He Hears America Singing Guns N’ Roses

New and Selected Poems
By Campbell McGrath

“America’s epic,” the poet Campbell McGrath writes, “is the odyssey of appetite.” It’s a good line, both clever and seductive, though in the wrong hands it’s the sort of thing that could be merely reductive. But McGrath knows the ins and outs of appetite as deeply, and as thoroughly, as he knows the highways and byways of America. He has spent decades exploring both. “Nouns & Verbs: New and Selected Poems” is a rich and invigorating sampling of the poetic results of these explorations.

America is McGrath’s primary subject, as it was Walt Whitman’s. (There are few poets today who seem to have inherited such a healthy measure of the Whitmanic spirit.) Like Whitman, like America, McGrath ranges in his work from the beautiful to the brash, from the expansive to the intimate. It encompasses sprawling vistas, urban conflagrations and tiny, tender dioramas. Because he loves driving cross-country, it is, too, a poetry of motels, small towns, remote outposts and roadside attractions.

He has, it seems, been pretty much everywhere in this country, and he is nearly peerless in his ability to capture the character, tastes and textures of particular regions and locales. Tastes and textures are particularly salient here. America’s essence, for McGrath, is grounded in those conceptually conjoined twins, consumption and hunger. “Nouns & Verbs” is populated with, among other comestibles, Krispy Kreme doughnuts, Slurpees, 7-Eleven burritos, Dutch Apple Pop-Tarts, Coca-Cola, catfish, “beer and pretzels from the Stop N Go store,” stuffed pig intestines, “shrimp and stone crab claws from the Keys,” “the best and sweetest orange in the world,” “a little sack of plantain chips” whose salt is itself “a kind of poem,” and a “monumental pyramid of ham” that serves as a symbol of Chicago, and perhaps of America itself. Given the profusion of edibles that make appearances in these poems, it’s surprising that the book’s film rights have yet to be optioned by the Food Network.

The brand names and junk food are significant. On the micro-level, McGrath aims to portray contemporary American life as it is, in all its giddy diversity and quotidian trashiness, and he is not unwilling to gently chide other poets for their tendency to ignore the existence of TV game shows, rock music and other phenomena some writers might write off as insufficiently poetic:

In the world of some poets
there are no Cheerios or Pop-Tarts, no hot dogs
tumbling purgatorially on greasy rollers,
only chestnuts and pomegranates,
the smell of freshly baked bread,
summer vegetables in red wine, simmering.

Industrialized foods often serve as symbols of suffering and imperfection, and frequently represent the failures and indignities of contemporary capitalism. Consider the “cubes of cheese” at a post-reading reception that “taste like ashes licked from a bicycle chain,” the “Formica falsity” of the “processed cheesefood pseudopizza” served at Chuck E. Cheese, or Subway sandwiches, which McGrath takes as emblematic of “our insatiable appetite for woe” not only because, in his view, they are so bad, but because despite their badness “they are consumed / by the millions / and by the tens of millions.”

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