Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Campbell McGrath

"The Bob Hope Poem":

As sprawling and repetitive as the country it analyzes, this poem embodies both the random luck and brutally focused dream of America. Using elements of multiple poetic forms - haiku, found poem, epigrams - this expansive work remains surprisingly successful and focused. It returns time after time to succinct thoughts and images, but this poem spends most of its pages in long-lined stream-of-consciousness musings on inter-epigrams.

Often compared to Whitman, McGrath has steps beyond him by, like his colleague Duhamel, embracing the built environment along with the natural American landscape. The built environment refers to seven strata of production - Products, Interiors, Structures, Landscapes, Cities, Regions, Earth - and McGrath touches on all seven as often as America itself has. He breeds insatiable laughter and forces the reader to expand. One of his main points is this: "To understand America you must understand / the kinds of community we are and are not. / To understand America you must understand the dream." But his more poignant points spill out of the interplay of natural and artificial: a squirrel’s heart seized up in a trap, the absence of toddler and teenage pigeons in Chicago, and my favorite - the mailman planting a mailbox that will grow into a post office on a street corner.

Contrasts - like these between the natural and the built - hold the poem together: on the most fundamental level the piece strains at both concise haiku, and expansive long-line musings; the love and hate he feels for pop culture and American history is one of the main themes; the essential contrasts inherent to discovery - lack of knowledge coupled with the empirical, the feeling of Americans if winged invaders colonized us, inadvertent offences due to simply not knowing any better - repeat throughout the piece; the contrast between his wife and him - he being the worried "bread-winner" at home at his desk writing, she being walked to and from the El on her way to the 9 to 5; and most apparently the contrast between what he wants to be and what he is. This final contrast between want and reality is the most basic to Americans. This is the American dream. This is the American nightmare. They are lovers - no, they are the same.

McGrath encapsulates America in the sprawling/concise manner in which America has contained itself. This poem succeeds on almost every level. The only thing that did not personally work for me was the sheer volume of space taken by epigrams in the last two chapters of the poem: it is a little thing I didn't think worked as well as it could have. However, this poem is still astounding - it crashes smack into the American psyche stunningly. This piece is based in Chicago but is broad enough to be unequivocally American - any city, any state. I suggest this work, found in Spring Comes to Chicago, to any interested in American poetry.

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