Vast Lyric: Kurt Brown on Campbell McGrath’s Shannon


Shannon, Campbell McGrath, Ecco Press, 2009

Campbell McGrath’s new book-length poem, Shannon: A Poem of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, will certainly take its place among the handful of important historical verse narratives written in the past thirty or forty years by American poets. Shannon is exemplary in many ways, not the least of which is McGrath’s ability to evoke a life lived in a radically different set of circumstances in a vastly different place and time. And McGrath’s recreation of a nineteenth century voice and writing style is pitch-perfect, nothing short of brilliant. One of the measures of his success is the fact that McGrath is able to create the illusion that what the reader is holding in his hands is not a poem written in the early part of the 21st century, but the actual text of a journal written by a young man in desperate circumstances two hundred years ago. One has to keep reminding oneself that this is so, and marveling again at the power of the deception.

In order to create the convincing sense of an historical figure, more than mere impersonation is needed. Anyone might inhabit a character using only the broadest strokes, the literary equivalent of caricature, which registers only that person’s most salient features. But, as any good novelist knows, people—whether fictional or historical—come to life through an assiduous and cumulative presentation of details, those small, precise strokes that reveal a character in all his or her complicated and manifold dimensions. So McGrath has created for us a young adventurer, George Shannon, who is (sometimes self-admittedly) vain, tender, philosophical, fearful, brave, lonely, resourceful, confused, needy and self-sufficient at the same time, someone who is capable of loving and missing his girl back home, while remembering the grave mission to which he is attached, and admonishing himself:

Startled awake stiff & dreaming
Upon the breasts of Constance Ebson.
Fine as they are, it disturbs me
To be tracked into this wilderness by such desires.

It’s just this kind of detail that offers a glimpse into Shannon’s prickly self: both sensual and puritanical, youthful and adult, fun-loving and practical, he’s everything you might think a teenaged recruit who is trying to impress his adult superiors might be. His is constantly referring to Lewis or Clark in reverent tones, looking up to them as models, as any young buck might who has been placed in the care of seasoned, knowledgeable veterans. He wants, desperately, to garner their attention with his prowess or, lacking that, his courage and willingness to accept difficult tasks. On the one hand, then, he is a capable young man proud of his reputation so far:

Eighteen and years in the backwoods
I am a better hunter than most back home.

And proud, too, of being the one who recovers two stray horses while his companion, a man named Drouillard, finally has to give up and return to the main company, having separated from Shannon as a tactic to cover more territory (this is how Shannon comes to be lost in the first place):

Again I do regret not obtaining provisions
Of Drouillard when we split our search party
Happy as I was to be shed of him
He being a master tracker & I so eager
For sole glory.

Yet later, after days and days of being lost and suffering from hunger, he is forced to exclaim:

Fain to admit but I did
Despair and weep
Some while this evening.

This multi-dimensionality creates what novelists call a fully, rounded character. Shannon appears to us in all his half-fledged youthfulness and bravado.

Besides Shannon’s emotional complexity, his intellectual life is rich as well for someone born and bred on the Kentucky frontier. Apparently, he has had some early schooling and he can read and write, accomplishments not shared by many of his companions on the Corps of Discovery. Shannon says of himself:

I wish I were supplied as Capt. Lewis
With notebook paper & as gifted
Alike with Capt. Clark
Though he is the less well-lettered of the two.
Capt. Lewis is a fine writer
Whose education exceeds my own
But he knows I might proceed to keep a journal
In his place if need be.

Later, he adds:

It is my intention upon completion of this journey
To continue my proper education
At the Transylvania University in Kentucky

and reveals the fact that he intends to study Law there, because “This is a country of freedom / From tyranny now / & of laws…” These may seem high ambitions for someone raised at the end of the 18th century in Pennsylvania and Kentucky. But Shannon, as McGrath has correctly portrayed him, was a man of some talent and ability and the descendent of a good family. One of his relatives was the governor of the state, and three of Shannon’s brothers served in both state and federal governments during the course of their lives. Both Meriwether Lewis and William Clark considered him a social equal, albeit younger and more inexperienced during their famous trek across America to find a river passage to the Pacific Ocean.

Shannon’s thoughts, in fact, revolve around several main themes that crop up in his mind as he wanders the prairie alone somewhere on the banks of the Missouri river in South Dakota in the summer of 1804. Besides dreams of continuing his education upon returning home following the Corps’ expedition west, Shannon recalls scene after scene of family life back east—memories of his mother, his father (whose voice and rustic homilies echo in Shannon’s ears), his brothers, and of course his would-be girlfriend, Constance Ebson. This is natural for a man lost and certainly homesick, separated from all others on one of the largest grasslands on earth. Those grasslands themselves constitute another focus of his attention, as he treks a landscape few other European settlers had ever seen. It’s hard not to imagine him as a new American Adam in a New World Paradise, as he surveys the land before him from horizon to horizon rich with resources and untold possibilities. As he himself acknowledges:

Thoughts and reflections flow through me here
Alone in these lands I might consider myself
The first American to have walked
Surely, & observations of the land generally
& such animals as I have discovered.

But as his ordeal continues, his thoughts turn more and more towards his deepening plight, and the hunger that threatens to destroy him if he cannot find a way to obtain food in that trackless wilderness. He has used up all his bullets, and most of his gunpowder, so he has few if any ways to find sustenance except by scavenging berries and trying to figure out a way to kill something—anything—prairie dog, deer, turkey, rabbit by whatever means possible. He sees buffalo, myriads of them, but knows it will be impossible to bring one of them down. Or elk, which he notices fording the river. It is a measure of McGrath’s narrative skill that Shannon’s obsession with food deepens, almost imperceptibly, as the narrative progresses and begins to eclipse all other concerns until hunger—and the necessity of finding the Corps again—become the only things on his mind. And as he becomes more desperate his mind wanders and he begins to hallucinate, to act a little crazy which, at first, he himself realizes, as when he observes a badger and imagines that he, too, is a badger. “Is it the hunger / thus drawing me out of myself” he muses, “or some deeper cause?” This is the first sign of his unhinging, though it will soon get worse and his reveries becomes as complicated as his rational thoughts upon theology or the law. A second sign occurs when he begins to lose track of time and the days blur one into another. He eats a grasshopper. He argues with himself.

Then, in section thirteen, it seems as though Shannon disappears altogether at certain points as McGrath the twenty-first century poet elbows Shannon, the nineteenth century journalist, aside and the verse becomes more self-conscious, more poetic—or perhaps McGrath means to indicate Shannon’s final dizzy descent into the madness hunger has brought on:

let there be light upon the prairie dust

light & the germ of it
within the dewdrop infused, parched light
of the moon reflected constellations

pearl on yucca, immortal diamond
crown of thorn & stars…

take this sword of light, this ruin…

dewdrop, the source, fog of breath
& the river of light widening towards sunrise
this astonishment of grass, this extravagance…

It’s difficult not to hear the voice of McGrath the poet here, instead of Shannon’s— the hungry pioneer from the backwoods of Kentucky. Difficult to imagine Shannon writing, or saying: “immortal diamond” or “this astonishment of grass.” And scattering the word “buffalo” around several pages is an effective typographical strategy to indicate the ubiquity of the herd, but a decidedly Modernist, even post-modernist technique. If section thirteen is meant to manifest Shannon’s deepening delirium, it is only partially successful because the poet’s willful management of the material is far more evident than in earlier sections. McGrath even chooses to drop the nineteenth century convention of capitalizing the first letter of the first word of each verse, thereby reflecting a more Modernist sensibility in the very look of the lines, their casual contemporary formality.

Whatever the case, Shannon seems to come back to his senses (and McGrath to withdraw again into his character) in the following section as he returns to the urgent necessity of finding food. Even Shannon’s wayward imaginings—he watches some ants and conceives of himself as an Ant-God—seem far more “reasonable” than in the prior section, as even he himself recognizes: “What purpose to carry on / About Ant-Gods, am I losing all sense?” Yet his discourse on ants and their behavior becomes a logical argument that brings him close to blasphemy, from a Christian standpoint, as he has in prior sections when pondering religious doctrine. As revealed by McGrath, Shannon seems to be a 19th century materialist, or Deist, a natural inheritor of the prior century’s clock-maker God, a late child of The Enlightenment like most of the Founding Fathers, including Jefferson, whom Shannon reveres. It’s little wonder, then, that he sees the ant as “a creature of laws / Orderly & warranted / In all actions by such directives” meaning the practical need for food and shelter, and to extrapolate from their condition and behavior a natural analog for human beings as well. This is what Shannon has been driving at all along. “See,” he finally says, “how I am transformed / From a believer / Into a Democrat & a Man of Science?” In this, he has become the first model for the new American in the new continent, self-reliant (a la Emerson), pragmatic, free of Old World superstitions and ready to found a new country based on reason and the law. God exists, for Shannon, but He resembles nothing like the ghostly, all-manipulative, irrational God of Parson Macready back home, whom Shannon has suspected of pious ignorance from the beginning. But these considerations pale, once more, as hunger returns to gnaw at Shannon and trump all other thoughts and imaginings. Shannon is quickly being reduced to a physical thing, like the skull of an antelope he sees in the grass, and this as much as anything else contributes to his political and theological outlook.

In the end, Shannon decides to give up and retire to the banks of the Missouri River in case a fur trapper or other boatman might wander by and save him. He thinks the chance highly unlikely, but resigns himself to his fate, giving up all hope of ever finding Lewis & Clark or any of the other members of the Corps of Discovery again:

I have a conception of my soul
Being taken up in [the prairie’s] austerity and solitude
To be devoured
By the stars
& mind it no longer.

He does not know, as he thinks this, that he has out-walked the Corps that had been struggling up the river at a slower pace and that they will find him, or he will find them when they catch up at last, just in time to keep him from starving.

There are only a few moments when, for me, the poem falters, as when Shannon’s otherwise sober narrative voice descends into frontier vernacular and he is in danger of becoming a conventional American prototype. “Git on, horse” he demands of his nag, “Git on.” Or the memory of his father intoning advice that prefigures Norman Vincent Peale’s Power of Positive Thinking : “Soldier on, George my boy,” he hears the voice of his father chirp, “solider on.” Such language in the first instance hovers perilously close to stereotype (the American cowboy, still almost half a century away, hovers into view) and in the second instance a folksiness is introduced into what is essentially a more dignified literary style. I believe such alterations of character are meant to counter-balance the headier, more philosophical passages that precede them, or follow them. And they almost do. More successful in this regard are passages of situational humor, as when Shannon disturbs a family of skunks—which he calls pole-cats—in a thicket while searching for berries, and the mother skunk chases him back to his own camp “with no injury” but to his pride.” And later, he falls into the river stalking a swan and comments: “…the current is fleet. / It would be a poor idea & a peril to drown.” And once I almost winced at the use of one of our most cherished national clichés that might better have been left out or rephrased, as when George temporarily hunkered down on the prairie in a rain storm, muses about the future he envisions for himself:

…America
Is a land of opportunities
Best seized by those with schooling

a philosophy that might have appeared on a billboard in the same landscape years later, with the image of a father and a son depicted by Norman Rockwell. No matter that it was, and is, true. Poetry at its best depends upon originality of expression, not platitudes.
But these are quibbles when compared to what McGrath has actually achieved here. More often than not, Shannon’s observations of the pristine American heartland and his premonitions about the future are couched in historical poetry of the first order. Reading Shannon is a great pleasure, and adds to McGrath’s other achievement in the genre, “William Bartram Beset by Crocodiles or Alligators” in Florida Poems, which borrows that 18th century naturalist’s voice accurately. There is a caveat, however. Historical poetic narratives hardly receive the notice they deserve, any more than verse fiction, or even book-length meditative poems. Who remembers—or more importantly, reads— Stephen Vincent Benet’s sweeping verse epic, John Brown’s Body, a real literary achievement successfully mixing, as it does, many different forms to tell the story of the Civil War, or Andrew Hudgin’s more recent treatment, After the Lost War, depicting the life of veteran, poet and musician Sidney Lanier; or Benet’s other ambitious work, a poetic treatment of the early history of the United States and the opening of the country, Western Star, for which he received a Pulitzer Prize in 1944; or Robert Penn Warren’s Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce Who Call Themselves The Nimipu “The Real People” which only appears on page eight of his works listed on Amazon.com, and then without a cover image; or Winfield Townley Scott’s The Dark Sister which James Dickey hailed as a contemporary masterpiece, and tells the story of Lief Ericson’s sister, Freydis, and their journey to the New World in the 10th century (for that matter, who remembers Winfield Townley Scott); or Archibald MacLeish’s saga of Spanish conquest in the New World, Conquistador; or even John Berryman’s Homage to Mistress Bradstreet compared to the almost universal acclaim he received for his later collection, The Dream Songs. The list might be extended, and I’m only mentioning a few examples of historical verse from the 20th Century. Why these important and ambitious poems should be almost entirely forgotten is anyone’s guess, but I would think it had something to do with the novel’s almost complete usurpation of the narrative form over the past one hundred years or so.

I suspect McGrath’s Shannon will eventually languish in libraries along with the rest of the historical narratives written by American poets and met largely with indifference by the reading public. And, as usual, this will have nothing to do with its quality. Americans seem to love learning about themselves and their history in novels, films, and television miniseries. But poetry in the 20th century has largely been confined to the lyric, and sound bytes have reduced attention spans to near zero. Long poems, on any subject, are difficult these days to market. Still, Shannon is worth anyone’s time, and will repay the reader with an engrossing view of America’s past and raise questions about this country’s origins at a particularly important juncture in its history. Private George Shannon, youngest member of the Lewis and Clark expedition, is a lucid and intelligent guide to that past. His ideas about the new territory and the as-yet unformed future are incisive, and sometimes profound. Hunger, drowning, the threat of hostile Indians, to these he begins to sense another danger, one with which Americans even in the present age will be familiar:

For all my caution of drowning
In the Missouri River
It may be the vastness of this land
That consumes me.

*

Kurt Brown founded of the Aspen Writers’ Conference, and Writers’ Conferences & Centers (a national association of directors). His poems have appeared in many literary periodicals, and he is the editor of several anthologies including Blues for Bill, for the late William Matthews, from University of Akron Press and his newest (with Harold Schechter), Conversation Pieces: Poems that Talk to Other Poems from Alfred A. Knopf, Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets Series. He is the author of six chapbooks and five full-length collections of poetry, including Return of the Prodigals, More Things in Heaven and Earth, Fables from the Ark, Future Ship, and No Other Paradise. A collection of the poems of Flemish poet Herman de Coninck entitled The Plural of Happiness, which he and his wife translated, was released in the Field Translation Series in 2006.

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