Shopping for Pomegranates at Wal-Mart on New Year's Day
Beneath a ten-foot tall apparition of Frosty the Snowman
with his corncob pipe and jovial, over-eager, button-black eyes,
holding, in my palm, the leathery, wine-colored purse
of a pomegranate, I realize, yet again, that America is a country
about which I understand everything and nothing at all,
that this is life, this ungovernable air
in which the trees rearrange their branches, season after season,
never certain which configuration will bear the optimal yield
of sunlight and water, the enabling balm of nutrients,
that so too do Wal-Mart's ferocious sales managers
relentlessly analyze their end-cap placement, product mix
and shopper demographics, that this is the culture
in all its earnestness and absurdity, that it never rests,
that each day is an eternity and every night is New Year's Eve,
a cavalcade of B list has-beens entirely unknown to me,
needy comedians and country singers in handsome stetsons,
sitcom stars of every social trope and ethnic denomination,
pugilists and oligarchs, femmes fatales and anointed virgins
throat-slit in offering to the cannibal throng of Times Square.
Who are these people? I grow old. I lie unsleeping
as confetti falls, ash-girdled, robed in sweat and melancholy,
click-shifting from QVC to reality TV, strings of commercials
for breath freshener, debt reconsolidation, a new car
lacking any whisper of style or grace, like a final fetid gasp
from the lips of a dying Henry Ford, potato-faced actors
impersonating real people with real opinions
offered forth with idiot grins in the yellow, herniated studio light,
actual human beings, actual souls bought too cheaply.
That it never ends, o Lord, that it never ends!
That it is relentless, remorseless, and it is on right now.
That one sees it and sees it but sometimes it sees you, too,
cowering in a corner, transfixed by the crawler for the storm alert,
home videos of faces left dazed by the twister, the car bomb,
the war always beginning or already begun, always
the special report, the inside scoop, the hidden camera
revealing the mechanical lives of the sad, inarticulate people
we have come to know as "celebrities."
Who assigns such value, who chose these craven avatars
if not the miraculous hand of the marketplace
whose torn cuticles and gaudily-painted fingernails resemble nothing
so much as our own? Where does the oracle reveal our truths
more vividly than upon that pixilated spirit-glass
unless it is here, in this tabernacle of homely merchandise,
a Copernican model of a money-driven universe
revolving around its golden omphalos, each of us summed
and subtotaled, integers in an equation of need and consumption,
desire and consummation, because Hollywood had it right all along,
the years are a montage of calendar pages and autumn leaves,
sheet music for a nostalgic symphony of which our lives comprise
but single trumpet blasts, single notes in the hullabaloo,
or even less-we are but motes of dust in that atmosphere
shaken by the vibrations of time's imperious crescendo.
That it never ends, o Lord. That it goes on,
without pause or cessation, without pity or remorse.
That we have willed it into existence, dreamed it into being.
That it is our divine monster, our factotum, our scourge.
That I can imagine nothing more beautiful
than to propitiate such a god upon the seeds of my own heart.
What could ever equal their quickening, their quicksilver jet pulse of arrival and dispersal, mercurial purl and loop in the fluid arena of the floodlight toward which they had been lured like moths to their undoing? We were eighteen that summer, Mike and I, working on an old Greek-registered freighter carrying holds full of golden corn to Mexico, corn that flowed like ancestral blood through the continent's veins and south, down the aorta of the Mississippi, to be loaded for transport across the Gulf. From Baton Rouge it was hours threading the delta and one long night suspended between stars and the galaxies of luminescent plankton stirred up in our wake and then a week at anchor awaiting a berth in the harbor at Veracruz. By the third day the sailors had grown so restless the Captain agreed to lower the gangway as a platform from which to fish for squid, which was not merely a meal but a memento of home flashing like Ionian olive leaves. Ghost-eyed, antediluvian, they darted upward, into the waiting, hand-held nets, and then the sailors dropped everything to dash with their catch toward the galley like grooms carrying brides to a nuptial bed, one slit to yank the cartilage from white-purple flesh tossed without ceremony into a smoking skillet, trickled with lemon and oil, a pinch of salt, and eaten barely stilled, still tasting of the sea that had not yet registered its loss. That's the image that comes back to me, the feast of the squid, and thereafter we passed our evenings playing cards or ferried into port after a dinner of oily moussaka by one of the ancient coal-burning tenders that made the rounds like spark-belching taxis amongst the vessels lying at anchor, and the gargantuan rats drinking from the scuppers, and the leering prostitutes in the harbormaster's office, and the mango batidos Mike preferred to beer, and the night we missed our ride back to the ship and walked until the cafés closed and slept at the end of a long concrete breakwater, and the sky at first light a scroll of atoms, and the clouds at dawn as if drawn from a poem by Wallace Stevens, tinct of celadon and cinnabar and azure, and the locals waking on benches all around us, a whole neighborhood strolling out to squat and shit into the harbor, and then, piercing the clouds, aglow with sunlight for which the city still waited, the volcano-we'd never even guessed at its existence behind a mantle of perpetual mist-Pico de Orizaba, snow-topped Citlaltépetl like the sigil of a magus inked on vellum, and everything thereafter embellished by its hexwork, our lives forever stamped with that emblem of amazement, revelation, awe.
Kingdom of the Sea Monkeys
When I close my eyes the movie starts, the poem rises, the plot begins.
Falling asleep it comes to me, the novel I will never write, in semaphore flashes against my eyelids, flames from a torpedoed ship reflected on low clouds, flames abstract as green fingers, steam-machinery assembled from blueprints of another era, engine-gush of hot ash, a foliage of fears as lush as prehistoric ferns.
Up rises chaff from the threshing floor, up rises moon dust, city smoke, pulses of birdcall, voices chopped by wind into mews and phonemes.
The mind in the true dark at 3 a.m. when the electricity goes out with a bang-circling the ambit of consciousness, listening, probing, defending the perimeter, as long ago, fending off wolves with sharpened sticks when the fire died.
The perfecting of art, according to Kierkegaard, is contingent upon the possibility of gradually detaching itself more and more from space and aiming toward time,
a distinction analogous to that between perception and insight,
how the mind navigates like a bat, sometimes, soaring through its cavern via echolocation.
Other times it rests, perfectly still, like a bowl of pond water, a pure vessel in which the sediment, stirred up like flocks of swifts at dusk, swirls and drifts and settles, until its next disturbance, its next cyclonic effulgence.
Swirl, drift, settle.
It is the outside world that creates the self, that creates the sense of continuity on which the self depends-not the eyes, not the eyelash diffusing light, not the hands moving through the frame of observation, but the world.
We anchor ourselves within the familiar, like boats on an immensity of water.
Different day to day, yes-as the boardwalk of a town outside Genoa with its old carousel and honey-flavored ice cream cones differs from a plain of sagebrush in Nevada-different and yet always and immediately recognizable. Ah, there it is again, the world. And so I too must still be here, within the container of myself, this body, this armature. As long as I can see out I can see in.
Therefore it is only through others that we know ourselves.
Therefore the limits of our compassion form the limits of our world.
Still our lives resemble dreams, luminous tapestries woven by a mechanism like the star machine at the planetarium, realms of fantastic desire and possibility, like the kingdom of the sea monkeys promised in the back pages of comic books of my childhood, the King of the Sea Monkeys with his crown and trident, his coral-hewn castle with pennants waving. That so much could be obtained for so little! And then the licking of postage stamps, and the mailing away, and the waiting.
Or perhaps it is less like a dream than a visionary journey,
to pilot the vehicle of consciousness through the turmoil of reality as if crossing the heart of a continent,
shadow of a hawk on asphalt clear as a photograph
as you rise from rich valleys into snowy mountains, black trees, melt-water, the striations of snow melting around the tree trunks like the growth rings within the wood of the trees themselves, layered accretions, historical pith.
Such a sad awakening it was, the day the sea monkeys arrived in the mail, no proud sea monarch or tiny mermaid minions, no castle, no scepter, no crown, just a little paper packet of dried brine shrimp which, tumbled into a fish bowl, resembled wriggling microscopic larvae, resembled sediment in pond water, swirling and drifting and settling.
Where is the King of the Sea Monkeys, the ruler of all memory?
Lost, and with him his kingdom, vanished like Atlantis beneath the waves, while we cling to life rafts and tea chests amid the flotsam,
old movies projected like messages in bottles within the green-glass lyceums of our skulls.
Awakening, yes, as if startled from a dream.
As when, driving in heavy rain, you cross beneath an overpass and the world leaps with mystifying clarity at the windows of your eyes.
-from In The Kingdom of the Sea Monkeys
BIO: Born in Chicago to Irish-Catholic parents, Campbell McGrath grew up in Washington, D.C. He attended the University of Chicago, where he received his Bachelor of Arts. At Columbia University, he was in creative writing classes with fiction writer Rick Moody and received a Master of Fine Arts in 1988. Although he has taught at the University of Chicago and Northwestern University in the past, he currently teaches creative writing at Florida International University in Miami. He was deeply influenced by Walt Whitman particularly, and James Wright, Sylvia Plath, and Rainer Maria Rilke. McGrath has published numerous collections of poetry, and writes predominantly free-verse, long-lined, documentary poems as a kind of catalog, where the long lines look at the vast complexity of America and penetrate its paradoxes and attractions. He has also written many prose poems as well as shorter lyrics. Some of his collections are Spring Comes to Chicago (1996). The centerpiece of the collection, and one of McGrath’s best-known poems, is “The Bob Hope Poem,” a 70-page opus modeled on Robert Pinsky’s “An Explanation of America” and James McMichael’s “Four Good Things.” His collections also include Capitalism (1990); American Noise (1994); Florida Poems (2002); Pax Atomica (2005); Seven Notebooks (2007); and In the Kingdom of the Sea Monkeys (2012).
McGrath’s work has been recognized by some of the most prestigious American poetry awards, including the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award a Pushcart Prize, the Academy of American Poets Prize, a Ploughshares Cohen Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Witter Bynner Fellowship from the Library of Congress, and a MacArthur Foundation "Genius Award”. His poetry has been widely anthologized, including in The New Bread Loaf Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry (1999), The New American Poets (2000), and Great American Prose Poems (2003). In 2011 he was named a Fellow of United States Artists.
An Interview with Campbell McGrath by Steve Davenport and Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Steve Davenport & Andrew Mcfadyen-Ketchum: You write gorgeous and gorgeously long sentences. "Shopping for Pomegranates at Wal-Mart on New Year's Day," for instance, opens with a sentence that breaks and rolls through nineteen lines. How aware are you, in the early stages of drafting a poem like "Shopping for Pomegranates," of the power you wield in a sentence like that? I'm thinking guitar god.
Campbell McGrath: Ha. That's a funny analogy, though I recall a review of one of my earlier books saying something similar-so perhaps I have more of a guitar-slinger fixation than I'd realized. I do think long sentences that unroll over a series of lines like the one you cite are quite powerful, because they are plugging into a dynamic power source: syntax. Syntax is the life force of language, the lightning bolt that brings Frankenstein to life. We are used to seeing simple or at most moderately complex sentences, so when you uncork a stem-winder, as it were, you are upping the syntactical voltage. Maybe that is like some kind of sizzling Neil Young guitar solo, or some kind of bravura De Kooning brushwork, or the amazing sequence that opens Citizen Kane.
SD & AMK: "Squid" features a sentence that's longer by word-count, not line-, than the one that opens "Shopping," but this time you choose to close, not open, with it. It really is a masterful display of skill, of suspending and delivering bits of information and images, of stringing together a stunning array of nouns, from the simple (ship, beer) to the unusual (batidos, sigil) to the proper (Pico de Orizaba, Citlaltépetl). Would you talk about your process at the level of sentence-building, especially the long ones?
CM: At this point, I'd like to commend your critical eye, and ear, for noting the kinship between those sentences. The long, unrolling sentence, with its hesitations and suspensions, its reversals and divagations-its parenthetical clauses-its use of parallelism, or anaphora, or both, or neither-long sentences are just fun to write. They challenge your creativity because it's quite easy for a long sentence to feel over-extended, to lose energy midway through, and just peter out, which is bad. Of course, this works differently in a lineated poem and a prose poem. In a lineated poem, the tension between syntax and line drives the poem forward, so syntax has a partner to work with. In a prose poem you have surrendered the line as a tool, which is a dramatic loss, so syntactical variation is even more important. Alternating lengths and types of sentences is how you vary the tempo and the texture of the poem. You need to be entirely conscious of each sentence in a prose poem, and employ syntax as both an organizational tool and a rhythmic device.
SD & AMK: In "Kingdom of the Sea Monkeys," you use space between sections that, for the most part, feature a single sentence each. Twice you deliver sections that include multiple sentences, the first time four, the second three. Twice you break a sentence up, once into three sections, once into four. Are your section breaks in some way doing the work of line breaks?
CM: Well, we've already discussed poems in lines and poems in block prose form. Here we have an example of a third possible poetic structure-a poem in strophes, or, put another way, a disarticulated prose poem. The normal structural unit of prose is the paragraph, of poetry the line. Strophes, in this usage, lie somewhere between the two-though they can stretch toward paragraph length, as in the multi sentence sections you cite, or fracture into something resembling lyric lines. (If you want to investigate this form further look at some of Milosz's later poems, and Robert Hass's "spring sequence" in Human Wishes.) Normally when I work in this form my strophes do not align as closely with the sentences-they are more fragmented-but in this poem I had the sense of each section as a kind of assertion, or statement, or step in an argument. The open space between strophes becomes a kind of breathing space. It suggests the mind working through a problem, modifying or verifying what has come before. This poem, as you suggest, is about the mind and how it operates, about consciousness, which is what defines us as individuals, and as a species. What does it feel like to have a mind that engages the world, that seeks to interpret and understand, that "drifts and swirls and settles"? To me that's an endlessly fascinating question.
SD & AMK: In "Shopping," you appear to quote T. S. Eliot in the middle of line twenty: "I grow old." Lying in bed channel-surfing and melancholic, the "I" displays Prufrockian behavior. In "Squid" you name Wallace Stevens and reference a poem by him. The language that follows, luxurious and exotic, might be at home in a Stevens' poem. How influenced are you by the Modernists?
CM: It depends which Modernist you have in mind. Stevens? Certainly "Squid" invokes him and the type of language he often deployed in describing, for instance, the Gulf of Mexico. I admire the beauty of that language, though it can feel a little ornate, a little dusty. Eliot is not a poet I have ever sought to imitate. Prufrock in particular! I cannot for the life of me understand the enduring popularity of that poem. I read a lot of Pound in college, and certainly learned something from the Cantos, though I'm not sure I could say what it was. Seriousness of purpose? WCW is my favorite, of course, though you probably could not tell from the poems we are discussing here, poems which are long-winded and almost baroque in comparison to his minimalist esthetic. But if you want to talk about syntax, how the tension between line and syntax orders the poem, go look at "The Red Wheel Barrow" again-that's a good place to start the conversation.
SD & AMK: Very quickly in "Kingdom of Sea Monkeys, a poem about how the mind and perception work," you reference film, poetry, and the novel. The novel comes to the "I," the speaker, "in semaphore flashes against my eyelids." Later in the poem you mention photography. All of this seems very Twentieth Century, very Modernist. Would you speak to poetry's ability to satisfy the space and time demands laid out in the Soren Kierkegaard quote? Compared, say to film, the novel, photography or any other art forms given to narrative, is poetry's ability special?
CM: For the last five or six years I've been working on a book about the Twentieth Century-a sequence of 100 poems, one for each year, in the voices of various historical figures. Modernism is inevitably important to that project, though I've focused on visual artists-Picasso, Braque, Matisse-rather than poets. But it also seems like the lyric poems I've been writing concurrently with this set of "historical" poems, such as those in Sea Monkeys, have been influenced by similar concerns, dyed in the same vat. Modernism is not a topic I generally concern myself with, in that the world I was born into was already so thoroughly Postmodern that Modernism seems quaint in comparison. Wearing my historical hat, however, I recognize the revolutionary importance of Modernism, and have enjoyed writing about it in poetic form.
As to the matter of artistic form: I love movies and novels, which are fantastic narrative mediums. Poetry cannot match the immediacy of movies-we can't throw actual pictures up on the page, thirty feet tall, we have to create our images out of words. Likewise, poetry has difficulty matching the discursive, expository scope of the novel-certainly you can write a long narrative poem, I myself have done it, but the end product is not the same as a historical novel. To flip it over, though, these very strengths are also weaknesses. Movies, as Orson Welles complained, are deeply superficial-they can only depict what can actually be pictured, while so much of what really matters is invisible, internal, within the heart and mind. Novels do have the ability to visit the interiors of their characters, but those characters are burdened with the act of story-telling, and bound to the highly-constructed confines of narrative. When the movie starts or the novel begins-to semi-quote my own poem above-you know very quickly what is unfolding: love story, tragic drama, quirky character study, pensive meditation. Often, you pretty much know what will happen before it begins. When you approach a poem for the first time, you have no idea what you are in for-will it be "The Red Wheel Barrow" or The Wasteland, a haiku or The Odyssey?
As for Kierkegaard-it seems to me that poetry is ideally situated to accomplish what his quotation suggests art ought to aspire to: capturing the sense of being-alive-in-time. As different as Williams is from Eliot, and Basho from Homer, great poets are often time-haunted, obsessed with depicting the instantaneous, moment-by-moment nature of our lives. I think this is another way of saying that poetry is a medium beautifully adapted to mapping human consciousness, which is where we began this discussion.