Campbell McGrath truly arrived on the poetry scene with the publication of his third book, Spring Comes to Chicago (1996), an ambitious, sometimes dizzying collection of discursive poems that melded the personal and public with confidence and humor. Here was a poet who was interested in popular culture not just as an antidote to seriousness (in the postmodern sense) but as a freshly Windexed reflection of our evolving values, priorities and distractions. The grandest of the poems in this collection was titled, simply, “The Bob Hope Poem,” not so much as a description of its content but as a suggestion of its irreverence. Bob Hope serves as a synecdochical touchstone in what turns out to be a symphonic (McGrath’s term, but an apt one) meditation on all things American, from money to meat to the inhabitants of People magazine. It’s a remarkable poem, one of the best produced by any poet of McGrath’s generation.
Still, for a lot of us, McGrath was an important poet straight out of the gate, six years before Spring Comes to Chicago, when he published his first book, Capitalism. I remember very clearly the act of reading that book; I remember the chair I was sitting in, the apartment in Chicago I was taking care of (for friends who, thankfully, owned just about every book of poetry ever published). The two books that stayed with me from that week of house-sitting were Frank Bidart’s In the Western Night (my late introduction to that master) and Capitalism. The restless ambition that has characterized all of McGrath’s books since was everywhere apparent in that first collection, and I felt, among many other feelings, a curious envy: here was a poet from Whitman’s lineage who was somehow reshaping that expansive tradition, and doing so at a time when ambition in American poetry seemed restricted to a rehashing of received forms from the neo-formalists, or the vaguely nihilistic noodling of post-language (for lack of a better term) poets, a group that turned out to be fairly successful in transforming the lyric mode into a series of gestures and little else. The arguments of these two camps could be boiled down to the following: 1) We need to get back to the basic principle of poetry, what Auden called “memorable speech” (best delivered by emphasizing the plain-spoken, mnemonic elements of language: rhyme, meter, foregrounded tropes); 2) Meaning is really not very meaningful, so let’s get over it and interrogate the insufficiency of language . . . or something. To put it mildly, Capitalism was a welcome relief from the poetry wars.
Eight books later, McGrath is still doing it, still raising the bar for a generation of poets that seems uncertain of its legitimacy, unsure of what it should be doing. McGrath does not seem to share this anxiety. His latest book, Shannon, is an epic poem (try that one on), one of those remarkable accomplishments that seems to come out of nowhere, a book-length persona poem in the voice of an early nineteenth century soldier slowly starving to death on the American plains. But of course, anyone paying attention to McGrath’s work can understand why this emblematic American, George Shannon, youngest member of the Lewis and Clark expedition, might appeal to him, and why the journey of Lewis and Clark is so important to his conception of the American identity (in fact, he first wrote about Lewis and Clark in Capitalism). It’s a perfect match: George Shannon’s story and Campbell McGrath’s poetic gifts.
Though the book reads very much like a novel, it is filled with intensely lyrical passages. The poem purports to be Shannon’s journal (a fiction the author creates to tell a complex story; Shannon didn’t actually keep a journal), which allows McGrath to move from reportorial language of description, to contemplative meditations on memory, to highly charged eruptions of hallucinatory language; Shannon is, after all, starving. To call the overall accomplishment a tour de force, however, emphasizes the wrong thing. Yes, McGrath has written an epic in a lyric age, and he’s harnessed together research and the imagination with unusual force and invention. But it’s the human element that impresses the most, the way in which McGrath animates that most fundamental of American metanarratives: the founding of the West as a formulation of identity. We care about George Shannon because he’s been made real through his own voice: Shannon’s concerns and obsessions, his hopes and dreams, belong to all of us and are recognizably our own even as they seem wholly Shannon’s thanks to the immediacy of McGrath’s particularization. Like any book by Campbell McGrath, this is a deeply empathic critique of America, an intelligent celebration of the problematic contradictions that Whitman first recognized as fundamental to the American character. But most of all, Shannon is one heck of a good read.
This compelling book, selected by Tom Lux for the National Poetry Series, introduces Anna Journey as a sensualist of history and place, of desire, fear and language-love: love of knowing the names of things and using those names to specify a world inhabited by both the living and the dead. This world is the American South, flower-heavy and ripe, reeking of blossoms as well as death, as in “My Great-Grandparents Return to the World as Closed Magnolia Buds”: “They’re back / by the soybeans, edging the delta from the dead, / keeping their clammy petals pulled / shut, like Klan hoods.” Later, the speaker of “Corpse Flowers and Grackles” confesses to being “uncertain / about the scent of the corpse flower, whether it reeks // from standing water…/ or its own body, its own body that, when it opens, / lets everything in.”
These poems let everything in. In “The Mirror’s Lake Is Forever,” the speaker describes learning of her grandfather’s stash of “gay porn magazines: men smooth /as conchs in soft-core seascapes.” Her mother asks, “Are you sorry / I told you?” “No, I’m not sorry,” she replies. From the secrets of ghosts, compassion flares like fragrance on a summer night walk.
The lyrical speaker of these poems has an ear for internal rhyme and makes a crisp music of images, as in these lines where a “miscarried sister” who “wants to be an owl” shows up at a costume ball and “raises the fluttering / mask of an io moth / to the would-be of her cheeks, her not-yet nose’s Swedish hook” (“Rose Is Dead and Crashes the Party”). This ghost’s appearance arouses a brief jealousy in her living sister: “Her face, painted in god’s / near-perfect drag, / comes close to the real/thing,” but the ghost, unlike the speaker, remains “the tongue- / tied animal.”
Journey’s ghosts haunt her perception, making her and us look at and listen to them closely. Likewise, the erotic is both delicate and threatening in these poems, in their “berries / holding the smallest bones” and in the devil tongues they evoke, the “barbed and carnal tongues” that sing of bodies both here and gone.
Goldie Goldbloom’s debut novel, Toad’s Museum of Freaks and Wonders—which won the 2008 AWP award for the novel—is as striking as its quirky title. Gin, its hapless heroine, is an albino mother of two who lives with Toad, her stunted, boorish husband, on a hard-scrabble ranch in Australia’s outback. The story opens in 1943 and follows Gin and her family until the war’s end, during which time she and Toad take on two Italian p.o.w.’s to help with ranch work. (This was a common practice, apparently.) Antonio, one of the POWs, takes a shine to Gin, and Gin, who is starved for affection and the refinements she left behind in Perth, where she had been a wunderkind concert pianist, reciprocates. It is a recipe for disaster.
Goldbloom’s prose in this first-person narrative packs a powerhouse punch because her Gin is smart, keen-eyed, funny, and thoroughly damaged by the cruel world she has inherited. In a few brisk lines she evokes the appalling outback: “Cockatoos scream. Insects buzz and tick in the undergrowth. Great plain of cloudless blue sky. Slow roll of the vast red land.” Her emotional landscape offers no more relief, for she was sexually abused repeatedly by her step grandfather and then committed to an asylum after she mutilated herself to thwart his advances. It was there, in the asylum, that Toad—visiting for an afternoon—found her and offered to take her away.
Gin is grateful for the deliverance but, in time, her isolation in the far reaches of the outback and its oppressive conditions wear her down: “Kangaroos and emus destroyed the new fences, dingoes ate my hens, rabbits ate the grass, box poison killed the sheep and hard work killed the horses. Stinking smut made the wheat kernels foul and we lost the entire crop to septorian rust, which shriveled the grain, not once, but many times. There were a dozen easy ways to die out there: kicked by a horse, shot by a gun, thrown from the sulky, drowned in the dam, bitten by a snake, fell asleep in the sun, caught in the chaff cutter, burst appendix, laryngitis, childbirth.” When Antonio, the sensitive and elegant POW, woos her, Gin begins to dream of a life elsewhere. He is the first, the only man who has shown her gentleness and affection.
To Goldbloom’s credit, Toad is not without complication: he bought Gin a piano, for instance, and he has tried, in his limited way, to make her happy. But Gin learns that his motivation for bringing her to the outback was not as straightforward as it first appeared. This revelation further drives her into the arms of the Italian. The folk in town gossip about the doings on Toad’s ranch and, in the end, there is plenty of disgrace to go around. But the story, and the ending especially, is anything but predictable. The wonder of Toad’s Museum of Freaks and Wonders is how the desire for love shapes and holds us and how, when love comes fully, it brings us pain and, ultimately, a kind of stunning clarity.