In many ways, Campbell McGrath has picked the perfect subject for a book-length narrative poem: an historical figure embarked on an epic, nation-building adventure, who fortunately did not keep a diary of the period described, giving the poet plenty of imaginative space in which to roam. And this book is all about space and roaming. George Shannon was the youngest member of the Lewis and Clark expedition, just 17 or 18 when he got separated from the rest of the expedition, going after a couple of horses that had broken free. He wandered the high plains along the Missouri River for 16 days and nearly starved to death, since he had gone off with only five bullets in his pouch.
Bookended by passages from Clark’s diary, the poem is a dramatic monologue in Shannon’s voice, and since Shannon was one of the most educated members of the party, it doesn’t stretch credulity too much to have him expressing fairly lofty thoughts about God and destiny and evincing a scientific interest in Indian laws and customs and in natural history. He encounters his first prairie dog town, marvels at unending herds of buffalo, and flashes back to hunting and fishing expeditions with his brothers in Kentucky and Ohio. He’s a skilled marksman, frustrated by his lack of ammunition and experimenting with improvised bullets. Here’s how he expresses the book’s central irony:
In a land of plenty
I travel hungry.
In a country of herds
I wander alone.
On a journey of discovery
I am the lost.
Narrative poetry can be a good break from a steady diet of lyric poetry, especially when it’s as spare and descriptive as this is, mostly eschewing elaborate metaphors and leaps of insight. Though Shannon falls prey to starvation-induced delirium toward the end, the only true epiphany he describes is a remembered one from back east in Kentucky, a dogwood tree blooming alone in a bare woods and glowing in such a way that he didn’t recognize it at first and fell to his knees.
That was a true & terrible fear
& near as I ever came
Or will come to believing.
On the other hand, the book is all about discovery.
Shining so, in the autumn sun, the river
Is like my Mother’s silver necklace
Slipping across my fingers
Moving, jaunting, sparkling, restless
Coursing & entwining the many streams as one.
What if, beyond these mighty plains are plains
Even more magnificent
As this Dakota Country exceeds Ohio
In that regard, even
As heaven overshadows earth?
Even today, fenced in and bereft of buffalo, the high plains can intimidate by the vastness of their skies and the severity of their weather. Imagine being like Shannon, or Coronado centuries earlier, and not knowing if they would ever end.
Not a tree
On the horizon all day
Only buffalo herds
Unbroken some hours keeping pace.
All these grazing creatures fed upon
The grass of these plains
Is it not strange
To believe that I might feed
A host of nations
Upon my own heart, feeling it swell so?
Lonelier than he has ever been in his life, at night he talks to his brothers, the one who drowned in the Ohio as a boy and the one who didn’t get picked for the expedition:
is the day come, brother John?
are the stars come down to keep me, Thomas?
dewdrop, the source, fog of breath
& the river of light widening toward sunrise
this astonishment of grass, this extravagance
animals in the darkness all around me
huffing & lowing of the buffalo
sound of their lungs steaming into the light
I am not alone in the darkness
Even with the associations of death-by-drowning that the river has for him, he still prefers its company to the emptiness of the plains.
Empty is one way to put it, another
That they are overfull
But not in keeping with a man.
Too large in both emptiness & fullness
Is what I mean to say.
I have a conception of my soul
Being taken up in their austerity & solitude
To be devoured
By the stars
& I mind it no longer.
If you’ve ever wondered why, in the age of the novel, people still write long narrative poems, read Shannon. If it were prose, I’d have come to it with too many expectations: nothing worthy even of a short story really takes place. The narrative stops short of his reuniting with the expedition; the monologue ends with his premature will and testament. And yet I found it a fully satisfying read, with just enough narrative interest to keep me turning the pages, but not so much suspense that I skimmed impatiently. I was able to relax and enjoy the open spaces between the thoughts.
(I’m reading a book a day for National Poetry Month. Click on the book cover to go to its page in Open Library.)