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.”