Covering a broad range of emotion and experience unique to the spirit of westward ambition, yet universal to our human needs for beauty, reverence and food, “Shannon: a poem of the Lewis and Clark Expedition” is both a magic and manic portrait of the virgin great prairies of Missouri and the Dakotas, subsistence, starvation, madness and salvation, all presented in a very uncommon form – easily accessible epic verse.
In this book-length poem, deft Floridian poet Campbell McGrath revisits the experiences of Private George Shannon, the youngest member of the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery, to illuminate the 16 days in which Shannon wandered lost along the uncharted banks of the Missouri river in August 1804. Shannon did not keep a journal of his time with the Corps, this poem being an imaginative rather than historical document intended for exploration, loss and emergence. In this way, McGrath’s work is not a historical recreation, but a haunting vision of a new world, through young eyes as Shannon’s experiences and desires are given voice.
The young frontiersman of the poem muses, “Thoughts & reflections flow through me here / Alone in these lands I may consider myself / The first American to have walked / Surely, & observations of the land generally / & such animals as I have observed.” For twelve days Shannon went without food save for what could be foraged from the wilderness. Sparse couplets provide illuminating interpretation of the humbling experience of starvation: “In a land of plenty / I travel hungry. In a country of herds / I wander alone. On a journey of discovery / I am the lost.”
Paramount to the strength of the verse is Shannon’s youth and the wonder of his gaze as he takes in the new land and its abundant wild rivers, animals and Indians. His observations are free of the pretense of class and religion, his pride derived rather from his own heart and childhood experience rooted in the outdoors.
Contemplating rank and order following the discharge of a fellow Corps member he considers, “Why should youth count against a man / In this Missouri country? / Eighteen & years in the backwoods / I am a better hunter than most back home / & this a newer land”. At other times the narrative becomes playful (brought upon by hunger, sleep deprivation and delirium) and brightens the verse as in this passage as Shannon observes a badger: “Nor do I believe a badger / Could carry forward any such discourse. / He would not think out, Should I dig some now? / Should I hunt for food? / His way of thinking would resemble / Things & acts more purely / A conception untroubled with calculation / Such as man is consumed by. / preen preen preen / dig dig dig / run up the bank, scratch some / dig dig dig / sunlight.”
Faced with solitude and the vastness of the unknown American west, it is not surprising to find the poem flooded with images of family, home and lovers, and the balance between abundance and scarcity, God and the Devil. Anyone who enjoyed PBS’ grand expose of the Corps of Discovery will find this epic poem a fantastic companion.
Those interested in reading more journal entries from Corps members should check out the PBS journal archive, which contains excerpts from the journals of Captains Lewis and Clark, Sergeants Charles Floyd, Patrick Gass and John Ordway, and Private Joseph Whitehouse. Readers intrigued by book length historical poetry might try Ludlow by David Mason a vivid, revelatory commentary on the foundation of labor organization and the great Colorado coal miner’s strike of 1914.
This review first appeared in the Juneau Empire, 3.25.2010.