NOUNS & VERBS
New and Selected Poems
By Campbell McGrath
“America’s epic,” the poet Campbell McGrath writes, “is the odyssey of appetite.” It’s a good line, both clever and seductive, though in the wrong hands it’s the sort of thing that could be merely reductive. But McGrath knows the ins and outs of appetite as deeply, and as thoroughly, as he knows the highways and byways of America. He has spent decades exploring both. “Nouns & Verbs: New and Selected Poems” is a rich and invigorating sampling of the poetic results of these explorations.
America is McGrath’s primary subject, as it was Walt Whitman’s. (There are few poets today who seem to have inherited such a healthy measure of the Whitmanic spirit.) Like Whitman, like America, McGrath ranges in his work from the beautiful to the brash, from the expansive to the intimate. It encompasses sprawling vistas, urban conflagrations and tiny, tender dioramas. Because he loves driving cross-country, it is, too, a poetry of motels, small towns, remote outposts and roadside attractions.
He has, it seems, been pretty much everywhere in this country, and he is nearly peerless in his ability to capture the character, tastes and textures of particular regions and locales. Tastes and textures are particularly salient here. America’s essence, for McGrath, is grounded in those conceptually conjoined twins, consumption and hunger. “Nouns & Verbs” is populated with, among other comestibles, Krispy Kreme doughnuts, Slurpees, 7-Eleven burritos, Dutch Apple Pop-Tarts, Coca-Cola, catfish, “beer and pretzels from the Stop N Go store,” stuffed pig intestines, “shrimp and stone crab claws from the Keys,” “the best and sweetest orange in the world,” “a little sack of plantain chips” whose salt is itself “a kind of poem,” and a “monumental pyramid of ham” that serves as a symbol of Chicago, and perhaps of America itself. Given the profusion of edibles that make appearances in these poems, it’s surprising that the book’s film rights have yet to be optioned by the Food Network.
The brand names and junk food are significant. On the micro-level, McGrath aims to portray contemporary American life as it is, in all its giddy diversity and quotidian trashiness, and he is not unwilling to gently chide other poets for their tendency to ignore the existence of TV game shows, rock music and other phenomena some writers might write off as insufficiently poetic:
In the world of some poets
there are no Cheerios or Pop-Tarts, no hot dogs
tumbling purgatorially on greasy rollers,
only chestnuts and pomegranates,
the smell of freshly baked bread,
summer vegetables in red wine, simmering.
Industrialized foods often serve as symbols of suffering and imperfection, and frequently represent the failures and indignities of contemporary capitalism. Consider the “cubes of cheese” at a post-reading reception that “taste like ashes licked from a bicycle chain,” the “Formica falsity” of the “processed cheesefood pseudopizza” served at Chuck E. Cheese, or Subway sandwiches, which McGrath takes as emblematic of “our insatiable appetite for woe” not only because, in his view, they are so bad, but because despite their badness “they are consumed / by the millions / and by the tens of millions.”
But McGrath is in no way averse to simple delights. Would he accept a world without Subway or Chuck E. Cheese, if it meant no Pop-Tarts, no Cheerios, no Krispy Kremes? I’m not sure. Consider his heartfelt elegy for the actor Paul Walker, or his affectionate ode to the anarchic adolescent pleasures of the hard rock band Guns N’ Roses. A former punk musician, McGrath feels a deep affection for the joyful raucous stupidity of rock music; refreshingly, he isn’t ashamed to say so in a poem.
Meanwhile, in macro-level poems like “The Genius of Industry” and “September 11,” McGrath has attempted to construct a panoptic vision of this country’s history and prospects. His most sustained and successful attempt at this, a stunning conceptual epic called “The Bob Hope Poem,” is, regrettably, not reproduced in its entirety in “Nouns & Verbs,” but is represented by a single section, “Commodity Fetishism in the White City.” While the excerpt is excellent, “The Bob Hope Poem” in its complete form is all the more so, and I hope that readers of the present volume will be moved to seek out the collection that contains it, McGrath’s 1996 book, “Spring Comes to Chicago.”
Over the years McGrath has been well recognized for his work, with a Kingsley Tufts Award, a Guggenheim, even a MacArthur “genius” grant. Perhaps in response to this — or perhaps because he is profoundly aware, as a critic of American culture, of the perils of overenthusiastic advertising — he is careful not to make excessive claims on poetry’s behalf. “Not even poetry can save us,” he tells a friend in “The Custodian.” In “A Greeting on the Trail” he describes how, when he turned 50, he finally understood “that poetry is not going to save anybody’s life, / least of all my own.”
He’s right about this. Still, I wouldn’t want to undersell poetry either. A couple of months ago I gave a copy of McGrath’s “Pax Atomica” to a friend who was going through a hard time. He stayed up late reading the book and wrote the next day to say that it had touched him. “I’d love to get a beer with this guy,” he wrote. It made me think of Keats, at the end of “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” where he addresses the urn as an enduring “friend to man,” and of how “Nouns & Verbs,” which contains no addresses to Greek pottery, does contain a poem titled “Ode to a Can of Schaefer Beer.” It’s a title that could have been a joke; but McGrath, perhaps with Keats in mind, chooses to treat it sincerely and with dignity. Like love, a road trip, a good orange, a Guns N’ Roses song or a can of beer, poetry can provide genuine solace, pleasure, a sense of connection. Or, to quote the final line of McGrath’s “Angels and the Bars of Manhattan”:
“Ice Cold Six Packs To Go.” Now that’s a poem.
Troy Jollimore is the author of three books of philosophy and three books of poetry, most recently “Syllabus of Errors.”
NOUNS & VERBS
New and Selected Poems
By Campbell McGrath
272 pp. Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers. $24.99.
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