Wednesday, June 3, 2009

A Review: Shannon by Campbell McGrath

Shannon: a poem of the Lewis and Clark Expedition

2009, Ecco
$23.99 (well, $17.99 at amazon...)

Campbell McGrath's Shannon is perhaps the first serious attempt at mythologizing America written after the deconstruction of the twentieth century.  It is "a poem of the Lewis and Clark Expedition," an imagining of the sixteen days Private George Shannon spent wandering alone and lost on the prairie, a found horse in tow, trying to reconnect with "the Capts. & the Corps of Discovery."  Told in a free verse style that combines the best of Pound and Olson, George Shannon's hallucinatory travelogue praises both the newly purchased America of 1804 and Shannon's dream of the America to come.

McGrath wholeheartedly embraces the zeal of the early 19th century vernacular in his poem, giving us an sectional-epic -- a descent into hell.  But hell for George Shannon is filled not with flame and demons but hunger and buffalo.  Shannon begins his journey full of wonder for the "fine & open country" but when he realizes the "pure foolishness" of setting out alone with "but five balls" of shot, he begins to worry.  When he realizes he cannot find "the good Capts.," he falls into despair.

His lost days recounted in verse, Shannon muses on the "wind-torn lands flung to the horizon" being molded into states of the Union.  He wanders half-starved through Lewis and Clark's West, finding prairie dogs, antelope, beauty, and everything but his lost Expedition.  As he lays down, exhausted, hungry, and ready for death, Shannon imagines the future of the land on which he will perish.  

Though he sees a land populated by his countrymen, he knows that the West will always belong to the buffalo.  Indeed, Day 13, "the buffalo-god" section, is the surreal zenith of the poem, Shannon embracing the ever-present and seemingly sacrosanct buffalo.  Shannon knows that no matter how many "indians" die, no matter how many Americans die, their bones buried in the soil, "numberless generations" must die "to claim this land from the buffalo."  

Shannon is not being naive.  He is aware that "[his] countrymen / Will populate in numbers these fulsome plains."  But what Shannon understands is that the land itself -- its lay, its soil, its soul -- belongs not to man, but to the buffalo.  McGrath, writing from two centuries out, has the benefit of knowledge -- once returned to the plains and prairies of the West, the bison (for no one today calls them buffalo) thrive and grow, as if taking possession of what is obviously theirs.  But it is through Shannon that we know that irrespective of the highways we cut, the water we pump, and the acres we claim, the land only gives itself to the buffalo.

Having failed to find his Expedition, Shannon is ready, like a good soldier, to sacrifice his life for his Union.  In his final prayer, he gives his body to the land, to stake a claim of ownership:

My name is George Shannon
& I bequeath my remains
To seed this land
With American bones.

While on the prairie, Shannon walks into a deep reverie, a journey of realization and discovery.  McGrath, thankfully, doesn't abuse Shannon's thoughts with anachronisms.  There is no room in Shannon's "country of herds" for post-colonial worrying.  The only hand-wringing McGrath allows Shannon to engage in is the theological sort.  Shannon, with his distaste for the "sanctimony" of "Parson Macready," rejects the church and acknowledges that he never "will come to believing," knowing the reassurances of the Parson that his brother John died to fulfil God's "mysterious ways" are nothing more than "the palaver of a Kentucky card sharp / Caught bluffing."  

But at the same time, Shannon sees "the flower of which Jesus even was made" in a dogwood, and questions the nature and scope of God, even as he contemplates the scope of America's new West.  This struggle between the platitudes of the clergy and the majesty of experience was not only something we find to be true as historians of post-revolutionary America, but was viscerally true, with great men like Franklin and Jefferson trying to define belief against rationalism.  A struggle Shannon would have been wholly aware of and keen to participate in as an educated man.  

Here is where McGrath's writing shines.  In being unafraid to recount a historic episode not as it would be today, gussied up with dusty costumes or dissected in dry volumes, but as what it must have been like that summer of 1804, McGrath allows us not only to have the voyeuristic experience of historical fiction but, and far more valuably, to question and understand what internal struggle is.  By freeing George Shannon's journey and turmoil from any agenda, any contemporary-ism -- McGrath's frees his verse to carry the reality of conflict, the scarcity of hunger.  McGrath shows us the truth in Shannon, not what we wish the truth might be.

To be fair, there are parts of Shannon I do not love.  In his more Olson-ish moments, McGrath dandies with typography and repetition.  While these parts certainly work within the poem, such sops don't excite my reading tongue.  I also wish that McGrath were interested in meter, as the "rhythm and breath and musicality" he employs in his free verse lines are no more exciting than any unmetrical lines written in the last few decades.  I doubly wish this, as Shannon is a powerful poem, but one from which I have remembered the story far more than the verse.  

But these are small and biased complaints about an otherwise excellent and compelling work.  McGrath understands as a poet what it means to give himself to the poem.  Giving himself, he has given us a text, a poem that points the way towards a poetry that does not serve its master, a poetry that is not trapped in thought and academia, but a poetry for the people.  A poetry in which history and truth and beauty are held for riches, and shared freely with the world.

1 comment:

Northwest Minuteman said...
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