XX, by Campbell McGrath
Ecco, $19.56/ Kindle $12.99
REVIEW BY ELIZABETH COHEN
If a book of poems can be a bildungsroman, Campbell McGrath’s newest offering is this. He has always been a poet of ideas of great girth. I first read his work in the jaw-dropping American Noise, which embraced the topic of our entire nation, in all its minutiae and largesse, from diners to deserts. Other books with great scope and breadth are Capitalism and Shannon: A Poem of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Suffice it to say, he is not afraid of the gargantuan and the grand (and those are just two of his thirteen published volumes—his output, like his topics, is nothing short of immense).
Continuing in this vein of behemoth poetics is XX, meant to represent the number twenty, as in the twentieth century, as in the last hundred years of mankind. Those one hundred, which as we know, were the one hundred that offered up vast continents of change, technological innovation that altered how we think and who we are, along with major revolutions in how we see the world and recreate it as artists. This newest volume takes on these topics in the most daring and sweeping verse.
The book XX is divided into four interior “books” which are organized on the principle of chronology, starting with 1900 and the poem “Picasso,” and proceeding on to the year 2000 and the clever and counterintuitively titled poem “Prologue” (the volume begins with a poetic “Epilogue” – keeping with this temporal switch-up). McGrath grazes in the fields of twentieth century subject matter, and time is certainly one of its leitmotifs, with the poems “Einstein’s Clock,” “The Atomic Clock,” “The Ticking Clock,” and “Digital Clocks” addressing the topic of the temporal in its various and evolving incarnations. These poems serve to anchor the book’s sections in the river of socio-cultural events and remind one of those book-of-the-year tomes in the library that can tell you what happened any day of any year; what the hit song was, what was happening politically or the fads. Only these poems sway toward the antithesis of such topics, finding the most unusual and outré topics to recount. In the final time poem, “The Ticking Clock,” McGrath writes of how “MIT’s Ray Tomlinson decides to employ the @ sign/ in the address of the very first email, which he sends/ over the ARPANET to another computer in the same room:/ “Don’t tell anyone,” he confesses to a friend,/ “but this is not what we’re supposed to be working on.” And in Whitmanesque fashion, McGrath turns, in that same poem, to a bold 19th century style descriptive list: “The twentieth century is vanishing, o radiant century, century of quarter notes & treble clefs, of chalk on black paper, century of deliverance & self-deception, expediency & lies.”
But the meat and potatoes of this book of poems is ekphrastic and cultural; poems about painters and sculptors, films and filmmakers, and ars poeticas on the work of the great writers and poets of their day.
For anyone who loves art or movies or pop-culture (and who doesn’t?), this is an incredibly fun, heady and moving romp through culture and time, a chronologic tasting menu of topics, served up in McGrath’s poetic sensibility. One can pick and choose and turn to the artists and art of one’s fancy and experience them as poesy. Pretty cool.
Like his oeuvre, McGrath’s vocabulary is gargantuan (keep a dictionary nearby). Of the poet Anna Akhamatova, McGrath writes: “Amid the studied decadence of the Stray Dog Cafe / she is a pale flower of the demimonde, / disdain for everything earthly and unexhalted / scribbled in heroic stanzas across her face.”
Some of these poems are persona poems—as Picasso, McGrath writes, “when I paint, acrobats contort/ to hollow-boned harlequins in rose-hallowed space, / five chalk fingers of a skeletal hand arrayed against the void.” Some poems mimic the style of their subjects, as with an Apollinaire poem and the poem “Gertrude Stein (1909)”:
I arouse. Eye arroz. I arrows.
I, a rose!
“Frieda Kahlo: Self Portrait pierced by a Silver Rail” is written as a list poem containing the most clever and evocative slant rhymes that evoke all the whimsy and wit of the paintings of the Mexican folk-surrealist:
my squash blossom my rainsquall my unicorn my quince and melon my torn garments my torment my chalk slate my silver nitrate my metastatic autoretratos my nation my hospital bed my sequestration my thumbscrew my monkey paw my green macaw my parrot feather my fetuses my head of lettuce my seashell my curfew my you know who my can my cant my revolutionary rant my Diegos my no nos my yes yes yeses my sister my disasters my star-crossed kisses my hits and misses my cicatrix y cicatrices my skirts and dresses my plaits and tresses my pains my distresses my lisping s’s my shyness my eyelessness my bloody messes
Forgive the cliché, but there is something for everyone here and it is clear that McGrath has no intention of holding still as a poet; he is everywhere and everything and everyone in these poems, as he hop-skip-jumps through the last century. This book is not only marvelously impressive, it is terrific fun. It is the sort of book to buy for your coffee table or to get out at a literary slumber party (do they have those?) and read aloud with ouzo or absinthe, and rejoice.