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Local Lit: a visit from "the Whitman of ambivalence"

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"To understand the average Chicago streetscape," says poet Campbell McGrath, "you have to understand why Chicago is here. To understand why Chicago is here means you have to understand all of American history, but that's not even enough because it's the whole history of political capitalism that accounts for America and also the history of various ideas that made it to America, and what's an idea, anyway?"

He pauses. "Then you have to say, well, that goes to some other ideas about how we understand and construct meaning in the world."

McGrath, who's in town teaching creative writing this spring at the University of Chicago, was born here in 1962, while his father, an air force officer, was studying at the university. The service soon sent the family to Washington, D.C., where McGrath spent his childhood, but he returned to Hyde Park for an undergraduate degree of his own and came back yet again, after getting his MFA from Columbia University in 1988, to take up the migratory life of an adjunct professor. And it was then, watching from a window of the Lakeview apartment he shared with his pregnant wife as two squirrels gathered food and nested in the snow, that he began spinning what would become the 70 pages of "The Bob Hope Poem," which constitute the bulk of his 1996 collection, Spring Comes to Chicago.

Divided into six parts with titles like "The Secret Life of Capital" and "Commodity Fetishism in the White City," the poem is a sprawling, funny, and determined search for meaning. At the time, he says, the first gulf war was under way and "I was thinking, well, we are at war, and what's this whole war thing with Bob Hope, where's he come to be the comic war guy, what's that all about? It's just weird when you think about it, isn't it?

"And now I'm watching the same planes drop their weapons in the same desert, and Bob Hope is still alive. Nothing changes. He's supposed to have died every minute for the last ten years, and one of the premises of the Bob Hope poem is like, 'Bob, you can't buy immortality with your money.' But apparently he has."

With barely any money himself, and a child on the way, McGrath wrote of watching "our poor mailman, suffering the pangs of hypothermia or frostbite," coming down the street. "Imagine what stamped benediction, what metered mark of grace he might be bringing me today: / good word from Hollywood about my screenplay; / a Guggenheim, a genius grant; / an NEA!"

"They quoted that to me when they called," McGrath says of the day eight years later when the MacArthur Foundation finally came through with that genius grant. "They like that moment a lot, you can tell, calling people up, changing people's lives."

By then, however, he was ensconced as a full professor at Florida International University, and he and his wife were raising two sons in the subtropical playground of Miami. His poetry had changed too.

"I've never been accused of being a nature writer," he says of his latest book, The Florida Poems (2002), a collection of lyrical celebrations of the manatee, the key lime, the orange, and the alligator permeated by a sense of loss. "Hyde Park puts you in an intellectual mood; in Florida it's another world, a sensual and physical world, and that's the response to it.

"Not too many people I know go back and wistfully think, 'Boy, I wish Chicago was still a piece of prairie.' It was a marshy place by the lake and who needs it? And in fact the city they built instead is great. But in Florida you just have the sense of, 'Wow, here it is, paradise being bulldozed, a beautiful physical landscape vanishing and being replaced, not by a fantastic human landscape, but by something tawdry and commercial."

Still, he sings of his new home as only the self-proclaimed "Whitman of ambivalence" could: "Florida: it's here and it's for sale! / Florida: it's neat, in a weird way! / Florida: Fuckin' Fantastic!"

McGrath will read from his work at 5:30 on Thursday, May 1, in room 10 of the U. of C.'s Classics Building, 1010 E. 59th. On Friday, May 2, he'll give an informal talk called "Ironic, Ain't It?" on the use of comedy in contemporary poetry; that's at 2:30 in room 408 of Wieboldt Hall, 1050 E. 59th. Both events are free; call 773-834-8934.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.

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