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Campbell McGrath

Campbell McGrath was born in Chicago in 1962 and grew up in Washington, D.C. He received his BA in English language and literature from the University of Chicago and his MFA in creative writing from Columbia University in New York City.

He is the author of ten collections of poetry, including XX: Poems for the Twentieth Century (Ecco Press, 2016), In The Kingdom of the Sea Monkeys (Ecco Press, 2012), Shannon (Ecco Press, 2009), and Seven Notebooks (Ecco Press, 2007). His third book, Spring Comes to Chicago (Ecco Press, 1996), won the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award.

McGrath’s honors include a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Witter Bynner Fellowship from the Library of Congress.

About his work, David Biespiel writes, “McGrath has already developed a signature style that is brutally expansive, slangy, and rife with high- and low-toned jargon. His ‘promethean eruptions’ are at once explosive, swaggering, opportunistic, and flip. … a brilliant bubbling forth of a comic and serious intelligence.”

McGrath lives in Miami and teaches creative writing at Florida International University.


Selected Bibliography

XX: Poems for the Twentieth Century (Ecco Press, 2016)
In the Kingdom of the Sea Monkeys (Ecco Press, 2012)
Shannon (Ecco Press, 2009)
Seven Notebooks (Ecco Press, 2008)
Pax Atomica (Ecco Press, 2004)
Florida Poems (Ecco Press, 2002)
Road Atlas (Ecco Press, 1999)
Spring Comes to Chicago (Ecco Press, 1996)
American Noise (Ecco Press, 1993)
Capitalism (Wesleyan University Press, 1990)

Campbell McGrath

By This Poet

6

Hemingway Dines on Boiled Shrimp and Beer

I'm the original two-hearted brawler.
I gnaw the scrawny heads from prawns,
pummel those mute, translucent crustaceans,
wingless hummingbirds, salt-water spawned.
As the Catalonians do, I eat the eyes at once.
My brawny palms flatten their mainstays.
I pop the shells with my thumbs, then crunch.

Just watch me as I swagger and sprawl,
spice-mad and sated, then dabble in lager
before I go strolling for stronger waters
down to Sloppy Joe's.  My stride as I stagger
shivers the islands, my fingers troll a thousand keys.
My appetite shakes the rock of the nation.
The force of my miction makes the mighty Gulf Stream.

The Prose Poem

On the map it is precise and rectilinear as a chessboard, though driving past you would hardly notice it, this boundary line or ragged margin, a shallow swale that cups a simple trickle of water, less rill than rivulet, more gully than dell, a tangled ditch grown up throughout with a fearsome assortment of wildflowers and bracken. There is no fence, though here and there a weathered post asserts a former claim, strands of fallen wire taken by the dust. To the left a cornfield carries into the distance, dips and rises to the blue sky, a rolling plain of green and healthy plants aligned in close order, row upon row upon row. To the right, a field of wheat, a field of hay, young grasses breaking the soil, filling their allotted land with the rich, slow-waving spectacle of their grain. As for the farmers, they are, for the most part, indistinguishable: here the tractor is red, there yellow; here a pair of dirty hands, there a pair of dirty hands. They are cultivators of the soil. They grow crops by pattern, by acre, by foresight, by habit. What corn is to one, wheat is to the other, and though to some eyes the similarities outweigh the differences it would be as unthinkable for the second to commence planting corn as for the first to switch over to wheat. What happens in the gully between them is no concern of theirs, they say, so long as the plough stays out, the weeds stay in the ditch where they belong, though anyone would notice the wind-sewn cornstalks poking up their shaggy ears like young lovers run off into the bushes, and the kinship of these wild grasses with those the farmer cultivates is too obvious to mention, sage and dun-colored stalks hanging their noble heads, hoarding exotic burrs and seeds, and yet it is neither corn nor wheat that truly flourishes there, nor some jackalopian hybrid of the two. What grows in that place is possessed of a beauty all its own, ramshackle and unexpected, even in winter, when the wind hangs icicles from the skeletons of briars and small tracks cross the snow in search of forgotten grain; in the spring the little trickle of water swells to welcome frogs and minnows, a muskrat, a family of turtles, nesting doves in the verdant grass; in summer it is a thoroughfare for raccoons and opossums, field mice, swallows and black birds, migrating egrets, a passing fox; in autumn the geese avoid its abundance, seeking out windrows of toppled stalks, fatter grain more quickly discerned, more easily digested. Of those that travel the local road, few pay that fertile hollow any mind, even those with an eye for what blossoms, vetch and timothy, early forsythia, the fatted calf in the fallow field, the rabbit running for cover, the hawk's descent from the lightning-struck tree. You've passed this way yourself many times, and can tell me, if you would, do the formal fields end where the valley begins, or does everything that surrounds us emerge from its embrace?

Joseph Brodsky in Venice (1981)

La Serenissima, in morning light, is beautiful.
But you already knew that. 
Palette of honeyed ochre and ship’s bell bronze, 
water precisely the color of the hand-ground pigment
with which the water of Venice has been painted for centuries, 
angled slats of aquamarine chopped by wakes to agate, 
matte black backlit with raw opal 
and anodized aluminum, rope-work of wisteria, wands
of oleander emerging from hidden gardens. At noon, 
near the boat-yard of the last gondola maker, a violin echoes 
from deep inside an empty cistern. 
Lo and behold. Ecco. 
A swirl of wind-blown ashes from yet another cigarette 
and for a moment you see December snow
in Saint Petersburg, the Lion’s Bridge, crystalline halo
crowning Akhmatova’s defiant silhouette. 

Sunset: bitter orange and almond milk,
sepia retinting the canals with cartographer’s ink
as you study the small gray lagoon crabs
patrolling a kingdom of marble slabs 
descending into the depths; rising almost imperceptibly,
the tide licks at, kisses, then barely spills 
across the top step’s foot-worn, weed-velveted lip 
in slippery caravans, dust-laden rivulets.
So another day’s cargo of terrestrial grit 
enriches their scuttled realm, 
and they make haste, like drunken pirates in a silent film,
erratically but steadfastly, to claim it. 

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