April 2008

Justin Taylor


Seven Notebooks by Campbell McGrath

Campbell McGrath has never been a writer of epics, exactly, but he just might be an epic writer. He’s done more with (and for) the contemporary long poem than anyone since Ginsberg except for James Schuyler. In fact it is his very Schulyer-esque confessionalism (though McGrath is not as chatty) that allows him to maintain urgency, intimacy, and reader interest in poems that would otherwise be dry, acerbic, endless meditations on culture, justice, his own many road trips, and the protracted death of an American dream that may have been little more than bait on the hook in the first place. Come for the Marxism, stay for the road novel.

McGrath’s poetry thrives on his dissatisfaction with the world: from the damned fact of mortality to the violence of capital, or a straight up case of the walkin’ blues. The same unquenchable passion and taste for thrill that sent the young William Vollmann to the war zones and whores of five continents sent the young McGrath all over the country, looking for America anywhere and -- in an important reversal of the proposition set forth by Easy Rider -- finding it everywhere. His first book, published by the Wesleyan Press in 1990, was just called Capitalism. It was not an affirmation. Then came American Noise (published by Ecco Press, with whom he’s stayed since), followed by Spring Comes to Chicago. Don’t let the title of that one fool you. It contains -- in fact is dominated by -- “The Bob Hope Poem,” a Whitmanic-cum-Marxist screed long enough to have been published as a standalone. Launched into apoplexy by a People magazine article about Bob Hope in a clash with environmentalists over the (attempted) development of land he owns for a golf course, soon enough McGrath is going after:

Uncle Walt [Disney, that is] and the Duke, Nixon’s Committee of 100 and the whole
            Reagan crew,
who willingly testified to their fondness for none but former Marines and self-made
            millionaires like themselves.
…Are not these men somehow akin to the animate saber-rattling skeletons of a
            Saturday morning Sinbad movie,
synechdochical cenotaphs of war and hegemony…

Right on, man. The poem continues for another forty or so brilliant, vitriolic pages peppered with choice quotes from Wittgenstein, Marx, Darwin, Christopher Columbus, and a farm team of less name-checkable theorists, historians, and philosophers. If this sounds dismissive, it shouldn’t, or anyway I wish it didn’t. McGrath’s best work can be hard to discuss without sounding mocking for the same reason that old union organizing songs are hard to sing without lapsing into pseudo-irony. The cost of perpetual earnestness is a reputation for being a crybaby, and nobody wants to be thought of as being or coddling one, but McGrath’s work is compelling and -- most importantly -- successful poetry. His rage may extend to the lofty heights of philosophy, but its roots are situational (the article), his concerns are fundamentally materialist ones (the land deal), and he’s not nearly as humorless as I’m probably making him sound. (A touch of humor, by the way, goes a long way, which is why “Joe Hill’s Casey Jones” is easier to sing earnestly than “The Internationale.”) Here’s my favorite passage from “The Bob Hope Poem”:

The thing that really gets me about Bob is, there should be no magical aura or mystical
            signification attached to money.
A house, a car, a pool, a mountain, a harem, an empire: it buys a lot, but nothing you
            don’t know about.

Spring Comes to Chicago was followed by Road Atlas, a book of shorter prose poems, and then Florida Poems. Another book concerned with the long-form poem and with place, Florida Poems -- wild, didactic, and beautiful; even its few mistakes feel like the right ones -- is a nearly irrefutable argument for McGrath’s place in the canon. In “Benediction for the Savior of Orlando,” inspired by a billboard (“Jesus is Lord Over Greater Orlando”), McGrath decides it is time for “Orlando rightly considered, Orlando qua Orlando.” In a faux-Revelation voice which simultaneously is and is not parody (on the one hand, he’s mocking the evangelical sign, on the other, he is in fact having a genuine apocalyptic revelation) he argues that “Orlando is the Jerusalem of commodified delight… / Orlando is the Florida I fear to conceive…” before eventually winding up in a Chuck E. Cheese’s, at a child’s birthday party, where an unheard prayer for salvation and an unclaimed pizza at the snack counter meld together. Speaking as a Florida expat who grew up just north of Miami, and as an older brother whose spent his share of time at kids’ parties at Chuck E. Cheese’s, let me just say: Yes.

Flash forward to the present day. The newest travelogue from the now middle-aged Vollmann is an outlaw diary in the form of a love letter to freight train hopping, and Campbell McGrath has released a new poetry collection, the first since 2004’s Pax Atomica. The new volume, Seven Notebooks, is perhaps the first McGrath book which does not do double duty as a paean to velocity. It is a book of stillness, and the work of a satisfied mind. These are the main reasons it is such a thorough disappointment.

This time around, instead of “Blue Tulips and Night Train for Jack Kerouac’s Grave,” (American Noise) it’s “Middle Age,” when “we… begin / to drift away from things, // beliefs, ideals, ideas[.]” Also, little journal entries about walks on the beach, sending the kids to science camp, and musings about whether or not he’ll teach the Whitman/Neruda grad seminar his students have been pestering him about. (In one unforgivable instance, we get what appears to be a shorthand transcript of a class discussion.) When a book opens with the words “Then the imagination withdraws,” one cannot help but feel like the author is putting the reader on notice.

At first I took the “notebooks” for a structural conceit, but by about midway through the collection I had decided that the book had in fact been arranged according to the scratch pads the poems were drafted in, and in some cases apparently transcribed directly from, sans edits. From the quote-unquote “poem” “January 8 (Blueberries)”: “Read this week that blueberries have been determined to be a nutritional super food, a mighty antioxidant endowed with mysterious power to supercharge the brain and all but assure eternal life. Yes, but will they cure my aching feet?”


McGrath goes on to describe how he hurt his foot, stubbornly refused to see a doctor for months, and now has “a stupid boot I must wear to sleep like an antipodal dunce cap to passively stretch my plantar fascia.” The next poem, “Ode to the Plantar Fascia,” covers the same material, but at least “Ode” makes hay. Here, McGrath -- with flashes of that old genius that won him the MacArthur Genius Grant back in ’99 -- uses the Latin name for his injured tendon to make a connection between etymology (our shared common body of language) and a notion of the human body as an Empire of One (he’s fiddling while it burns). It’s a good poem, maybe even a really good poem, but the line that jumped off the page was this one: “tender sole, antipodal to the soul[.]” The reappearance of “antipodal” makes it only too obvious that “January 8 (Blueberries)” is the free-write exercise, the formless notes, out of which “Ode to the Plantar Fascia” came. The book is riddled with these kinds of “sequences,” and while it’s healthy to be reminded that art is made rather than born, poetry is not the same as math class, and I simply couldn’t figure out what McGrath thought he was gaining by showing his work.

Another aspect of this same problem is McGrath’s fondness for a good quote. Whereas in “The Bob Hope Poem” the quotes were garnish, counterpoint and/or amplification of theme, in Seven Notebooks they’ve just run amok. Two poems, “Now” and “The Past,” seem to have been derived directly from the long quote from Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe which immediately precedes them. Since the quote gets its own whole page, it can’t properly be called an epigraph to either of the poems it informs, which also have no officially designated relationship with each other. The Chakrabarty quote is just there, as if McGrath is saying, “Look: I read this and then I wrote these.” There’s something admirable about the open-source ethos underlying such a gesture. Knowledge and culture are both fundamentally collaborative projects, a point McGrath no doubt grasps fully and understands the implications of. Furthermore, seeing the finished product alongside the source material creates an effect almost perfectly inverse to the “show your work” approach. Where before the poet was a toiling draftsman, scribbling then refining, here he is a phenomenological agent, facilitating the transubstantiation of mere information into art.

First, while this is all nominally interesting, it is not especially revelatory. Second, McGrath’s dedication to the source material, coupled with the length at which he chooses to quote, renders the poems themselves redundant. This is a recurring problem in Seven Notebooks, where the list of guest speakers includes J. M. Coetzee, Freud, W. G. Sebald, Johan Huizinga, Whitman uber alles, and so on and so on. These interludes are hardly uninteresting, but they consume an estimable percentage of the page-count in a book that wouldn’t exactly be slim without them. Indeed, if you cut the quotes and the journal entries, there would still be a substantial -- and better -- book left over.

To deal with the book as it exists, one must either give oneself over to its interior logic -- as in any diary, certain motifs and characters recur; by design or default, a narrative emerges -- or else one must read with a sharp eye for the diamonds in the rough. And there are treasures here. This long book of short poems is as smart at least as often as it’s boring, suggesting that McGrath hasn’t lost his talent, only his attention span and maybe his editor. Multiple readings are rewarded with the discovery of stray gems missed on the first or second pass, such as this description of “a nest composed of mountains wrinkled as tobacco leaves” in the otherwise unexceptional “March 15 (History),” which McGrath helpfully notes was written “In Flight, Seattle to Miami.” Or the poems “Phoenix,” “Rilke,” and “Storm Valediction,” each of which I like better every time I re-read them.

Another standout poem is “September 11,” not incidentally the only of the date-stamp poems which does not have a parenthetical noun in its title. A confession: as the chrono-logic of the book became clear, I felt a gathering dread as the freighted date drew closer. I had come to understand that there are really two McGraths writing in Seven Notebooks: McGrath the poet of passion and conviction, the landscape artist with a city planner’s eye, the poet I know and love; and McGrath the sentimental diarist, the cheesy jokester, the shrugging suburbanite. But lucky us -- the right McGrath steps up on “September 11.” From Part 1:

Who, shown a hydrogen molecule, would envision the sun?
As from leaf to rain forest, as from ant to biosphere,
as from a single brick to imagine Manhattan,

as from a human instant the totality of a life,
of lives interwoven, families and affiliations,
the time-trawled nets of societies and cultures.

So the arc of creativity is an ungrounded rainbow,
and cause for hope. Why distrust the universe?
We are engines burning violently toward the silence.

The poem -- in six parts over several pages -- is one of the longest in the collection, as well as one of the best. To put it bluntly: in 9/11 McGrath finds a topic worthy of the full force of his emotional engagement and humanist ideals, as well as the full breadth of his vision. It’s infuriating that this poem should exist in the same book as “The Beach,” a misfire in five haikus, one of which reads “Skimboarding, I fall – / yo, bring back the board, numbnut. / I’m too old for this.” It drove me to distraction that to get to the line “The hurricane, too, is beautiful, graven vortex like the hair on an infant’s skull,” (from “Order and Disorder”) I should be forced to also slog through stuff like “Forty: not too old / to eye the Jersey girls but / too old to get caught!” (From a poem called “The Past,” but not the same “The Past” mentioned earlier.)

I don’t begrudge McGrath his comfort, his apparently delightful children, or even his complacency. Nobody wants to spend their whole life sleeping in the back of VW buses, dedicated train hoppers make for absentee fathers, and if there’s one sure thing in the world it’s that age clips the angel wings off Kerouac. (And why not? After all, it did for Kerouac.) Maybe McGrath’s point is that this is what life is all about: the epic mixed with the minute, the grandiose jockeying for space alongside with the petty, sorrow and joy and rage and contentment coming each in their turn, turn, turn. But the truth value of McGrath’s claim -- which I can respect, even perhaps envy a bit -- is no guarantee of the success of his endeavor. The old cliché about shooting for the stars and making it to the moon cuts both ways. If your goal is eye-level, don’t be surprised when you end up in the dirt. Moreover, if the price of satisfaction is smallness -- a contraction of vision -- McGrath has become far too willing to pay.

Seven Notebooks by Campbell McGrath
Ecco Press
ISBN 978-0-06-125464-2
240 Pages

Justin Taylor is the editor of The Apocalypse Reader (Thunder's Mouth Press), and Come Back, Donald Barthelme (McSweeney's).