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EssayReview Death Song. By Thomas McGrath. Edited by Sam Hamill. Introduction by Dale Jacobson. (Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 1991. 117 pages, $10.00.) Thomas McGrath was dead by the time this volume appeared. Sam Hamill, the editor of Copper Canyon Press, has done McGrath’s readers a true service by editing and publishing Death Song. McGrath knew he was dying as he wrote his later poems. His last years were spent in constant pain, in frustration at illness so debilitating that he had to dictate (to good friends and compañeros in Minneapolis) rather than write by hand. This book, which contains some recent as well as some earlier poems, shows this moment in the man’s life, and shows it with force and—so old-fashioned a word—with beauty: WE MAY LIVE LONGER THAN WE WISH Fall. Leaves migrating south . . . I must plant some trees! or THE LANGUAGE OF THE DEAD There is no grammar for the language of the dead. The only verb is intransitive. No punctuation except a period. In that dictionary— Nothing. Or a single noun. Those who have followed McGrath’s recent work in the years of Letter to an Imaginary Friend, Parts III & IV, (Copper Canyon, 1985) or the Selected Poems (Copper Canyon, 1988) will recognize an elegiac, yet sardonic awareness of death. One is reminded here of Yeats’s late poems, not in form, but in theme, and—a strange thing to write about so radical and life-affirming a poet as 60 Western American Literature McGrath—in an acceptance of the inevitability of death, but with McGrath’s characteristic side-of-the-mouth humor: THE COMMUNIST POET IN HELL Just like Fargo and Harvard! Daily instruction in politics By tiny petty Bourgeois critics and poets— The ones who voted for Kennedy Even when he wasn’t running. I don’t think we will hear a voice like this for some time to come, given the events in the political world of recent years, events of which McGrath knew only the beginning. Such a voice is needed as a reminder, if nothing else, of the courage and heroism that formed a politics and an art now going sour in so much of the world. DaleJacobson writes, in his useful introduction, that McGrath’s poetry is in part “. . . an exploration of communal necessities.”The answer to isolation, to the loneliness in which each human being dies, is an awareness at least of some kind of community, that which McGrath has called elsewhere “the round dance,”the joining together of men and women in struggle, or love, or art, or song, or something that keeps isolation at bay. A poem entitled “The Bravest Boat” begins with an “I” in a boat dependent on one person’s power— “I first encounter you as a carragh in the Irish sea / (Myself at my old project; how to swim around the world without getting wet).” It ends, however, with the “we” required by power-driven boats: Steam is invented and we shoot down the Mississippi— (Damn the torpedoes Farragut said when he saw us). Beyond New Orleans, as we pick up speed, Suddenly we’re up on the step, and aquaplaning on each other! Or again, in a poem marked “Fargo-Moorhead, about 1980”: INVITATION Friends, I am old and poor. The ones who lived in my house have gone out into the world. My dogs are all dead and the bones of my horses Whiten the hillsides. All my books are forgotten. My poems Are asleep, though they dream in many languages. Essay Review 61 The ones I love are carrying the Revolution In far away places. This little house has few comforts—but it is yours. Come and see me here— I’ve got plenty of time and love! A few poems are involved in the very Whitmanesque catalog McGrath himself has warned against: “You look at it, it seems so goddamn easy, all straight and open . . . and the next thing you know your writing is total garbage” (“Interview,” The Revolutionary Poet in the United States, ed. F. C. Stern). He is right, I think. A few times he falls into that very trap...


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