Campbell McGrath’s entertaining and frustrating fifth book of poems–every single one of them devoted to some aspect of Florida–raises two large questions. One has to do with representations of that state; the other, with precision, personality and populism in poetry, and the relative value of each.
Elizabeth Bishop, who lived in Key West for some years, called Florida “the state with the prettiest name,” “the state full of long S-shaped birds, blue and white”; Wallace Stevens saw in Florida’s “venereal soil” an escape from intellection–though he came to find its fertility unnerving. Among living poets, William Logan, Tony Harrison and Michael Hofmann have all taught in Gainesville and written about it. Donald Justice described the Florida of his youth in such poems as “A Winter Ode to the Old Men of Lummus Park, Miami, Florida.” Dionisio D. Martínez evoked the state’s lightning-prone flats in Bad Alchemy, while Karen Volkman skewered Miami in her much-anthologized “Infernal.”
McGrath aims to capture in verse a Florida as disturbing as any of those, and far more comprehensive. His narrative, didactic, essayistic and lyric poems together try to depict the whole troubled state, a state that (in McGrath’s view) cries out either for political action to set it on a new course or for an apocalypse to wash it all away. As in his celebrated Spring Comes to Chicago (1996), McGrath’s models here include the Ginsberg of Howl; the Whitman of big catalogue poems like “A Song for Occupations”; crowd-pleasing comic poets like Billy Collins; and writers of the modern left–from Carl Sandburg to Martín Espada–who wish to tie locally oriented description to socioeconomic protest. McGrath offers, first, a ten-part narrative poem (based on Aristophanes’ Birds) called “A City in the Clouds”; next, a group of short poems on subjects Floridian; last, a long verse-essay called “The Florida Poem.” Though they share attitudes, topics and techniques, each section has to be judged on its own.
McGrath’s narrative shows the rise, success and eventual fall of an airborne city built above Florida–one that bears remarkable resemblances to it. Readers of Aristophanes, or of the headlines, will know quickly what fate McGrath’s cloud-folks face (or refuse to face): Seeking a carefree New World, the cloud-dwellers end up dependent on complex irrigation, McDonald’s sandwiches, tourism, real estate speculation, overbuilt prisons and exploited noncitizen “laborers [who] were needed…to man the pumps for the earthward flow of water upon which their entire economy depended.” Menaced by aerial alligators, then by failing machinery, the cloud-folks finally let the city collapse. The poem’s most original moments are those closest to (prose) science fiction: In one, the cloud-dwellers haul up “whatever could be gathered at the ever-shifting terminal point where the wind-flexed elevator shaft met the ground.”
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Despite such descriptive energies, McGrath’s cloud-poem lacks the verbal reliability we expect from most modern verse: His long lines can forsake semantic control. Here, for example, the citizens view their new home:
Times the clouds were like riven badlands, foils and arroyos and alluvial fans, rough country best traversed with safety ropes as if crossing polar seas over plates of tilting ice.
Times the clouds were gongs and temples, a rapture in pewter, grand passions, coffers of incense and precious woods.
Rapture and passions. Badlands and alluvial fans, and ice. Often McGrath seems to operate by the rule “Never use one word when three will do”: The cloud-dwellers “missed things, various places and objects, old friends or distant cousins, specific sounds, familiar certainties” (as against unfamiliar ones). Later we see “luxurious waterfalls rooted in the barest mist or veil of vapor.” Nor is such excess confined to the narrative poem. In the short poem “The Miami Beach Holocaust Memorial” McGrath summons “the vestigial memory of some as yet undreamed/category of violent distinction and hatred,” a phrase almost any prose editor would blue-pencil.
McGrath’s vivid description and his social critiques carry over into his short poems. So, alas, does his insistence on spelling things out. In a villanelle about the Florida State Fair,
…we’re stamping and hooting all over the place
while the Texas swing band plays “Rocky Top, Tennessee”
and Haitian kids dip kettle candy beneath a live oak tree
in historic Cracker Country, apt and ironic misnomer for the place,
because this is Florida, after all, not Texas or Tennessee.
McGrath has to tell us what he finds “ironic”; otherwise we might not know. Elsewhere it can be hard to tell if he’s kidding: “Trouble with Miami,” one poem opines, “is…a dearth of cultural infrastructure so profound//that the only local institution worth its salt is the ocean,” where “watching the beautiful women on the beach/…may be our best shot at real enlightenment.” Is this a persona we’re meant to dislike? Apparently not: “Florida,” McGrath explains later, “is bereft of mythic infrastructure,/symbolically impoverished.” It’s an odd complaint in a book full of (highly symbolic) conquistadors, Seminoles, mangroves, alligators, mouseketeers and scarily iconic restaurants (of which more below). If that’s “symbolically impoverished,” what to call Delaware?
McGrath seems to mean not that Florida lacks symbols, but that its symbols end up either sinister or ridiculous, or both. The poems he finds he can make out of them are comic, and the comedy moves him to complain. When McGrath instead describes his private life, he can be more careful, and far more likable: “The Zebra Longwing” (named after a butterfly) ends as follows:
have borne them awayWings
have borne them away
from the silk
of the past as surely
as some merciful wind
has delivered us
to an anchorage of such
Elizabeth. All my life
I have searched, without knowing it,
for this moment.
McGrath has transported James Wright’s famous poem “A Blessing” to a warmer climate and a happy marriage. He’s done it so carefully that the transposition works.
McGrath rarely gets that calm, though; normally he wants for his own work the prophetic enthusiasms of Whitman or Ginsberg, who also combined sometimes-radical politics with long personal digressions. Yet Ginsberg and Whitman at their best were fascinated by the individuals who made it into their poems, whether for half a book (Carl Solomon in Howl) or for a couple of lines (Whitman’s soldiers, prostitutes, firefighters). McGrath almost always considers people other than himself in fairly large groups–cloud-dwellers, exploited workers, the Calusa, the old folks, the tourists. He does better with “Maizel at Shorty’s in Kendall”:
All shift them sugar donuts
been singing to me,
calling to me something crazy in a voice
Dolly Parton’d be proud of–Maizel, honey,
eat us up!
Notice the alphabetical acrostic (lines begin a, b, c–), a form McGrath uses three times. It suits him, since it allows for long free-verse lists. “What I loved most,” he declared in Spring Comes to Chicago, “was the depth and rationality of the catalogue”; here one acrostic (“Seashells, Manasota Key”) comprises nothing but catalogue, from “Abras, augers, arks and angel wings” to Zirfaea crispata.
These lists take their place among other manifestations of McGrath’s exuberance: He loves to say what he sees, and he finds most of it either very attractive or ugly indeed. Poetry, Yeats said, came not from our quarrels with others, but from our quarrels with ourselves. If there’s such a quarrel here, it sets McGrath’s impulse to celebrate absolutely everything–cars, lightning, alligators, America–against his understandable sense that Florida, and the other forty-nine states, are resource guzzlers headed for a fall. Usually, though, these poems enact McGrath’s excited quarrels with others. Of “Disney’s realm of immortal/simulacra,” McGrath says that it makes too easy a target “when there are nastier vermin to contest,” vermin like “Orlando itself,” where “the anthem of our freedom is sung by Chuck E. Cheese.” There follows a three-page attack on that fast-food chain and its iconic mouse, “the monstrous embodiment of a nightmare,” designed “to entice the youngest among us/to invest their lives in a cycle of competitive consumption.” This lengthy philippic against a pizzeria moves beyond predictability, beyond comedy and beyond politics into a vituperation as excessive as it is entertaining: What did Chuck E. Cheese ever do to McGrath?
In poems like that one (“Benediction for the Savior of Orlando”), McGrath is at bottom a dazzling performer, as much so as the cartoon figures he says he hates, though with an admirable politics his corporate nemeses obviously lack. The standard critique of, say, TV ads (they reduce us to passive receivers) might hold just as true for McGrath’s verse, which leaves us little to figure out for ourselves. “The Florida Anasazi” attacks “the alligator-headed figure known to us as The Developer who works his trickery upon the people of the tribe, pilfering communal goods, claiming to produce that which he despoils.” Pound called poetry news that stays news. Is this news? Does it tell us anything unexpected, either about how to understand evil developers or about how to resist what they try to do?
The long poem titled “The Florida Poem” is a different, and happier, matter. In it McGrath returns to a form that can showcase his talents and neutralize most of his faults. The form is the long, research-filled essay-cum-rant, with roots (McGrath’s note suggests) in Pablo Neruda’s Canto General–and in McGrath’s own bigger, better, earlier, funnier “Bob Hope Poem” (from Spring). Neruda in one way, and “Bob Hope” in another, tried to give the history of a continent; here McGrath contents himself with one state in the union, about which his form allows him to say, and to enjoy saying, anything at all, from the whimsical to the sarcastic to the mock-classical ode:
Sing through me, o native goddess, o sacred orange
blossom nymph, o Weeki Wachee naiad…
Florida: it’s here!
Florida: it’s here and it’s for sale!
Florida: it’s neat, in a weird way!
Florida: Fuckin’ Fantastic!
This would be my official suggestion for a new state motto…
Much of the poem returns to familiar targets, “marketers/and technocrats and mouseketeer apparatchiks” and so on. Yet the real subject of “The Florida Poem” is not the damage such folks have done but instead McGrath’s feelings about the state they have produced, with its eye-popping sights and consumerist excess, its real fun and its false Fountains of Youth:
been enticed to sw…I myself have more than once
been enticed to swim in the icy oasis of DeLeon Springs,
and have eaten at the remarkable restaurant
reputedly housed in an old Spanish mill
where they grind still the wheat
to mix the batter you pool and flip on a griddle
in the middle of your very own table.
Pancakes and alligators and paddleboats and ruins
of vanished conquerors vanquished
in their turn. It’s one of my favorite places in the state,
not merely for the flapjacks and historical ironies
but for the chaste fact of its beauty.
In this kind of writing, compression, obliquity, even precision, may be sacrificed for the sake of a voice. For this reason alone “The Florida Poem” is by far the best in the book. Its size lets it encompass both the obvious judgments McGrath thinks we need to hear (conquistadors bad, manatees good, “Indians…easily romanticized” yet “human, familiar with power and avarice”) and the details that make those judgments entertaining even at their most predictable. (Floridian readers–especially if they speak Spanish–may call to mind aspects of their state McGrath leaves out.) Above all, “The Florida Poem” gives us the sound of a person talking: It has not only the faults but some of the virtues of what’s now called “performance poetry” (a movement to which McGrath has not been linked):
…Andrew Jackson bought the whole place
for five million dollars and a solemn promise
to relinquish all future American
claims to Texas.
It’s because McGrath–ordinarily–can’t slow down for more than a couple of syllables that he gets comic effects from that one-line nonword. Elsewhere his rant reminds me of Williams’s splendid and splenetic “Impromptu”:
What the governor meant was
come and get it,
down, rip it up,
mill it for lumber, boil it for turpentine,
orchard it for oranges or pit-mine it for phosphates,
shoot it for hides or skins or quills
“It” comes to mean at once particular natural resources, the exploited population and the whole state: It’s a neat rhetorical effect, one McGrath can only achieve in a long poem, and one that makes this long poem worth a try. As it spreads back into the prehuman past, and then into a misty future, McGrath applies these effects of capacious verve not just to the parts of the state he hates but to scenes within the state he loves:
of an element so…visceral
of an element so clear each grain of sand
sings forth, each bordering leaf of oak or heliconia,
each minnow or sunfish in the mineral wicker-work,
one jump, one plunge
toward the crevice of rifted limestone
wherefrom the earth pours forth
its liquid gift…
Now that’s a Florida worth going to see.