Campbell McGrath, Shannon. Ecco/Harper Collins, 2009. $23.99 This long poem’s opening, spoken in the confiding, companionable first-person voice of a young man eager to stand out on Lewis & Clark’s team in the summer of 1804, rolls through unsettled American land near the Missouri river. Determined to prove himself, this youngest member of the Corps of Discovery rides out, without much food or ammunition, after runaway horses. He finds the horses the first day. Two weeks pass before the Corps finds him, starving, with buffalo all around him (no bullets left). The subsequent sections of the poem mark the days of the young man’s solitary trial.
The historical George Shannon—c. 1785-1836, eventually a Missouri judge known as “Peg-Leg” after an Indian ambush nearly killed him—left no journal or memoir, so the poem’s language is entirely McGrath’s. His Shannon is alert to every sight, sound, smell. He’s working. And wise, right away, to more than the surface: “the fugitives appeared/Not unhappy at sight of me.” He’s curious, excited, humorous, ambitious, self-conscious—all in the first moments of his first day alone.
For Shannon McGrath has found language that opens the mind of this emblematic New (white, Christian, colonizing) American without intruding on the reader’s experience of him. There’s Action: killing one rabbit with hard wood in place of a bullet. Suspense: in the quest for food; more, in the struggle to register every lesson in the landscape. And fantasy sex, reluctant theology, geopolitical prophecy, ant visions, buffalo dreams. It’s a film you want to watch again and again.
Actual journal entries by William Clark record Shannon’s departure before he begins to speak and his rescue after he stops on the fifteenth day. The lines of irregular length feel transparent, at the far end of the poetic scale from the charged, boisterous lines of the work McGrath is best known for. In Shannon it’s the line-breaks that make music:
Small herds Of elk coming out from the arroyo To silver water & shadows Of clouds over the same hills & wind Amongst the grasses grown Ceaseless now.
Shannon enjoys time to think. At first a conqueror, naming the place around him “Shannontown,” he begins to question
. . . our grand purpose Here, that being to keep moving To forge if even blindly Onward.
All the political fury and rhetorical dazzle McGrath packed into “The Bob Hope Poem” in Spring Comes to Chicago (1996); all the fire of his quest for America in road-trip poems from his first book, Capitalism (1990), through his prose-poem book, Road Atlas (1999), to his lumpy, fascinating journal book, Seven Notebooks (2008), take new form in Shannon (2009), his eighth book. All to ask: How do we (Americans) serve—let alone deserve—this glorious land we have lucked into?
Shannon’s hunger for food NOW becomes his ambition for the future; his awareness that he’s lost in the land becomes the new nation’s uncertain development. McGrath enlarges upon Shannon’s ambitions in this major work that has been under-noticed because Shannon doesn’t sound like “McGrath,” and because readers balked at the subtleties of Seven Notebooks. Concluding his Afterword, McGrath links our hopes to his hero’s: “George Shannon often got lost, but he always got found. May the same hold true for those who continue to follow in his footsteps, the majestic land he wandered, and the nation he was proud to call home.”