At this point,
I don't know if I can imagine
myself strong enough to
             get in there.

Sometimes my "issues"
make me feel like one of
those annoying people
who hums a tune
under her breath,
over and over.

I am watching Fergie on Oprah.
Fergie says, about living in
Buckingham Palace,
"You go to open a curtain
and you only open it this wide."
She hold her hand the width of a loaf
of bread. "All the curtains have to
be uniform so that when the tourists
look up at the windows they're all
the same. She pauses, then says,
"of course, it's maddening
and it makes you want to
throw open the curtains."

Scanning the photos to find myself.
Being disappointed when I see me,
a lumpy figure in a red shirt standing
by a rock. What did I expect?

You are not the only one.
People have to deal with these
things all the time. We have
to carry on conversations at the
same time when we are
pestered by lewd images.
We make perfect sense while
we swat the erotic thought.
It's amazing the way we can
hold such buzzing disparities
and stay sane.


What work it is to
maintain an
to be moderately happy,
fairly successful,
and not TOO fat.

Here's how doubtful
I can be: The light
turns green but I
hesitate, not sure
that I am really
to go.


I would like to have my life
organized and all my writings in a
black binder. The bills organized,
my clothes organized. Everything
filed, so I know where everything is.
I would like to have my past written
down, decided on. I would like my
positions on everything clarified, my
thoughts organized. And my hands,
I wish they didn't end in hangnails and
peeling, thin layers. I wish my hands
came to polished oval conclusions and
that my feet weren't rough on
the bottom.

I hate having to climb
steep embankments.
The clumps of grass come
loose in my hands
and my shoes fill with dirt.
I wonder how I got there,
ungraceful, undignified,
in the wrong shoes.


It was
when my friends turned the spotlight on me. Instead of feeling pleased,
I felt caught.

You toss a coin into a wishing well and then make a wish. You don't crawl into the well and live like a toad on the bottom.

My heroes
when I was a child?
Dogs and horses.
I wanted to be Lassie
and always know my
way home. I wanted to be
loyal and smart--and classy--a
collie or a palomino. I wanted to
be a tough little terrier not
afraid to bite the heels of
ruffians. I wanted to be
Black Beauty, rescued from
hardship and maltreatment,
turning out to be a real winner.


I'm telling you,
all other models
paled in comparison to the
dogs and horses of my youth.
Sure, I cut out photos of stars
in Silver Screen magazine.
Although I had lots of pictures
of red-lipped women with perms,
it seemed more likely that I
would turn into a dog than that
I would become Virginia Mayo
or even Esther Williams.

I would like a
love IV,
a slow, steady
flow of affection.


I was forty
before I figured out
that I was in

for myself
and needed managing.

It's like going to a pawnshop
and holding out a ticket
to reclaim myself. The
pawn broker says, "I own
most of you and you aren't
worth much anyway."


I think it would be
fun to design
a Jack-in-the-Box
so that what pops out
is your worst fear:
your boss, your ex-,
what you will look
like if you don't
go on a diet.

I do know I have 
earned what I do know.




Bad attitude day. Every day is a second chance to get it right?

Here's "getting it right." For you, every day is another chance to
look into the mirror and watch yourself get older and uglier.

Every day is a chance to repress the grief of wasted time, missed
opportunities, the mess-ups of your pathetic, insignificant life.

Every day is another chance to keep on not doing the things
you wanted to do until you can't even remember what they were.

Every day is another chance
to disappoint yourself
by breaking your own promises,
to listen to your own hollow pontifications.

Every day is just that.

When I am not worried about
dangers lurking behind every
bush and tree, I am concerned
about what I am leaving undone
that was important to do.
What have I lost but don't know
that I have lost and will need any
minute now: the keys to the car,
the checkbook, something to stop
the bleeding? What will be
revealed in the lightening bolt
of sudden change?


A meditation on lurking.
Think of the cartoon where the
private eye lurks
behind a tree in his trench coat
and fedora hat. The masked burglar,
too, lurks and then makes his move,
tiptoeing out of the house with the
silverware in a bag over his shoulder,
like a bad Santa. Danger lurks everywhere.
The passenger next to you on the flight
home has a bomb in his shoe.
No, it's not him. It's the granny
knitting in the train station
that you need to keep an eye on.


When you are a prisoner
and you are being transferred
from the courthouse to the
penitentiary, the guards walk
close to you. They box you in.
At least that's the way it is in
the movies. It's the same with
celebrities. Did you ever think
of that? But the prioner is a
bad person, guarded so she
won't get away to do more harm.
The celebrity is guarded
because she is precious and
must be protected.


Look, I am just trying to help myself get ready for an ordinary day. Isn't that amazing?

I am so tired of holding back
the impulse to be happy,
to enjoy my life.



Ordinary people don't
have to be guarded,
being neither particularly dangerous nor particularly valuable. So that is my problem. I swing from
sinner to star, at least
in my mind.

Are there people who wake up




about the poet | complete works | eight poems from Tuscarora | rat's country