Campbell McGrath: Selected Poems

EASTER, 1916

A terrible beauty is born. Just before sunrise on February 21st
bombardments for the German attack at Verdun commence;
two million shells are fired in five days; death is a grinding down
of obdurate surfaces, a pulverization of will, a blind slaughter
by distant artillery of helpless men huddled in freezing mud.
Death is invisible, impersonal, mechanical: the flamethrower
is introduced as a tool of destruction; phosgene gas is introduced;
airplanes, for the first time, operate in organized squadrons.
Seventy thousand men will fall each month until December.
In March, Apollinaire receives a shrapnel wound in the temple;
he is sent home to Paris to recuperate, with a hole in his skull.
For years he has beaten the drum for modern art
and now martial drums have swept everything before them—
war, the human antithesis of art; even his subversive genius
cannot reconcile the two, though seldom have death and poetry
been so intimate. Wilfred Owen is still in England,
digging practice trenches on Tavistock Square
with the Artist’s Rifles, within sight of Yeats’ house;
completing his training he lodges above the Poet’s Bookshop
and ships out in December for the “seventh hell” of the front
as a Second Lieutenant in the 2nd Manchester infantry.
In Zurich, Tristan Tzara edits the first issue of the journal Dada,
while Lenin argues that Imperialism is a final-state corollary
of Monopoly Capitalism, a contest for markets and cheap labor.
It is tempting to imagine him happening upon the Cabaret Voltaire,
stepping inside to watch the goings-on. Da da da da da.
How else can art represent this world’s grotesque absurdity?
Jack London dies. D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance is released.
Kirk Douglas and Gregory Peck are born. Walter Cronkite is born.
Tsutomo Yamaguchi— the only officially recognized survivor
of both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear explosions— is born.
Louis Armstrong is driving a coal wagon in New Orleans,
Margaret Sanger opens the first American birth control clinic.
Rasputin dies under mysterious circumstances in Saint Petersburg;
the Tsar’s control is crumbling, Revolution is imminent.
The Easter Rebellion of the Irish Republican Brotherhood
fails to inspire a popular uprising and is quickly suppressed;
James Connolly, Padraig Pearse, and a dozen other leaders
of the revolt are executed by British firing squad in Dublin.
The gears of war keep turning. Wyndham Lewis leaves BLAST
to serve as an artillery spotter at Ypres; Walter Gropius
earns an Iron Cross for valor. During the Mexican revolution
Pancho Villa attacks and burns the town of Columbus, New Mexico;
for the next year American cavalry troops will pursue Villa,
unsuccessfully, throughout Sonora and Chihuahua.
The battle of the Somme begins in June: advancing at a walk,
sixty thousand British soldiers fall the first day;
a million casualties before it is done, tens of thousands vanished
without a trace in the churned inferno of No Man’s Land.
Rupert Owen is in the front lines again in April, 1917.
“I kept alive,” he writes, “on brandy, fear of death,
and the glorious prospect of the cathedral in St. Quentin.”
His unit attacks German machine gun posts over open ground.
They sleep on an unprotected hillside in snow for a week.
Retreating, they are gassed. Owen falls into a deep crater
and suffers a concussion; a shell, exploding near his bunk,
flings him bodily into the air. Hospitalized for shell shock,
he meets Siegfried Sassoon, begins to publish his poems,
cannot fathom the hypocrisy of politicians and churchmen
praising the righteousness of this most un-Christian of wars.
Nonetheless, he returns to his unit at the front in 1918,
where, on November 4th, he is involved in a night-time assault
on the Oise-Sambre canal during the war’s final battle.
Five days later Apollinaire succumbs to the Spanish flu epidemic,
never fully recovered from his wounds. On November 11th,
bells are ringing to mark the Armistice when a telegram
arrives at the door of a mother’s house outside Shrewesbury:
Wilfred Owen is dead. The war is over. Dulce et decorum est.



Altar of red smoke in darkness, a life, a précis,

ants in their task-selves, bees in their hive-self dreaming of the universal city, of Atlantis & its burnished vaults, spectral bereavement of its ocean-dusk, Rome looted of marble, dark matter & the dark metropolis of stars,

cities of the text in blossom as the orchid tree proffers its wounds to the darkness, as the poinciana rails casual flame,

vernix scriptorium, vitruvian scroll of clouds & dreams,

honeybee asleep on the spine of a Ptolomaic cosmography, dung beetle on the skull of an ibis, jawbone of an antelope splintered by hyenas,

coral—their ruined groves, their blossoming colonization of rib & ark, canopic jars, fractal runes around Rho Ophiuchi, exfoliant dust in bas relief,

hair of a nymph glossed with jewels as water in a vase of hyacinth, in a vessel of sunflowers,

structure in the Vela supernova remnant—pillars of light within the smoke of light within the blue atomic halo of light, its foundry, its wheel, its vineyard, canted & bound,

its dicta, its quanta, its folly, its thrum,

ramparts, manacles, urns, jeroboams, shroud of hoarfrost upheld in the blast, figuration in henna & sackcloth, the one who polishes smooth stones, the one who casts stones into the sea,

centerward, corebound, yolk plume, obsidian spume, spire of the self keeled & sprung like a beansprout fledged & garlanded, the crab, the pestle, egg-tooth against a window of luminous agency,

pups, pupae, prayer shawls, the pelican, helicon, homonym, phoneme, helix & whorl, the hunter & the hunted,

to transpire, to reflect, to mean, to signify, to detect, to obscure, to reread,

ants in the spilled fermented milk & honey of it, the spoiled grain of it,

boundary marks, blazes, analogs, the owl in the hazelnut tree, the soul—who calls from the rain of starlight, who answers?



In the month of hummingbirds
soldiers came to the village with guns.
Their hearts were made of stone
and the village was made of moonlight
and the guns spoke only Spanish words.

The first men were made of dirt
but they dissolved back into water.
The second were made of wood,
even their souls, but the gods
hated them and beat them back into dust.

The landowners think of Indians
like fleas on a prized dog
but we are more like snails in the river.
Even if you pick the last one our eggs
cling, invisible, to every stone.

When Tecún Umán fell to the Conquistadors
his spirit animal, his nahual,
embraced his dying body. Since then the Quetzal
has borne a red stain on its feathers
as we have carried one in our hearts.

We no longer dare to sleep in our villages
but camp in the woods where guerillas
move like spiders through the silence.
Everything is silent, across the mountains.
Even the toucans have left the forest.

hummingbirds guns stone moonlight words
dirt water wood gods dust
Indians dogs rivers eggs stones
conquistadors nahuals quetzals feathers hearts
villages guerillas silence mountains forest



Like prose does the term of our days extend
to the margin of the page
but it does not return, with a slap and a clang,
in the manner of an old typewriter carriage,
elementary mechanism
of spring-bearing levers and bird-claw glyphs.

Already I have journeyed more than a decade
into this pathless new millennium,
weary explorer who will never reach the pole.

Friends travel beside me, traipsing ahead,
falling by the wayside in the obdurate whiteness
from which all things of purpose have been carved away,
all things parsed and compassed by the wind.

Children follow in our tracks, assuming,
each time we look back, the aspect of strangers;
they exceed us as Olympian gods surpassed the Greeks
who fashioned them in their,
and thus our own, entirely mortal image.

And the illustrious, hard-frozen ocean receding
further into memory with each embattled step,
great whales feeding in the darkness,
their souls like wells of fragrant oil,
the exodus-light of icebergs made plastic
and manifest, that index, that sign.

To the margin but no more.

Like dough which rises to fill the baker’s pan
with a scent of yeast and distant wheat fields,
leaving nothing in its aftermath
but a ruin of crusts, a scattering of crumbs,
avenues for the triumphal procession of the ants.


Campbell McGrath is the author of ten books of poetry, including Spring Comes to Chicago, Florida Poems, Seven Notebooks, and most recently In the Kingdom of the Sea Monkeys (Ecco Press, 2012.  He has received many of America’s major literary prizes for his work, including the Kingsley Tufts Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a MacArthur “genius” Fellowship, a USA Knight Fellowship, and a Witter-Bynner Fellowship from the Library of Congress. His poetry has appeared in the New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic and on the op-ed page of the New York Times, as well as in scores of literary reviews and quarterlies. Born in Chicago, he lives with his family in Miami and teaches at Florida International University, where he is the Philip and Patricia Frost Professor of Creative Writing.



  1. […] Campbell McGrath: Selected Poems […]

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