Friday, March 4, 2011

Shannon: a poem of the Lewis and Clark Expedition by Campbell McGrath

The award-winning poet Campbell McGrath writes about modern America. This narrative poem is about America, too, but a much older country, the America of 1805. Meriwether Lewis was chosen by President Thomas Jefferson to explore the newly acquired “Louisiana Territory”, 800,000 square miles of land starting in what is today northern Texas and extending north up to Canada. Lewis in turn chose William Clark to go with him and help lead their “Corps of Discovery”, a band of 27 U.S. soldiers.

From the journal kept by William Clark,we learn that one of their party, a George Shannon, was sent to recover two horses and did not rejoin the party for 16 days. The poem is Shannon’s thoughts and reflections during that time, as imagined by McGrath in the style of a journal.

Before the poem and after it, McGrath inserts the (real) journal entries of Clark that tell of Shannon’s disappearance. The entries are very businesslike in tone, with the information about Shannon appearing along with other topics, such as their communication with Indians, and the characteristics of the land – its minerals, plants, and animals. These facts betray no emotion and their style seem to discourage reflection, so they provide a contrast to how lifelike Shannon’s voice is, when we first hear it.

Shannon speaks as one from his time would speak, with measured phrases and a lack of contractions such as run over in our present day speech. He was an educated man, and the youngest of the Corps, about 17 years of age. The poem is deceptively simple, as Shannon finds the horses, starts to drive them back to the party, only to find day after day passing without sight of them, and finally losing all sign of their passage before him.

He was lost in present day Nebraska, journeying on the banks of the Missouri River. His words give us the beauty of the place, the wildness and the stark loneliness he experiences as his situation becomes more perilous. First leaving his companions in haste, he neglected to carry more bullets or provisions, and he nearly starves to death. McGrath gives us a full picture of this young man’s life, through his thoughts and recollections, and we experience with Shannon this wonderment of a world so vast, so open – so grand and yet impervious to us and to our plight.

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