American artists of all kinds have attempted from time to time to take on the whole sprawl of the continent and our national history upon it. It is surprising that more have not tried to work with the Lewis and Clark Expedition, that first effort to extend the country’s destiny—which may or may not have been manifest to all observers—across the continent. Campbell McGrath, a poet always willing to take on the big tasks with big lines and long poems, recently took up the effort to write verse about the “Voyage of Discovery,” and did so with remarkable success.
Shannon: A Poem of the Lewis and Clark Expedition is the re-creation in verse of the sixteen days George Shannon, the youngest member of the troop, spent lost along the Missouri River in 1804. In a casual observation in his journal for August 26, William Clark noted that the company left “Shannon and Drouillard to hunt for the horses last night. Directed them to follow us, keeping on the high lands.” The next day Drouillard returned “and informed that he could find neither Shannon nor the horses.” On September 11, Clark writes that “the man who left us with the horses, 16 days ago, George Shannon … joined us, nearly starved to death.”
Two hundred years later Campbell McGrath, who reads from his work at the U-M on January 27, found his poem in that sixteen-day gap. The journals kept by the captains are touchstone documents of American history, but young Shannon, despite being one of the best-educated members of the company, did not keep a journal. McGrath has created one that might have been written—and he has found a perfect pitch between an imitation of early nineteenth-century diction and a contemporary expropriation of the story. His Shannon doesn’t sound particularly modern, but he is clear and concise in his observations.
His first entries sound almost jaunty—”It is a fine & open country in every aspect hereabouts.” After finding the horses, Shannon actually returned to the Missouri ahead of the expedition but assumed he was behind, thus hurrying forward and increasing the distance between himself and his companions. Finally his hunger and despair forced him to stop. As he proceeds, the weight of the experience becomes clear to him—”Alone in these lands I may consider myself / The first American to have walked.” By the thirteenth day he has descended into delirium and hears “animals in the darkness all around me / huffing & lowing of the buffalo / sound of their lungs streaming into the light / I am not alone in the darkness.” And by the fourteenth day he has learned something from the continent itself, from its size and its indifference to us:
Bear-Gods, Buffalo-Gods, Eagle-Gods—
Do such worthies hold sway
In these unChristianized territories?
Do these little fellows wandering
Across my knuckles believe in some Ant-God
Of their own devising?
George Shannon, as reimagined by Campbell McGrath, has his vision of America. Perhaps a bit more frightening than the national myth might prefer, it’s also one that seems entirely real.