IN THE TITULAR prose poem of his new collection, Campbell McGrath likens our lives to “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.” Dreams are not known for their realism, which leads to quite a letdown when fantastic desires prove as fantastical as an advertised kingdom of sea monkeys. “Such a sad awakening” to learn that our lives are like that broken promise, “a sad awakening … 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 fishbowl, resembled wriggling microscopic larvae, resembled sediment in pond water, swirling and drifting and settling.” I doubt that McGrath intended this analogy for how it feels to read his new book, which is simply lame.
The jokes are lame (“Anyway, [Walt Whitman has] gone off to ‘discover/ himself’ in San Francisco, or wherever”); the rhythms are lame (try to read this aloud—“To kiss on the calliope and uproot world tyranny/ and strum a rhythm guitar Ron Wood would envy”—and likely gag somewhere around “Ron Wood would”). The ideas are lame and often just wrong:
A simile is simply an equal sign,
a coupling-device in a linguistic equation.
thou = summer day
But similes compare without equating, and the Shakespeare he alludes to is not even a simile (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”).
This is from a poem called “Notes on Compression”—“cmprsn!”—in which McGrath tells us that “Compression, like the weed whacker/ is not a fit tool for every occasion.” Yes, but I wish that McGrath had compressed his orgy of descriptions that lack the precision to clarify or the energy to rhapsodize. It just confuses me to read that our lives are like dreams like tapestries like fake stars like desires like possibilities like sea monkeys. This has the verbosity of Ginsberg without the incantatory longing, and it goes on for 128 pages. At least In the Kingdom of the Sea Monkeys has no real linguistic difficulty, and thus the reader does not have to puzzle through its confusing language to make sure that her frustration is warranted.
McGrath has never been a difficult poet, but his early work was complex and often exciting for the ease with which readers could feel its complexities. More than one reviewer thought that McGrath “could help save poetry from academia and get the rest of us reading it again.” He won what he called “an embarrassment of philanthropic riches” after his third book of poems, Spring Comes to Chicago, which deserved a lot of praise if maybe not all the awards that were heaped on its author. That book and his earlier American Noise established him as a kind of intellectual Woody Guthrie or musical Carl Sandburg, a leftist documentarian bard who found redemptive pleasures in everything from Bing Crosby to the sociology of chimps. But that was five books ago, and McGrath’s work has since drifted and settled, and it is now closed where it was open, smug where it was searching, a sea-monkey bag of imagined America.
McGrath showed layers of self-awareness in American Noise when he wrote about his apprenticeship—his ambitions and the ghosts of influences like Kerouac:
To the neo-beatnik faithful
you remained a sacrificial paradigm, an icon bleeding
bebop plasma, a boozy, jazz-infused, Buddhist martyr;
to us a tutelary prodigal, a culture-hero to the bitter end.
In truth, what? A drunk Canuck guzzling bourbon, laughing
aloud at “The Beverly Hillbillies’” slaphappy pantomime of bliss,
paranoid and obese, crushed by a mother’s alcoholic love?
McGrath returns in Kingdom to the problem of Kerouac’s death:
I met [Ginsberg] only once, at a party in Vinnie Katz’s old apartment above a
Thai restaurant on 55th Street in Chicago, spring of 1983 or ‘84…
Ginsberg sat hunched in a back room, buddha-like, holding court; the
omnisexual dimension of his Socratic shtick was a bit unnerving…
I posed burning questions like, Why did Kerouac
have to die, man?
What did not get worse? The early poem is rhythmically intricate enough to try out the verbal energy of its subject—“an icon bleeding/ bebop plasma”—indulge in it—“a boozy, jazz-infused, Buddhist martyr”—and discard it as McGrath grows suspicious of the ecstatic Romantic myth of Kerouac that made him “a culture-hero to the bitter end.” Rather than indulge in Kerouac, McGrath mocks Kerouac’s indulgences with sad sonic cocktails—“A drunk Canuck guzzling bourbon”—that sober up to a man “paranoid and obese.” After this intricacy, recycled phrases (“buddha-like”) and flat phrasing (“hunched in a back room, buddha-like, holding court”). His ambition declines from a searching, searing elegy to the trite humor of “Why did Kerouac have to die, man?” a joke that treats the younger McGrath like a silly boho and betrays in its dismissiveness the maddening self-satisfaction with which age can close its mind to youth.
If this seems overstated, consider the letter in Kingdom to the editors of McSweeney’s Internet Tendency about their “lamentable policy of publishing no poems but sestinas”:
I have reached the unusual and perhaps uncool
to grant the editors of McSweeney’s Internet Tendency
a platform from which to articulate their defense. “Yo, what’s wrong with sestinas!
We think sestinas are totally, totally cool!…
Cool cool cool cool cool cool cool cool cool cool…”
He actually published this. Never mind that the editors of Tendency would never talk like that—Dave Eggers is forty-two, not twelve—and never mind the non-sestinas that show up at the first search for “poem” on the Tendency website (such as an excerpt from Dean Young’s Embryoyo). The lazy language and lazy research reflect McGrath’s apparent lack of empathy or respect for the youthful pretentions he sees in McSweeney’s. Perhaps he resents them. They have youth, he thinks, and his youth had promise. It is no psychological coincidence that the most emotional openness in Kingdom comes after three pages of vitriol about the megalomania of a poet also heralded when he was younger, “a man who was to vanity as the ostrich is/ to flightlessness and eggs.” The poet was clueless enough to say things in McGrath’s reading series like ‘You could say … that in those [earlier] days/ I was the Great White Hope of poetry, the next big thing.’ McGrath resents this so intensely because it makes him resent his own ambition, as his wife understands without judging him for it:
Elizabeth smiled, eyelashes jeweled with mist,
and placed my hand upon the globe of her stomach.
“Yes,” she said. “But we all want to be loved.”
That is the only demanding self-reflection in the book, unless you count his confession that he “did not finish Ulysses or even start on Proust.”
I suspect that the reason for McGrath’s self-satisfaction is his willingness to rehash the persona his early poems hashed out. His concern was to confront the most deadened and materialistic parts of American life with the kind of transformative, exploratory joy that would find and restore the ceiling in Grand Central Station. “The Bob Hope Poem,” an early work, brought this honest and thoughtful vigor to bear on Chicago and American values and the corny, greedy, legendary Hope, to whom McGrath is a self-questioning emotional counterpoint. Take the tangle of feelings with which McGrath picks up People magazine and reads about Hope’s financial greed:
Well, well, well.
Guess I’ll take a look.
How sad. How banal. How pitiful
simple or compounded daily.
How profligate to grant unthinking assent to this most glib and hour-
wasting gratification, though time, as they say, is money,
and times are tough,
and money does not grow on trees,
and nothing makes money like money.
The money-hungry clichés seem truistic because they feel true, a feeling that overwhelms McGrath’s critical poses of indifference and judgment and antiquated snobbery (“How profligate”!). His attitudes question each other. Not so in Kingdom, whose “Shopping for Pomegranates at Wal-Mart on New Year’s Day” just recites the dismissal his early work questioned:
That it never ends …
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 …
After this disengagement, can you really believe that he “can imagine nothing more beautiful/ than to propitiate such a god upon the seeds of my own heart”? This fake gesture of conscience is part of the message of poems designed to assert that he is a conscientious person, that he has figured out how to live well in materialistic America, whereas his earlier poems actually worked to celebrate the culture they criticized.
Perhaps his felt need to assert that he figured things out is meant to compensate for his life’s resembling “the hinterlands of exurbia” his youth tried to avoid. He moved to Florida—teaches there, raises kids, commutes, consumes, takes his kid to Chuck E. Cheese and writes a poem to assure us that he is not the sort of person who approves of Chuck E. Cheese, “the diabolical vampire of our transcendent ideals.” The idea is that Chuck is “the Savior of Orlando,” whom Floridians perversely worship, a conceit that falls flat because McGrath finds no time to appreciate Chuck or let alone to worship Him with all his insults and complaints about “processed cheesefood” and the like. This was in 2002, and time has just widened the distance between McGrath and his culture and between consumerist suburban reality and the passionate travels of his earlier poems.
I don’t really know what keeps McGrath up at night, but he should question himself with the intelligence of his early virtuosic uncertainty. Why isn’t manhood in Florida as vexing as youth in Chicago? McGrath’s best poems since Spring recall his youth—his apprenticeship (a poem about his young-poet days in New York from Road Atlas, 2001), his influences (a Florida poem about Hemingway’s drinking beer and eating seafood like a drunken Paul Bunyan, with a self-important intensity McGrath mocks with awe and emulation [“I’m the original two-hearted brawler./ I gnaw the scrawny heads from prawns.”] McGrath should stick not to those subjects, but to the humble openness the subjects require.
Adam Plunkett is the assistant to the literary editor of The New Republic.