Escape from American Noise
XX: Poems for the Twentieth Century
It can look as if the poet Campbell McGrath is moving away from his strengths, in his new “Hubble Space Telescope: the Galaxies (1990).” Indeed, the piece appears in a book, XX: Poems for the Twentieth Century, about which you might say the same. The author’s tenth collection, it keeps surprising anyone who’s followed McGrath, and yet it can leave a reader ravished. Both the text and its Hubble piece take a number of the man’s best qualities to a fresh apogee (pun intended).
Overall, XX works through its title century at a rate of a poem a year. The scheme requires that the satellite telescope show up late, of course, but also allows many of the subjects to speak for themselves. Such ventriloquism has only lately become a part of McGrath’s arsenal; the breakthrough came six years ago, in Shannon, a book-length poem voiced by a young stray from the Lewis and Clark Expedition. XX, however, speaks not just for personalities as disparate as Goebbels and Zora Neale Hurston, but also for inanimate objects. “Fiber 66,” from 1927, may be the world’s first nylon, but he’s one bangin’ rapper. Picasso’s entries, too, include rhyme (or more precisely near-rhyme, in keeping with the painter’s skewed perspectives), and over the century his pieces set up a counterpoint with those of Chairman Mao. Neither mentions the other—they stick with personal narratives—but each speaks up often enough to create a dialogue. Meanwhile, their brief love stories and war stories set another pattern for XX. The set tells many a tale, overall generating compulsion, the intrigue of watching history unfold. Often the results prove, as in nylon’s case, fun to read.
Yet McGrath works in alternative forms as well, like the concrete poetry of “Hiroshima (1945)”: a cloud of “a” and “o,” the vowels of a scream. Thus when readers arrive at 1990 and peer into deep space, the approach feels both familiar and otherwise. This entry has no storyline. It does without jokes, rhymes, or mimicry of some NASA tech. Its project, rather, is in the subtitle, a description of the far galaxies, and for this it adapts what I’ll call the McGrath Voice. This used to be his standard rhetoric, hammered out by the time of his 1990 debut, Capitalism. Certainly it’s proven a powerful instrument—it got him labeled a MacArthur Genius—and it sounds through the baroque opening of “Hubble,” four highly flexible lines:
Altar of red smoke in darkness, a life, a précis,
ants in their task-selves, bees in their hive-self dreaming of the universal city, of Atlantis & its burnished vaults, spectral bereavement of its ocean-dusk, Rome looted of marble, dark matter & the dark metropolis of stars,
cities of the text in blossom as the orchid tree proffers its wounds to the darkness, as the poinciana rails casual flame,
vernix scriptorium, vitruvian scroll of clouds and dream, 
Now, a given line may heap up like a stanza unto itself, but the sentence goes on. It continues for another eleven such “lines,” all rapturous attempts to illustrate, ending with a cosmic question: “who calls from the rain of starlight, who answers?” Poetic utterance like that, scavenging the ruins as it noses after transcendence, owes an obvious debt to Whitman and the Beats. Indeed, Daniel Halpern mentioned both the “yawp” and Howl authors in his blurb for Capitalism. McGrath’s subsequent text, an award winner with a telling title, American Noise (1994), took shape around a long poem “for Jack Kerouac’s Grave,” and this was followed in ’96 by his greatest effort to contain multitudes, Whitmanesque, in Spring Comes to Chicago (with a fine, gritty cover shot: bedsprings in crusted snow).
The meat of that book was the seventy-page “Bob Hope Poem,” everything and the kitchen sink, including Wittgenstein, the Marxes Karl and Groucho, and yawp-fulls of Chicago street food. McGrath grew up in the city, and the rhetoric that sustains his first books recalls the agile Augie March; even as the speaker reels at American excess, he strikes a balance between quip and insight. A telling late line—that is, a single line—may contain the whole: “a world of ice against which I struggle to carve a human foothold.” In sensing the chill behind urban pleasures, in striving to locate its humanity, “Bob Hope” anticipates the brainy unease of Ben Lerner’s 10:04. Lerner never tried such a stretch in poetry, though, and McGrath’s Chicago piece remains a rarity for an American born in 1962.
In XX, actually, the poet’s birth gets noted. It turns up in “The Pulse of the Planet,” a title taken from an ambitious Smithsonian publication, an assessment of the whole world. This in turn recalls “Bob Hope” (now XX years old), and informs “Hubble.” The poem, like the text that provides its place, both widens the ambition—it doesn’t stop at this world—and unpacks its author’s toolkit.
Even in space, you encounter Ginsberg and Whitman. They’re in the first lines’ onrushing density (from blood-tinged smoke to new life, then collapsing to précis) and the historical sweep (from ants to Atlantis to Rome). The ampersands, too, bring both forebears to mind. Also, while the poem’s second line may rise to a flourish, a layer cake, it sticks with McGrath’s rhythm. He likes the trochee, and here he opens with that emphatic “ants,” then either pairs his stresses à la “task-selves” or relaxes into “dream-ing of their uvers-al ci-ty,” all without a breakdown of flow. John Philip Sousa, anyone? Meantime the vocabulary remains serendipitous. McGrath doesn’t shy from an O.E.D. find like “vitruvian,” which references both da Vinci’s spread-eagle man and a Roman architect, yet he’s fine with Anglo hunks like “hive,” and either way he’s adept with assonance and consonance. Again and again, the upshot is a mind-boggling list: “Rome looted of marble, dark matter & the dark metropolis of stars.”
Now, while “Hubble” makes use these poetic signatures, it buffs them to an unusual polish, baroque. But then, the poem reaches towards awe: who calls? Still, McGrath’s Florida Poems (2002, and concerning his current home) was rife with botanical and zoological terms to match “vitruvian.” Even at his most plainspoken, in Shannon, he teases out arresting locutions. So, too, the wayward young explorer makes trochaic lists: “hump-rumble, herd wallow, gruff in the darkness / buffalo breathing.”
Shannon, though, roams an America yet to be savaged by capitalism, while “Hubble” drifts out far from either buffalo or Buffalo Wings. Both works, that is, do without the garbage and neon that have always kept the Voice downhome. A 1902 poem in Picasso’s point of view, for instance, can’t mention the “rest-stop wigwams” that, at the opening of Road Atlas, provide an anchor for the book. That 2001 collection, by the way, includes prose poems, one or two of which also turn up in the latest, though in either text they have the man’s distinctive beat and clutter. XX makes more of a departure in its use of concrete poetry and, especially, its many varieties of rhyme. McGrath’s first extended venture in that mode came in Pax Atomica, 2004, which sometimes used terza rima to corral his bewilderment at pop culture.
But then, while Picasso doesn’t cruise I-80, he suffers his own eyesores. 1902 sees him reduced to “pornographic sketches for […] degraded Spaniards that roam the Hôtel du Maroc.” The painter wrangles with quotidian dreck of his own, whether low-grade like porn or, in better times, a vapid soiree in “polished shoes and pomade.” More significantly, the Eurotrash helps define Picasso’s side of the dialectic with Mao. The former always has a lover at his side, and his hands are everywhere; the latter grows ever more isolated, while his Revolution has less and less truck with human feeling. Mao’s final poem asserts: “the destruction of mankind / would be a small thing in the universe;” Picasso’s cries out against “surrender / to the prerogatives of a fevered abstraction.”
McGrath takes care to modulate each vision. Picasso gets single-minded over Guernica and Mao has a soft spot for Confucian aphorism. Such far-reaching empathy, however, underscores the book’s success: its escape from American noise. In that earlier collection, McGrath considered his homeland’s “peculiar gift and burden, this liberation / from the shackles of history,” but in this text he takes on those shackles (one of the Hurston poems, in fact, could be a chain-gang song). Nonetheless, he continues to clamber across the Waste Land, seeking a “foothold.” At the center of Poems for the Twentieth Century comes its longest work, “Elvis Presley (1957),” yet much as the man and his moment are born in the U.S.A., the Voice speaks for the world:
there is no Baby Boom until he enables it
there is no cultural commodification until he embodies it,
there is no cult of celebrity until he enacts it.
Celebrity? That’s more neon and garbage. But then there’s the fresh glow overhead: XX.
JOHN DOMINI's latest book is The Sea-God's Herb, selected criticism, and in 2016 he will bring out a new set of stories, MOVIEOLA!