Shannon: A Poem of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Campbell McGrath. Ecco. 128pp, $23.00..
Between 1804 and 1806, the thirty-odd members of Merriwether Lewis and William Clark’s Corps of Discovery traveled more than 8,000 miles of terrain in the newly acquired Louisiana Territory. During that time, they met with countless indigenous groups, hunted grizzly bears, endured a long, wet winter on the Oregon coast, and crossed the Rocky Mountains. They also produced a set of journals that—in their raw, unedited glory—comprise one of North America’s unruliest epics. It is a sprawling story that contains few moments of cinematic drama: there are no great battles with the Indians, no moments of revelation akin to Columbus sighting land in the West Indies. Instead, the men collect flora and fauna, relentlessly chart the geography, and puzzle over the baffling arena of international relations into which they have stepped. Like the journey itself, the journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition are a vast continent of strange wonder—almost too large to be compassed.
In Shannon: A Poem of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Campbell McGrath manages to distill the power of those sprawling documents by filling in just one of their many lacunae. As the Corps ascended the Missouri river on its journey west, Private George Shannon was detailed to retrieve several horses that had wandered off. He did so, but in the process he became lost. For sixteen days he traveled alone on the Plains, quickly running out of provisions and ammunition. The problem was simple: Shannon believed that he was traveling behind the expedition, when in fact he was actually ahead of it. When, through sheer good luck, Shannon was finally reunited with his comrades, Clark noted that he had nearly “starved to death in a land of plenty for the want of bullets or something to kill his meat.”
Shannon, a single narrative poem bracketed by entries from Clark’s journals, tells the story of what befell its eponymous protagonist during this time. McGrath has a strong sense of the world—physical, social, and intellectual—of the early republic that would have shaped Shannon, and the verse becomes both the unwritten record that Shannon did not keep and the interior monologue that he would never had dared to record.
Dog-tired from driving the horses all day
The brown one especially
Being contrary and prone to lurch & stumble
Yet is my sleep postponed
By these prolific showers of shooting stars
Blazing their luminary trails across the heavens.
Much is writ in their countenance
But not the destiny of men or such trifles.
It is difficult to do justice to Shannon through brief quotations, because the power of the poem—like the expedition and its written record—is cumulative. Shannon observes the landscape, wonders when he will find the rest of his fellow travelers, and schemes about ways to kill game. “Thoughts & reflections flow through me here / Alone in these lands,” Shannon declares. But these are not the musings of a Thoreavian prototype. McGrath treads lightly on philosophy and existential angst and instead turns to something both more modest and stronger, a kind of wry truth wrung out from the dirty rags of Shannon’s wandering. When a starving Shannon finally turns to grasshoppers for his supper, his lament comes in a minor key: “There is no salvation / In them oily bugs.”
Shannon, in fact, looks backward, to the east, as much as he looks forward to the Rocky Mountains or the Pacific Ocean. He recalls the death of his brother and wonders about its place in the divine plan. He ponders the soft breasts of the girl he has left behind. And he remembers the pithy advice of his father. (“George my boy / Education wears many uniforms.”) He also wonders about the American Indians in whose domain he travels. Shannon does not directly encounter any of them during his sixteen-day sojourn—McGrath mercifully skips the Dances with Wolves opportunities—but he does ruminate on the encounters that the expedition has already experienced and the ultimate fate of the original tenants of the land. He wishes that they might embrace the rule of United States law but also questions “why they would trouble to.” If Shannon is a sympathetic observer of Indians, in other words, he also shares the belief of his countrymen in what later generations would call Manifest Destiny:
These wild, wind-torn lands flung to the horizon
Will soon enough be states
Of the Union
Why else fashion a Corps of Discovery?
The real burden of Shannon, though, is to name what exactly is being discovered here. McGrath is alive to the way in which the republican ideals that underpinned the Lewis and Clark expedition—and motivated its author, Thomas Jefferson—rarely matched the lived reality. But George Shannon is not a heretic; he has not come to the wilderness to topple false gods. “The Law does not abide in the grass / Or the plum, it does not adhere / To them as the dewdrop does. / It must be imagined.” One of McGrath’s achievements in this poem is to show how Shannon searches in vain for an adequate screen onto which he can project an imagination of spiritual plentitude. He cannot find it in the landscape itself, “Too large in both emptiness and fullness.” He cannot find it in the mysterious Indians whom he has met, men and women scarred by disease and their own history of warfare, and he cannot find it in his own experience.
So instead of Shannon discovering the land, the land discovers George Shannon. He is surrounded by herds of buffalo in the dark—covered by crawling ants at dawn. These sections of the poem are some of the most affecting in the book, but their emotional weight comes from the McGrath’s careful restraint:
hump-rumble, herd wallow, gruff in the darkness
buffalo breathing in the dawn all around me
smell of the buffalo strong on the river breeze
black eyes wide as the Western Ocean
great herds of the buffalo all around me
What happens to Shannon in the close of the poem is both moving and subtle, and to describe it in detail would be to give away too much of the climax of McGrath’s narrative. The jacket copy of Shannon describes it as an “epic,” but that term might be misleading about the emotional palette with which McGrath works. He is after something both smaller and grander in Shannon, the kind of complicated shifts in perspective that reorient our world by degrees rather than upending it by revolution. “On a journey of discovery / I am the lost,” Shannon proclaims. But what is found is something elusive, nearly impossible to name.
Shannon will not overturn either of the dominant images of the Lewis and Clark expedition—the grand pioneers or the imperialistic despoilers—that currently circulate in the American imagination. But it is nevertheless a more profound meditation than most of what passes for historical revisionism. The America that George Shannon explores in this book is not a wilderness ripe for redemption or trophy to be stolen away. It is briar patch whose thorns sometimes arrange themselves in patterns of unexpected grace. It is unwieldy, prickly, and daunting. Sometimes you chase the buffalo. Sometimes the buffalo chase you.
Michael A. Elliott is associate professor of English at Emory University. He is the author of Custerology: The Enduring Legacy of the Indian Wars and George Armstrong Custer and The Culture Concept: Writing and Difference in the Age of Realism and coeditor of American Literary Studies: A Methodological Reader.
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