The Custodian and Other Poems cover

The Custodian and Other Poems

Campbell McGrath

Copyright © 2010 Campbell McGrath. All rights reserved.

Shopping for Pomegranates at Wal-Mart on New Year's Day

Beneath a ten-foot tall apparition of Frosty the Snowman
with his corncob pipe and jovial, over-eager, button-black eyes,
holding, in my palm, the leathery, wine-colored purse
of a pomegranate, I realize, yet again, that America is a country
about which I understand everything and nothing at all,
that this is life, this ungovernable air
in which the trees rearrange their branches, season after season,
never certain which configuration will bear the optimal yield
of sunlight and water, the enabling balm of nutrients,
that so too do Wal-Mart's ferocious sales managers
relentlessly analyze their end-cap placement, product mix
and shopper demographics, that this is the culture
in all its earnestness and absurdity, that it never rests,
that each day is an eternity and every night is New Year's Eve,
a cavalcade of B list has-beens entirely unknown to me,
needy comedians and country singers in handsome stetsons,
sitcom stars of every social trope and ethnic denomination,
pugilists and oligarchs, femmes fatales and anointed virgins
throat-slit in offering to the cannibal throng of Times Square.
Who are these people? I grow old. I lie unsleeping
as confetti falls, ash-girdled, robed in sweat and melancholy,
click-shifting from QVC to reality TV, strings of commercials
for breath freshener, debt reconsolidation, a new car
lacking any whisper of style or grace, like a final fetid gasp
from the lips of a dying Henry Ford, potato-faced actors
impersonating real people with real opinions
offered forth with idiot grins in the yellow, herniated studio light,
actual human beings, actual souls bought too cheaply.
That it never ends, o Lord, that it never ends!
That it is relentless, remorseless, and it is on right now.
That one sees it and sees it but sometimes it sees you, too,
cowering in a corner, transfixed by the crawler for the storm alert,
home videos of faces left dazed by the twister, the car bomb,
the war always beginning or already begun, always
the special report, the inside scoop, the hidden camera
revealing the mechanical lives of the sad, inarticulate people
we have come to know as "celebrities."
Who assigns such value, who chose these craven avatars
if not the miraculous hand of the marketplace
whose torn cuticles and gaudily-painted fingernails resemble nothing
so much as our own? Where does the oracle reveal our truths
more vividly than upon that pixillated spirit-glass
unless it is here, in this tabernacle of homely merchandise,
a Copernican model of a money-driven universe
revolving around its golden omphalos, each of us summed
and subtotaled, integers in an equation of need and consumption,
desire and consummation, because Hollywood had it right all along,
the years are a montage of calendar pages and autumn leaves,
sheet music for a nostalgic symphony of which our lives comprise
but single trumpet blasts, single notes in the hullabaloo,
or even less—we are but motes of dust in that atmosphere
shaken by the vibrations of time's imperious crescendo.
That it never ends, o Lord. That it goes on,
without pause or cessation, without pity or remorse.
That we have willed it into existence, dreamed it into being.
That it is our divine monster, our factotum, our scourge.
That I can imagine nothing more beautiful
than to propitiate such a god upon the seeds of my own heart.


From the window, on a perfect August day, the great shade trees are unmoved, only the uncountable susurrations of their million-fold leaves betraying the breeze in its passage.
Roses in bloom, creepers climbing the porch railings, morning glory transforming the hedge into a vast, amorphous caterpillar of violet blossoms, some robins on the lawn hunting worms, two squirrels, an unabashed rabbit venturing out from its den within the ancient azalea bush.
The surface of the planet seethes with fellow creatures!
Their kinship touches a peculiar nerve, a spot not far from where art resides, primitive, cognizant of the animal nature of the species, the cave where Pan must once have lived, or still does.
And from the treetops the oceanic chorus of cicadas, described by Whitman as "rising and falling like brass quoits."
Specimen Days. As they all are. Wings pinned, chloroformed in glass vials,
catalogued for display in the dusty museum cases of time.
Chirp of some warbler, distant traffic, rumble of bass and drums from the all day music festival at the race track where the teenagers in tie-dye and belly button rings themselves resemble birds engaged in inscrutable mating rituals.
For blocks around concert-goers fill the streets, stoned or trippy on the day's sweet blue-sky vibe, little kids selling bottled water from red coolers, guys with knock-off sunglasses and t-shirts, the big grills set up on traffic islands for crab cakes and barbeque ribs.
The song the cicadas are singing they will sing throughout the brief weeks of their lives, exultant imagos mating in the high branches, and a new generation will emerge from freshly-laid eggs, and burrow underground, ant-like grubs, wingless nymphs subsisting for the next seventeen years on fluids sucked from tree roots, with only that promise to help them endure their long, transitional dreamstate,
that memory or fragrance, a sunlit dance of green leaves in wind, that paradisal fragment of sensory data imprinted deep within their genes,
only that song—like quoits!—to lead them out of darkness.

The Custodian

My old friend John stops by for a few days on his way to visit his older brother, dying of cancer in Tampa. Twenty years since we drank a bottle of cheap scotch together on 105th Street, talking all night about books and their power to transform the world, talking about poetry as if it might save us from the darkness. These days, we agree, there are no simple answers to be found in that bottle, though it is not the worst place to look. For over a decade John has worked as a custodian at a university in California, mopping the corridors of quiet buildings, talking with the young professors, working for the union, carrying a ring of keys to unlock darkened laboratories and libraries. He has discovered amazing things in the book stacks in the small hours of the night, hand-printed pamphlets from Mayakovsky, the plays of Sadakichi Hartman, untranslated poems of Roberto Bolaño. Sometimes poets famous for their political commitment come to read on campus and he alone knows that the kitchen workers in that particular building are bullied and abused by a notorious boss, but they, the workers, immigrants from Laos and El Salvador, refuse to file union grievances, refuse to confront authority in any fashion, too familiar in their previous lives with its costs. That's my niche, he says, between the poets and the dishwashers. Not to bring them together but simply to bridge the distance, the space between lives and words, the passion of the mind to connect and the intransigence of the world restraining it.
For lunch we go to a Peruvian restaurant in the city and eat ceviche of mussels and onions and a platter of fried shrimp and octopus with bottles of Cristal beer.
He would like to live in Cuzco or Lima, find a way to visit Nicanor Parra in Chile.
He would like to live in Mexico City for a while and translate young poets back and forth across that frontier.
For a couple years I trained to be a masseur, he says, at an institute run by a Japanese master, and one day I felt against my palm a pulse of wind rising from a woman's back as surely as I feel the wind on my face right now—I was looking around the room for the draft, as if it were a practical joke, but it was what it was—pure energy rising out of the body.
Why did you give it up? I ask.
People would say, You saved my life!—and they would mean it. I didn't want to be that person. I don't believe in saviors.
The last night of his visit we sat up late talking in the backyard, John smoking his unfiltered cigarettes, our bodies marked by the passage of time but our minds still turning familiar gears, still worrying the old bones—as if the years were the transcript of a trial we could review at command, as if the mind is a prisoner and the thread of its movement restlessly pacing the corridors of a decaying labyrinth might even now be rewound and reexamined.
Consciousness is a caged tiger, John said, raging against the bars.
But the capsules of our minds open so infrequently, I said, like the airlocks on some giant spaceship. We could live together like penguins, like ants, we could be bees in a hive and still not know each other.
A tree frog sat with us, balled on the windowsill, pale and wide-eyed, like a glob of uncooked pastry dough, as the winter trade winds flung the leaves of the live oak tree down upon our heads like soft axe-blows, talking about translation and semiotics and novels written on cell phones by green-haired teenagers in Tokyo subway stations, arguing about literature and how it evolves, or degrades, or transforms—does anyone still read Zbignew Herbert the way we did, or Delmore Schwarz, or Malcolm Lowry, does anyone care about Huidobro, Tranströmer, Pessoa?—eulogizing great bookstores and the evanescence of artifacts, the long-prophesied death of the book, quotidian relic of an archaic technology.
But books have been my whole life, he said. What will we do without them?
Loneliness is everywhere, John. Not even poetry can save us.

Poetry and the World

for Denise Duhamel

In the world of some poets
there are no Cheerios or Poptarts, no hot dogs
tumbling purgatorially on greasy rollers,
only chestnuts and pomegranates,
the smell of freshly baked bread,
summer vegetables in red wine, simmering.
In the world of some poets
lucid stars illumine us
as we waltz with long-necked swans in fields
flush with wildflowers and waving grasses,
there are no windowless classrooms,
no bare, dangling bulbs,
no anxious corridors of fluorescent tubes.
In the world of some poets
there is no money and no need
to earn it, no health insurance,
no green cards, no unceremonious toil.
And how can we believe in that world
when the man who must clean up after the reading
waits impatiently outside the door
in his putty-colored service uniform,
and the cubes of cheese at the reception
taste like ashes licked from a bicycle chain,
when the desk-tops and mostly-empty seats
have been inscribed with gutter syllabics
by ballpoint pens gripped tight as chisels,
and the few remaining students are green
as convalescents narcotized by apathy?
But—that's alright. Poetry
can handle it.
Poetry is a capacious vessel, with no limits
to its plasticity, no end to the thoughts and feelings
it can accommodate,
no restrictions upon the imaginings
it can bend through language into being.
Poetry is not the world.
We cannot breathe its atmosphere,
we cannot live there, but we can visit,
like sponge divers in bulbous copper helmets
come to claim some small portion
of the miraculous.
And when we leave we must remember
not to surface too rapidly,
to turn off the lights in the auditorium
and lock the office door—there have been thefts
at the university in recent weeks.
We must remember not to take the bridge
still under construction, always under construction,
to stop on the causeway for gas
and pick up a pack of gum at the register,
and a bottle of water,
and a little sack of plantain chips,
their salt a kind of poem, driving home.

The Burning Ship

No room for regret or self-doubt in art,
doubt but not self-doubt. The ship hauls anchor,
the kerosene lantern flickers and goes out,
voices in the pitch black swell with anger
as shipmates mistake each other for enemies.
The lantern spills, the pilot drops a lit cigar.
Tragedy ensues and engenders more tragedy.
If only the moon could see, if only the stars
had been granted the power of speech.
But the blind remain blind, the voiceless mute.
The burning ship threads its way between reefs
in the darkness. Doubt, but not self-doubt.

The Poem

Maybe the poem will be strong as an ox
and carry us all the way home.
Maybe the poem will be small as a mole,
a field mouse hidden in a meadow.
Maybe the poem will sing like a whale.
Maybe the poem will turn into a frog when kissed.
Maybe it will be soft as mist.
Mysterious as fog. As white as snow.
The wind will blow but the poem
will not falter. It is solid as a rock.
Hard as ice. Fit as a fiddle.
True blue.
Maybe the poem will be nice
to have around, like cozy slippers, or a friendly cat.
Maybe it will forget to wear a coat and hat.
Maybe it will catch a chill. Take ill.
Grow old and frail.
Fear death.
Maybe the poem will elude the hunters
one more year, but every poem
draws a final—inhale

Emily and Walt

I suppose we did not want for love.
They were considerate parents, if a bit aloof,
or more than a bit. He was a colossus
of enthusiasms, none of them us,
while she kissed our heads and mended socks
with a wistful, faraway look.
She might have been a little, well, daft.
And he—Allons, my little ones, he'd laugh,
then leave without us.
And those "friends" of his!
Anyway, he's gone off to "discover
himself" in San Francisco, or wherever,
while she's retired to the condo in Boca.
We worry, but she says she likes it in Florida;
she seems, almost, happy. I suppose they were
less care-givers than enablers,
they taught by example, reading for hours
in the draughty house and now the house is ours,
with its drawers full of junk and odd
lines of verse and stairs that ascend to God
knows where, belfries and gymnasia,
the chapel, the workshop, aviaries, atria—
we could never hope to fill it all.
Our voices are too small
for its silences, too thin to spawn an echo.
Sometimes, even now, when the night-wind blows
into the chimney flue
I start from my bed, calling out—"Hello?
Mom and Dad, is that you?"

Advice to Young Poets

Inhabit a cave made of language!
Let the voices of the past
root like trumpet-vine seedlings in your ear!
Read everything, own nothing, subsist on a diet of words!
Pretty dark in this cave, man.
Feeling hungry.
Need a little sunlight, order of nachos.
Light a candle with the song in your heart.
Drink from a puddle of rainwater and true rhyme.
Enjoy the soft fruits of solitude.
Eat a bowl of alliteration.
Suck on syntax.
Stuffy in here, damp as hell.
What's that horrible smell?
It's nice in the poetry cave, give it a chance.
Kick back a little bit,
draw some antelopes on the wall.
There's a bear in here!
Don't worry about the bear.
Absolutely harmless.
That bear just ate Esmeralda!
Nice name for a poet.
Oh, Esmeralda!
Funny thing, that bear
never bothered anyone before.
When's the last time
you were in this cave?
In the cave—actually inside the cave?
Last time you even set eyes on the cave?
Oh, years ago, back when I was starting out.
Great place, loved it,
remember it like it was yesterday.
Anymore advice, Einstein?
Don't fear the reaper.
Don't feed the stripper.
Don't fish for stripers.
Don't rip your knickers.
Don't ride a tiger like a jockey.
Don't get cocky playing air hockey.
I'm gone…
Eye of the tiger, Rocky,
eye of the tiger!

Dick Cheney Speaks to Me in a Dream

The tree wells with sap, the sponge expands with brine,
a dishrag yields so much before it wrings dry,
it ends, it concludes, it terminates,
and you would tremble with fear to hear the briefings,
to see the demarcated targets—a certain fast food restaurant
where the women resemble butchered turkeys
in running shoes and polyester pants,
obese children waving their sad little bologna arms—
this was a McDonald's in Ohio, I believe,
but I can't speak to that directly, I cannot stipulate,
Ohio or possibly Oklahoma, I do not recall the particulars,
or choose not to, an heuristic of blindness, if you will.
The point is this: these are the lame zebras,
the slow wildebeest at the watering hole,
and the judicious response is to cull the herd,
a calibrated rebalancing akin to natural selection,
which by no means contradicts intelligent design—
survival of the fittest is a free market paradigm.
And we have a full menu of implementation options,
amazing, some of the prototypes I've signed off on,
the know-how, the technology of this ordinance.
To reflect honestly, I am awed at our place in the schema,
I am awed at the nimbus, almost a translucency,
the light shining right through solid objects.
We have so much to be thankful for and the prisoner
wants to take that from us but he will talk,
and when he does we will have the right team in place,
the appropriate people to make sense of his jabbering,
officers and specialists, magnificently trained,
folks who have dedicated their entire lives to this pursuit.
Freedom is a tough monkey but we will make him sing.

The Opossum

We call the local rats "fruit rats" because it makes them sound cleaner and friendlier, less pestilent. In this tropical climate they live outdoors, often in the tops of palm trees, walking along the telephone lines at sunset, eating the various lemons and oranges, mangos and avocados in backyards up and down the block. Unless they take up residence in my gutters or crawlspace I don't bother them, but recently I've found evidence of such trespass, and so set about to kill the offender with old-fashioned, spring-loaded rat traps from the hardware store. But the first few nights don't go well at all. I set the traps at dusk, and in the morning the bait of old cheese-rind has vanished, with the traps entirely unmolested. Strange. This time I decide to set my three rat traps side by side, with only the middle one baited, and the next morning—disaster: two traps lie wantonly sprung and empty, but the third trap, the middle one, has disappeared. Where? How? It could only be some larger creature that has done it, a neighborhood cat, or a super rat, an animal now injured, or debilitated, which might have crawled some distance into the bushes, perhaps—but I can find no sign of it anywhere. Chastened, I abandon my rat removal campaign, and within a week forget all about it, or try to, until one night watching TV after dinner I hear an odd noise floating through the window, clomp, clump, a kind of straggled clatter, growing louder, more insistent, and I realize, in a flash, that it can only be the noise of whatever animal I have inadvertently snared, a thump every bit as deafening in its accusation as the throb of the "Tell-Tale Heart." Quickly I grab a flashlight and there it is, a young opossum with a rat trap fastened to its left front paw, limping across the deck like a vengeful spirit. Panic tears at me, fear and remorse, the realization that I had known all along that I would not escape unscathed from this misadventure, that a cost would yet be levied against my soul. But there's hope—if I can catch the opossum somehow, if I can release the trap and set him free! I grab a towel as I dash out the back door, thinking to throw it like a net, wondering about scratches, whether possums carry rabies, but he has caught wind of me and begins to scurry away, impaired but still nimble, scooting along the wall and behind the central air conditioner and into a hole scrabbled in the hard dirt below my deck, out of reach. So that's where he lives. In the morning I remove the decking screws and take up several planks but there is no sign of the opossum. It seems likely this eviction will doom it, and I don't know how it survived this long in such a state—though its kind are nothing if not survivors, having borne their prehensile tails and marsupial pouches from the time of dinosaurs—but I do not hesitate to fill its burrow with dirt, and barricade the entryway with slabs and shards from an old flower pot to prevent him from returning. There is nothing else to be done. We are bound by what we carry, we belong to what we kill. The porter weed has failed and needs replacing. Tangerines lie where they have fallen in the sparse grass. In the hours before dawn I find myself in the backyard talking with the ghost of Edgar Allen Poe, begging his forgiveness, though even as I lay the first stone upon his tiny grave—not a stone but a shard of broken pottery—I recognize, by the palpable quality of the moonlight, by the warm tears against my cheek, by the ravishing perfume of night-flowering jasmine—that this life, too, is no more substantial than a dream.

The Lemon Tree

Transformation, disintegration, entropy, loss,
fragments of song
borne off the ocean on a wind tasting of oysters, pine resin, and brine.
Everything vanishes, but where does it go? How do you know where any path will lead, which rock the salamander hides beneath, feldspar and mullein, sprigs of parsley, days of ether in a rye field under Russian skies, seashells, driftwood, old plastics—the scarred, marble-hard artificiality of bowling balls hurled and spun so long the bowling alley has become a tavern, a flower store, then a Laundromat fallen on hard times in a section of the city once seen as up-and-coming now spiraling without explanation into terminal destitution or a post-industrial malaise, no one seems sure which. No one wants to risk a guess. There is no one on that street even to ask, amidst the pale northern sunlight and gutter-collected leaves of late autumn.
Still, if the universe is an endless collection of departures they must be met in equal measure by arrivals, conservation of matter being a Newtonian law.
Here is the flower seller with her cart, the policeman chewing gum, the spotted puppy, bees at the gates of nectar, ants in dark cities, thorny branches castigated by wind.
You can smell the lingering odor of flowers from the lemon tree
but you cannot touch them.
Where are they now? In which index or chronicle is that precise configuration of molecules recorded—when the boyish policeman stopped to greet the flower girl whose shadow bruised the faces of the peonies as a single pollen-coated bee emerged—
that instant erased like fog from a window?
In line at the cafeteria the food steams and beckons, suggestive jello cubes in melamine bowls, lima beans exuding butter from every pore, whether we posses a nickel or a fortune in bullion the potential realizations are infinite as long as they remain just that. But we must choose! It is either chicken and rice or a cup of coffee with banana cream pie, which however sensational is still a diminishment, the uxorious richness of the possible replaced by the finitude of the real.
From the ever-rotating food-display we have chosen our final meal.
From the great time-stream we have arrested a single atomic numeral and so selected our destiny.
Tonight the wind is painting the pine needles with salt while the chameleons cling patiently beneath the porch light. They know that moths will come if they wait. They wait. Moths come. The wind calms, the fog begins to lift. The house is restored to its timbre of groaning night sounds, a nocturne of peeping tree frogs, the soft moans of palm fronds and termite-ridden beams.
Where once they were bright with flowers,
the limbs of the lemon tree are heavy with clustering, forest-green nubs, nuptial fruit amid the thorns.

Nights on Planet Earth

Heaven was originally precisely that: the starry sky, dating back to the earliest Egyptian texts, which include magic spells that enable the soul to be sewn in the body of the great mother, Nut, literally "night," like the seed of a plant, which is also a jewel and a star. The Greek Elysian fields derive from the same celestial topography: the Egyptian "Field of Rushes," the eastern stars at dawn where the soul goes to be purified. That there is another, mirror world, a world of light, and that this world is simply the sky—and a step further, the breath of the sky, the weather, the very air—is a formative belief of great antiquity that has continued to the present day with the godhead becoming brightness itself: dios/theos (Greek); deus/divine/Diana (Latin); devas (Sanskrit); daha (Arabic); day (English).

—Susan Brind Morrow, Wolves and Honey

Gravel paths on hillsides amid moon-drawn vineyards,
click of pearls upon a polished nightstand
soft as rainwater, self-minded stars, oboe music
distant as the grinding of icebergs against the hull
of the self and the soul in the darkness
chanting to the ecstatic chance of existence.
Deep is the water and long is the moonlight
inscribing addresses in quicksilver ink,
building the staircase a lover forever pauses upon.
Deep is the darkness and long is the night,
solid the water and liquid the light. How strange
that they arrive at all, nights on planet earth.
Sometimes, not often but repeatedly, the past invades my dreams in the form of a familiar neighborhood I can no longer locate,
a warren of streets lined with dark cafes and unforgettable bars, a place where I can sing by heart every song on every jukebox,
a city that feels the way the skin of an octopus looks pulse-changing from color to color, laminar and fluid and electric,
a city of shadow-draped churches, of busses on dim avenues, or riverlights, or canyonlands, but always a city, and wonderful, and lost.
Sometimes it resembles Amsterdam, students from the ballet school like fanciful gazelles shooting pool in pink tights and soft, shapeless sweaters,
or Madrid at 4 AM, arguing the 18th Brumaire with angry Marxists, or Manhattan when the snowfall crowns every trash-can king of its Bowery stoop,
or Chicago, or Dublin, or some ideal city of the imagination, as in a movie you can neither remember entirely nor completely forget,
barracuda-faced men drinking sake like yakuza in a Harukami novel, women sipping champagne or arrack, the rattle of beaded curtains in the back,
the necklaces of Christmas lights reflected in raindrops on windows, the taste of peanuts and their shells crushed to powder underfoot,
always real, always elusive, always a city, and wonderful, and lost. All night I wander alone, searching in vain for the irretrievable.
In the night I will drink from a cup of ashes and yellow paint.
In the night I will gossip with the clouds and grow strong.
In the night I will cross rooftops to watch the sea tremble in a dream.
In the night I will assemble my army of golden carpenter ants.
In the night I will walk the towpath among satellites and cosmic dust.
In the night I will cry to the roots of potted plants in empty offices.
In the night I will gather the feathers of pigeons in a honey-jar.
In the night I will become an infant before your flag.

Campbell McGrath

Campbell McGrath is the author of eight volumes of poetry, including Spring Comes To Chicago, Florida Poems, Seven Notebooks, and most recently Shannon: A Poem of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (Ecco Press, 2009), an epic poem of the American west. His poetry has appeared in The New Yorker, the Atlantic, Harper's, and on the op-ed page of the New York Times, as well as in dozens of literary journals and quarterlies, and over forty anthologies. His awards include MacArthur and Guggenheim Foundation Fellowships, the Kingsley Tufts Prize, as well as a Witter Bynner Fellowship from the Library of Congress. He has taught at Northwestern University and the University of Chicago, and for the last fifteen years at Florida International University, in Miami, where he is the Philip and Patricia Frost Professor of Creative Writing.