Campbell McGrath

A Brief Portfolio
May 16, 2024 McGrath Campbell



When the light goes out, and the book is set down
by the bedside, it all comes flooding in:
the story you are reading; the story of the day;
the understanding that it is a story, the day now past,
those ahead, the clock-hand sweep of time;
that you are the hero of your own story;
that it will end in death but along the way come
triumphs, misadventures, nuptials, tears;
that the story contains several plots and connects
to countless others; that you will never read
all the books collected on your shelves
but as long as you breathe the hero lives,
pages will be turned; that stories keep us alive;
that stories end—the tale of the drunken shoemaker,
the tale of humankind—all stories,
however beautiful, ingenious or corrupt;
that fables are forgotten, myths corrode, gods
vanish with the languages that named them;
that darkness swallows the world, as in legend,
but night in turn is vanquished by dawn;
that even the sun, whose radiance authored
life’s unpaginated complexity, will someday
dwindle to extinction. Or so the story goes.





Twenty years ago, Michael and I gave a poetry reading
from the deck of one of its ramshackle fishing shacks,
kayaking out on a gorgeous winter night, drinking wine
beneath a sky crossed by wagon trains of moonlit clouds.


Beds of turtle grass, bone-white casuarina trunks
engraved with the strange calligraphy of sea worms.


Today, it lies within the bounds of Biscayne National Park
and its homes have been sequestered from private use,
the last, sun-bleached, stilt-propped shanties a reminder
of Miami’s beginnings and model for what is to come.


Moonlight, poetry, the past—we sang a song
going out, another paddling back, what were they?







I don’t understand the sun but it says
accept me as your sovereign
or I will destroy you.


Which is how we learn humility,
how we learn that you cannot separate
creation from pain.


The sun exists, burning
and burning,
but I wouldn’t bet on too much else.




The world is a multisensory construct,
a matrix of evolved constituents
interpreting the scatter-field of stimuli
as diversely as the moth and the candles
of the stars we struggle unreachably after.


Knowledge passes from the world
with each departing soul,
hoarded wisdom, carefully gleaned facts,
yet the sum of what we know
multiplies exponentially before our eyes.


Is this proof of a trajectory
by which we might evade destruction,
a form of collectivism to transcend the self?


Do atoms mourn disintegrated objects?


Do bones cry out
for the long-remembered body?




There is an actual world,
and small, essential, meaningless things
that seem to gesture toward it.


Drying a teaspoon on my jeans
before dipping it into the sugar bowl.


A rusty Christmas-tree-stand on the fire escape
where the doves, yet again,
build their nest in a broken flower pot.


Why feathers, why the sun, why things
instead of nothing?


Reality is particulate, molecular,
not a reign of flux, not a swirl of ammonia
and daubed mud, but why?




I can’t be the only one who sweeps the dust
beneath the heaviest furniture
presuming the end of time will arrive
before anyone discovers my perfidy.


Eternity, after all, is an illusion—
only this second
is real, this spoonful of sugar.


Time the deceiver,
time and its countless microaggressions,
its consortium of slow decay.


Even the robins betray me this morning.


At first light they slip beneath the netting
I have draped across the blueberry bushes,
hop into the branches, and feast.





What is it exactly, Rimbaud and William Carlos Williams,
Munch but also Mondrian, a flavor of stringency,
which suggests Strindberg, or Ibsen, or Samuel Beckett?
The Machine Age: dynamos, locomotives, typography.
Cubism, certainly, also Dada and the Chrysler Building.
Unthinkingly, we have swung from Frank Lloyd Wright
to Mussolini to Electrolux appliances and back to Picasso.
A movement—no, a joke—no, a euphemism, a way
to label and literalize time so that we might wear
its ribbon in our hair. Bitter dregs of an invidious cup,
fizzy bottle of Art Deco soda pop, fey shibboleth
of detritus and angst. Shoes befitting giants! Also mice.



Irish History


Cows, then torcs, then croziers.
Potatoes, shamrocks, osiers.


Conviviality before sobriety.
Mayhem followed by piety.


Laughter, followed by weeping.
Many sheep, much sheep-keeping.

Campbell McGrath is the author of eleven books of poetry, most recently Nouns & Verbs: New and Selected Poems, and XX: Poems for the Twentieth Century, a finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize. His work has appeared in scores of literary journals and anthologies, as well as the New Yorker, Atlantic Magazine, Harper’s and the New York Times. McGrath’s writing has been recognized with some of the most prestigious awards in American letters, including a Guggenheim Fellowship,Witter Bynner Fellowship from the Library of Congress, a United States Artists Fellowship, and a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Award.” He lives with his wife in Miami Beach, and teaches in the MFA program at Florida International University.