Book Review: Brad Leithauser on Campbell McGrath's 'Shannon'

By Brad Leithauser
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, August 19, 2009


A Poem of the Lewis and Clark Expedition

By Campbell McGrath

Ecco. 113 pp. $23.99

Most people get lost in history. It's an old story: While each new day looks bright and airy, the march of days -- decades, centuries -- turns opaque and heavy as oblivion. Yet George Shannon, the youngest member of the Lewis and Clark expedition, gave the old story a twist. You might say he got lost in history twice.

Shannon is the subject of "Shannon," a book-length poem by Campbell McGrath, the author of seven previous volumes of poetry. In the summer of 1804, early in the expedition, Shannon strayed after some runaway horses and got separated from his companions. For 16 confused days, he searched for them along the Missouri River, in what is now Nebraska and South Dakota. He managed in the process both to behold marvelous terrain new to white men and to approach the brink of starvation. If much of Shannon's life is lost historically (we don't know his birth date, for example), he achieved a modest historical place, as a footnote, by getting literally lost -- the only member of the expedition to do so. McGrath's poem is equal parts a hallucination of malnourishment and a meditation on a new, westering nation's discovery of its own inestimable riches.

The poem takes the form of fabricated journal entries, increasingly disjointed and fanciful as hunger eats into Shannon's rationality. Temperamentally, the young man -- a teenager, actually -- who narrates this poem is neither a contemplative nor a poet; he's a likable, inexperienced pilgrim, compelled by deepening emergency to ponder premature mortality.

The poetry lies less in the line-by-line than in the aggregate. George Shannon is given to plainspoken delivery, even with momentous matters:

In a country of herds

I wander alone.

On a journey of discovery

I am the lost.


My bones will weather as well

In prairie soil as any

& rest better unconsecrated.

The poem has something of the gentle flow and lift of the plains through which Shannon so haplessly roams. (Had he thought to take bullets before leaving camp, he could have fattened himself on a superabundance of game during his 16-day absence.) While "Shannon" offers few spectacular moments, it instills a gradual sense of spaciousness and wonder.

McGrath's Shannon isn't much of a believer, though his thoughts gravitate to his Christian upbringing as death nears. And had his journal entries continued after his rescue, he might have noted that few tales in his religious tradition have more resonance than that of the person who was lost and now is found. You might say the same for poetry generally. Surely, the sort of task McGrath undertakes here represents one of literature's profoundest pleasures. A poet tirelessly digs up something buried by days, years, centuries. And then he holds it to the light.

Leithauser's most recent book is a novel, "The Art Student's War."

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