Campbell McGrath

Campbell McGrath Poems

I'm the original two-hearted brawler.
I gnaw the scrawny heads from prawns,
pummel those mute, translucent crustaceans,
wingless hummingbirds, salt-water spawned.

Canny has always been an Irish word
to my ear, so too its cousin crafty,
suggesting not only an appreciation of close-work,
fine-making, handwrought artistry,

Gravel paths on hillsides amid moon-drawn vineyards,
click of pearls upon a polished nightstand
soft as rainwater, self-minded stars, oboe music
distant as the grinding of icebergs against the hull

On the map it is precise and rectilinear as a chessboard, though driving past you would hardly notice it, this boundary line or ragged margin, a shallow swale that cups a simple trickle of water, less rill than rivulet, more gully than dell

We construct it from tin and ambergris and clay,
ochre, graph paper, a funnel
of ghosts, whirlpool
in a downspout full of midsummer rain.

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

La Serenissima, in morning light, is beautiful.
But you already knew that.


5am: the frogs
ask what is it, what is it?
It is what it is.

If Socrates drank his portion of hemlock willingly,
if the Appalachians have endured unending ages of erosion,
if the wind can learn to read our minds
and moonlight moonlight as a master pickpocket,
surely we can contend with contentment as our commission.

Deer in a stubble field, small birds dreaming
unimaginable dreams in hollow trees,
even the icicles, darling, even the icicles shame us
with their stoicism, their radiant resolve.

Listen to me now: think of something you love
but not too dearly, so the night will steal from us
only what we can afford to lose.

The last two sherpas were the strongest,
faithful companions, their faces wind-peeled,
streaked with soot and glacier-light on the snowfield
below the summit where we stopped to rest.

The first was my body, snug in its cap of lynx-
fur, smelling of yak butter and fine mineral dirt,
agile, impetuous, broad-shouldered,
alive to the frozen bite of oxygen in the larynx.

The second was my intellect, dour and thirsty,
furrowing its fox-like brow, my calculating brain
searching for some cairn or chasm to explain
my decision to send them back without me.

Looking down from the next, ax-cleft serac
I saw them turn and dwindle and felt unafraid.
Blind as a diamond, sun-pure and rarefied,
whatever I was then, there was no turning back.

Green and blue and white, it is a flag
for Florida stitched by hungry ibises.

It is a paradise of flocks, a cornucopia
of wind and grass and dark, slow waters.

Turtles bask in the last tatters of afternoon,
frogs perfect their symphony at dusk—

in its solitude we remember ourselves,
dimly, as creatures of mud and starlight.

Clouds and savannahs and horizons,
its emptiness is an antidote, its ink

illuminates the manuscript of the heart.
It is not ours though it is ours

to destroy or preserve, this the kingdom
of otter, kingfisher, alligator, heron.

If the sacred is a river within us, let it flow
like this, serene and magnificent, forever.

Another year is coming to an end
but my old t-shirts will not be back—

the pea-green one from Trinity College,
gunked with streaks of lawnmower grease,

the one with orange bat wings
from Diamond Cavern, Kentucky,

without a trace.

After a two-day storm I wander the beach
admiring the ocean's lack of attachment.

I huddle beneath a seashell,
lonely as an exile.

My sadness is the sadness of water fountains.
My sadness is as ordinary as these gulls

importuning for Cheetos or scraps
of peanut butter sandwiches.

Feed them a single crust
and they will never leave you alone.

Bird is building a metropolis with his horn.
Here are the gates of Babylon, the walls of Jericho cast down.
Might die in Chicago, Kansas City's where I was born.

Snowflake in a blizzard, purple rose before the thorn.
Stone by stone, note by note, atom by atom, noun by noun,
Bird is building a metropolis with his horn.

Uptown, downtown, following the river to its source,
Savoy, Three Deuces, Cotton Club, Lenox Lounge.
Might just die in Harlem, Kansas City's where I was born.

Bird is an abacus of possibility, Bird is riding the horse
of habit and augmented sevenths. King without a crown,
Bird is building a metropolis with his horn.

Bred to the labor of it, built to claw an eye from the storm,
made for the lowdown, the countdown, the breakdown.
Might die in Los Angeles, Kansas City's where I was born.

Bridge by bridge, solo by solo, set by set, chord by chord,
woodshed to penthouse, blue to black to brown,
Charlie Parker is building a metropolis with his horn.
Might just die in Birdland, Kansas City's where I was born.

Bouncing along like a punch-drunk bell,
its Provençal shoes too tight for English feet,
the villanelle is a form from hell.

Balletic as a tapir, strong as a gazelle,
strict rhyme and formal meter keep a beat
as tiresome as a punch-drunk bell-

hop talking hip hop at the IHOP—no substitutions
on menu items, no fries with the chimichanga,
no extra syrup—what the hell

was that? Where did my rhyme go—uh, compel—
almost missed it again, damn, can you feel the heat
coming off this sucker? Red hot! Ding! (Sound of a bell.)

Hey, do I look like a bellhop to you, like an el-
evator operator, like a trained monkey or a parakeet
singing in my cage? Get the hell

out of the Poetry Hotel!
defeat mesquite tis mete repeat
Bouncing along like a punch-drunk bell,
the villanelle is a form from—Write it!—hell.

The kingdom of perception is pure emptiness
Po Chü-i

I have faltered in my appointed duty.
It is a small sacrilege, a minor heresy.

The nature of the duty is close attention
to the ivy and its tracery on riled brick,

the buckled sidewalk, the optimistic fern,
downed lilacs brown as coffee grounds,

little twirled seedwings falling by the thousands
from the maples in May wind,

and the leaves themselves
daily greener in ripening sunlight.

To whom is their offering rendered,
and from whom derived,

these fallen things
urging their bodies upon the pavement?

There is a true name for them,
a proper term, but what is it?


All day I was admonished
to admire the beauty of this single peony

but only now, in late starlight,
do I crush its petals to my face.

Elemental silk dimmed to ash,
reddening already to the brushstroke of dawn,

its fragrance is a tendril
connecting my mind to the rain,

a root, a tap, a tether.
Casting about, lachrymose, branches

of the trees at first light
flush with upthrust flowers

like white candles in blackened sconces.
Such is the form of the duty,

but which is its officer,
the world or the senses?

The many languages of birds now,
refusing to reconcile,

and clouds streaming out of the darkness
like ants to the day's bound blossom.

Today is a trumpet to set the hounds baying.
The past is a fox the hunters are flaying.
Nothing unspoken goes without saying.
Love's a casino where lovers risk playing.
The future's a marker our hearts are prepaying.

The future's a promise there's no guaranteeing.
Today is a fire the field mice are fleeing.
Love is a marriage of feeling and being.
The past is a mirror for wishful sightseeing.
Nothing goes missing without absenteeing.

Nothing gets cloven except by dividing.
The future is chosen by atoms colliding.
The past's an elision forever eliding.
Today is a fog bank in which I am hiding.
Love is a burn forever debriding.

Love's an ascent forever plateauing.
Nothing is granted except by bestowing.
Today is an anthem the cuckoos are crowing.
The future's a convolute river onflowing.
The past is a lawn the neighbor is mowing.

The past is an answer not worth pursuing,
Nothing gets done except by the doing.
The future's a climax forever ensuing.
Love is only won by wooing.
Today is a truce between reaping and rueing.

I suppose we did not want for love.
They were considerate parents, if a bit aloof,

or more than a bit. He was a colossus
of enthusiasms, none of them us,

while she kissed our heads and mended socks
with a wistful, faraway look.

She might have been a little, well, daft.
And he—Allons, my little ones, he'd laugh,

then leave without us.
And those "friends" of his!

Anyway, he's gone off to "discover
himself" in San Francisco, or wherever,

while she's retired to the condo in Boca.
We worry, but she says she likes it in Florida;

she seems, almost, happy. I suppose they were
less caregivers than enablers,

they taught by example, reading for hours
in the draughty house and now the house is ours,

with its drawers full of junk and odd
lines of verse and stairs that ascend to God

knows where, belfries and gymnasia,
the chapel, the workshop, aviaries, atria—

we can never hope to fill it all.
Our voices are too small

for its silences, too weak to spawn an echo.
Sometimes, even now, when the night-wind blows

into the chimney flue
I start from my bed, calling out—"Hello,

Mom and Dad, is that you?"

Campbell McGrath Biography

Cambell McGrath is a notable modern American poet. He is the author of nine full-length collections of poetry, including his most recent, Seven Notebooks (Ecco Press, 2008), Shannon: A Poem of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (Ecco Press, 2009), and In the Kingdom of the Sea Monkeys (Ecco Press, forthcoming, 2012). Life McGrath was born in Chicago, Illinois, and grew up in Washington, D.C., where he attended Sidwell Friends School; among his classmates was the poet Elizabeth Alexander. He received his B.A. from the University of Chicago in 1984 and his MFA from Columbia University's creative writing program in 1988, where he was classmates with Rick Moody. He currently lives in Miami Beach, Florida, and teaches creative writing at Florida International University, where his students have included Richard Blanco, Susan Briante, Jay Snodgrass and Emma Trelles. He is married to Elizabeth Lichtenstein, whom he met while he was an undergraduate; they have two sons. Music In the early 1980s, while a student at the University of Chicago, he was a member of the punk band Men From The Manly Planet. Awards McGrath has been recognized by some of the most prestigious American poetry awards, including the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award (for The Bob Hope Poem in Spring Comes to Chicago, his third book of poems), 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." In 2011 he was named a Fellow of United States Artists. Works While primarily known as a poet, McGrath has also written a play, "The Autobiography of Edvard Munch" (produced by Concrete Gothic Theater, Chicago, 1983); a libretto for Orlando Garcia's experimental video opera "Transcending Time" (premiered at the New Music Biennalle, Zagreb, Croatia, 2009); collaborated with the video artist John Stuart on the video/poetry piece "14 Views of Miami" (premiered at The Wolfsonian, Miami, 2008); and translated the Aristophanes play The Wasps for the Penn Greek Drama Series.)

The Best Poem Of Campbell McGrath

Hemingway Dines On Boiled Shrimp And Beer

I'm the original two-hearted brawler.
I gnaw the scrawny heads from prawns,
pummel those mute, translucent crustaceans,
wingless hummingbirds, salt-water spawned.
As the Catalonians do, I eat the eyes at once.
My brawny palms flatten their mainstays.
I pop the shells with my thumbs, then crunch.

Just watch me as I swagger and sprawl,
spice-mad and sated, then dabble in lager
before I go strolling for stronger waters
down to Sloppy Joe's.My stride as I stagger
shivers the islands, my fingers troll a thousand keys.
My appetite shakes the rock of the nation.
The force of my fiction makes the mighty Gulf Stream.

Campbell McGrath Comments

Barry Bloomberg 10 January 2013

Campbell, you have a keen, deep sense of the world; I love your imagery and interwoven flow of wit, irony, and delight in your subjects. Timeless stuff. Do you have more?

4 10 Reply
Barry Bloomberg 10 January 2013

Campbell, you have a keen, deep sense of the world; I love your imagery and interwoven flow of wit, irony, and delight in your subjects. Timeless stuff. Do you have more?

3 5 Reply

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