Nathan McClain

Author’s Note: At the end of July 2018, I served two weeks on jury duty in Kings County, New York. The charge was attempted murder, the defendant a young, black male. However, I was selected for jury duty as an alternate, meaning I would attend every session of the trial but when it came time to deliberate, I, and the other alternates, would have no input on the potential verdict, would be placed in a separate room altogether during the deliberation. The “alternate” poems that follow (part of 14-poem sequence thus far) seeks to interrogate the numerous challenges of that experience.


They said I was an alternate


They called an officer as a witness
They called an officer as a witness
They called an officer as a witness
They called another officer as a witness
and another, yes, an officer
Knock, knock  Who’s there  An officer,
of course  (Can I get a witness)
They called one—an officer  It was
like watching the saddest floats of a parade pass
They called an officer as a witness
and again, instructed us  You sit
there now, like good little children, 
and listen  Listen good, children, they said,
as if we might soon be tested



They said I was an alternate,


but that’s all
behind me now
Today, I’m around the table
with friends, finally
 Dungeons and Dragons
night, building
a character
for a campaign
that will likely kill me
I hardly talk
about the old days anymore
The DM asks my name,
my backstory, my flaw,
which I have left to either
fate or chance
What’s the difference
In the end,
what damage there is is
largely psychic, is all
in the mind, which is
not to say imaginary
even in roleplay,
and I, for one, play
by the book
I roll the dice
I take what I get



They said I was an alternate


and looked closely
at the defendant,
the way a jeweler might
inspect what he’s been
sold to be a diamond,
then looked at me
again  They said,
Do you understand



Considering Sergeant Al Powell Now 30 Years Later


Fictional, sure,
but his story
is no different
from the others
A toy gun 
I didn’t know
And the boy
had no name
you could sew
into a tee shirt,
minor character
that he was,
Powell too,
who, I
should probably add,
was black
as steel-toed boot,
obedient as a Saint
Bernard or night-
stick, though what
else did I expect,
what had I paid
to see in this dark that
I hadn’t seen before


Nathan McClain is the author of Scale (Four Way Books, 2017), a recipient of fellowships from Sewanee Writers’ Conference, The Frost Place, and the Bread Loaf Writer’ Conference, and a graduate of Warren Wilson’s MFA Program for Writers. His poems and prose appear in New York Times Magazine, Poem-a-Day, The Common, upstreet, and The Rumpus, among others. He teaches at Hampshire College.