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A Wanderer’s Tale

Shannon: A Poem of the Lewis and Clark Expedition

Campbell McGrath
Ecco, 2009

If there’s such a thing as historical poetry, then this is it. Shannon catalogs the imagined trials and commonplaces of the youngest member of the Lewis & Clark expedition, George Shannon, Jr. Poet Campbell McGrath addresses this topic in the only suitable way, the epic form, a truly American epic, one where the conflict is not with gods or other people, but with nature and with human nature. Have we progressed enough as a nation to tap into our own history for inspiration? McGrath answers with a very decisive “yes.”

McGrath keeps us in mind of the hardships Shannon must have endured by bringing the tone up and down with the sun. Shannon was not only the youngest of the expedition but he was also the only member to get lost, and he managed it twice. The imaginative core of the piece lies in lines like these:

shannon

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.

In the America of 1805, each city and town was a kind of herd: a group of people gathered together for security. Apart from that “country of herds,” it’s difficult to conceive of the sheer solitude Shannon must have felt, and McGrath takes on quite a task in trying to make us imagine it. He starts by giving Shannon the voice of a poet:

Fog on the river thick as goose down

Now it lifts, swirling clear for a moment

Ripples &; channels, then lost again to whiteness

All that glinting river vanished, gone.

The Romantic echo here is deliberate, and of a piece with the time. McGrath, in imagining the voice of a fairly literate early nineteenth century man, has pegged that slightly self-consciously American voice of the era. Take these lines for example:

I am neither a wise nor aged man
But my eyes & my sense agree
Together on the nature of most things—
Why would I require
Holy doctrine to discriminate?

If this isn’t Romantic, in the capital “R” sense of the word, then neither is Wordsworth. It is this grasp of contemporary tone and tenor that makes the book so readable. McGrath has captured this imagined voice to such an extent that it reads as though a lost George Shannon Jr. could actually have penned these lines.

But who was George Shannon Jr.? McGrath gives us no back-story until the afterword. By omitting mention of Shannon’s wandering ways until later on, McGrath’s poem feels less immediately comprehensible than it might have been, and needlessly medias res.

It is page 21 before the voice of Shannon becomes something tangible, something that I can genuinely begin to care for and connect with, around the time McGrath lets Shannon voice concerns –not for his own life–but for the respect of his commanders, and, repeated throughout, the echo of his father’s wisdom.

It is in the small points in which McGrath’s assiduous attention to detail comes across most clearly. His use of the ampersand, for example, in place of “and” or &c. for “etcetera.” These and the Whitmanesque catalogues you would imagine an explorer keeping of flora and fauna:

As raspberries, damson berries, serviceberries
blue currants, goose berries
huckleberries & whortle berries
Plus which the small plums or pawpaws
Sweet & fine if ripe.

Though he’s going hungry, Shannon pays the respect of a naturalist to the world around him and always, always remembers his role as an explorer and cataloguer of a new world. As the days pass on with little or nothing to eat, he begins to focus more and more specifically on things he can eat.

As time and poem progress, Shannon’s thought becomes less linear, as reflected in the scattered structure of his lines. This is again true to the inspiration of the poem; one can imagine eight days with scant food, little sleep, and the doubtful security offered by a gun with no shot left. More importantly, McGrath can imagine (where most people of the modern condition would be hard pressed) and can picture what these conditions would do to the thoughts of the suffering party. The work reaches this stage of fractured cognizance, the best example of which is the “Buffalo” section from late in the book, to which transcription would not do justice. A microcosm of this occurs earlier in the poem, where it seems Shannon is maintaining sanity in the same way we hear of prisoners doing—by playing a sort of memory game:

Set out after picking the last meat

From that rabbit & spent

Some hours this fine, cool, sunny morning

Sucking on it’s bones &singing out

Names of those United States

It has been my pleasure to visit or observe.

Panns-zyll-VEIN-eeah

o-HIGH-o

Cane-Tuck-hee

ver-GINN-nya

Ten-uhsee

nude-YER-zee

The speaker begins each section, or day, coherent, and as it progresses he fades into a midday stupor, but regains himself as evening comes on. McGrath has constructed this book so that each section of the poem reflects the time of day as well as the mind of its setting.

Hunger isn’t the only problem. Even though Shannon is starving and lost, he still finds himself pining for company, for a very specific type of company:

Startled awake stiff & dreaming
Upon the breasts of Constance Ebson.
Fine as they are, it disturbs me
To be tracked into this wilderness by such desires.
O what can a man do about that?
Soldier on, George my boy, soldier on.

Here we have a twofold illustration: one of the natural desire for companionship, and the other the voice of Shannon’s father ringing in his ear. These seem to be the two things that keep our speaker going to the end. These two recollections–the power of memory–are Shannon’s savior; well, that and a well-whittled piece of stick. So McGrath hints that by using creative memory, we can save ourselves from the morass of contemporary American culture; he hints also that that by this same device, we can reconnect with a history which, literally and figuratively, grows more distant each day.

expeditionmap

This poem pulled me through it from cover to cover, and I was not disappointed to find these lines:

Still I would abide by the river.

I find it less troublesome
Than the emptiness of these plains
Pressing so upon me.
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.

This then is a synthesis of the poem’s forces and conflicts. McGrath brings all to bear against Shannon, and Shannon submits. Humanity is second fiddle to nature. Who has not stood in a forest and marveled at the volume of silence, or on top of a mountain, to be blinded by the sprawl of what lay around them? If you can recall those moments, and multiply them by the amount of America unexplored at the time this book is set, then you can begin to understand how McGrath’s Shannon felt.

I would be doing a disservice to readers if I claimed this book to be perfect, though it is artfully constructed. There is the issue of grounding. But perhaps more relevant, and indeed jarring, for my reading experience, is the slight problem–a word I hesitate to use as I think it’s too strong it’s more of a hiccup–of imagery. For the most part true to its time period (you’ll find no honking horns or diesel fumes in this book) there is a moment where our speaker says, “…smell of the buffalo strong on the river breeze / black eyes wide as the Western Ocean / great herds of the buffalo all around me…” which opens up a point of debate. Is this to mean that the buffalo eyes represent a conclusion of his journey, are they merely great and powerful as our speaker imagines the Western Ocean to be, or, much less likely, has McGrath made an imagistic slip? Whatever the answer, this moment is the best example of the veil slipping, of the spell breaking, but also the only one I found.

___
Ryan J. Davidson is the author of Under What Stars (Ampersand Books, 2009) and is currently a Ph.D. canidate in the school of English literature at The University of Glasgow in Scotland.

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