In the Kingdom of the Sea Monkeys, Campbell McGrath’s new book,
rare linguistic fauna rear up, line by line, re-constructed
from the DNA of 19th century verbiage, hefty sentences of pith and moment dwarfing much contemporary verse. Complexity of clause,
words thought extinct, sinuous syntax that wraps itself around ideas
about poetry and poetry’s place in the world, these poems
mark a departure from McGrath’s earlier work in that they
constitute a kind of meta-poetry, an art regarding itself
in a textual mirror, asking the timeless question: Who’s the fairest
of them all? and finding only poetry there, smiling back.
There’s some nostalgia for youth’s infatuation with the Word—
“talking all night about books and their power to transform the world”
and asking “does anyone still read Zbigniew Herbert
the way we did, or Delmore Schwartz, or Malcolm Lowry…?”
but knowing, with a heavy sigh, that “talking about poetry as if
it might save us from the darkness” is a timeworn dream.
He misses “anyone willing to read for fifty bucks and the chance
to sell a dozen books,” and remarks, “Who, in those days,
desired anything more?” But poetry is not dead, not by a long shot,
only lethargic, having exiled itself to its own little island
of lyrical self-regard because “The Republic of Poetry has been
generous to a fault; too courteous, too reliant on diplomacy,
too focused on internal squabbles” having grown lax
in its own vigilance. And, he asserts, “Of the several nations [genres],
poetry is the most time-honored, its roots descending
beyond the historical record.” Then what are poor poets to do?
“shift our attention outward, find what is valuable around us,
and carry it back across the border.” Raid the Kingdom of Fiction!
Usurp the Realm of Biography! Infiltrate the Empire of History!
Natural Science! Romance! Mystery! SciFi! and Self-Help!
And why stop there: Folk Tales, Essays, and Memoir—
all ripe for plundering. Like Whitman before him, McGrath
encourages poets to incorporate the entire range of human endeavor
and experience into themselves, until they are multitudinous,
confident to confront anything, even the Terra Incognita
of the Imagination where fabulous beasts await them,
chimeras ready to eat from poetry’s hand, until, “One fine Morning
they will come back to us, at daybreak, singing.”