Review by John Gardner
EATING THE PURE LIGHT: HOMAGE TO THOMAS MCGRATH
by John Bradley, Editor
The Backwaters Press
3502 N 52nd Street
Omaha, NE 68104-3506
2009, 155 pp., $20.00
I knew as soon as I touched the book that I would love it, as I love the work of Thomas McGrath. My temptation when I received it was to immediately open it and skip to the poets whose work I was familiar with. I decided that this would be too much like eating all of the red Skittles out of the bag first, so I sat down and read it through. I felt comfortable doing this because I know John Bradley, the editor of this collection, to be a fine poet in his own right as well as a devotee of Thomas McGrath’s. My trust that he would be able to meld the varying styles and voices of over sixty different poets was immediately rewarded.
It is difficult to look at this book without looking at McGrath as well. If you are not familiar with McGrath’s work, you owe it to yourself to read as much of him as you can immediately. A good primer can be found here, and better writers than I have already said a lot about him. His work is approachable, honest, moving, and sometimes funny. Many times he is all of the above in one poem. Additionally, Thomas McGrath was a poet’s poet. In 1953, McGrath stood up to the House Committee on Un-American Activities and refused to testify. Invoking Chaucer, Shelly, and Lorca, as well as his First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendment rights, he took a stand at a time when it was politically and personally detrimental to do so. He was blacklisted and lost his teaching position. Some of the major publications at the time refused to publish him. But he continued to write and teach until his death in 1990, influencing many poets beyond the contributors to this anthology.
It is not necessary to be familiar, however, with McGrath’s body of work to enjoy this collection. McGrath liked to write poems that were approachable and poems that needed to be dug into, and this book follows that tradition. I found myself meditating on several poems in the book, and found myself stopping to reread several others out of sheer joy.
I studied McGrath in a class taught by George Kalamaras, one of the contributors to this book, whose “Elegy for McGrath” ends so beautifully with
Take my hand, compañero, bring me the coal fire. Let us praise not
the slaw but the cabbage half-cocked with vinegar.
I love you like I love an old road of rebellion, like I love petunias
over this grave or that, like I love the chromium bones and
imperfect precision of your not-yet, your never-quite dead.
Kalamaras confesses to a love and desire for McGrath’s work to live on beyond his seventy-four years. This love is shared by each poet printed in this book, and pervades each page like the dirt beneath a farmer’s fingernails. The first section, which contains the above poem, celebrates the man they once knew and laments his loss. The poets use images of shared times and our current political climate to flash a photo of the poet and what his absence has meant to them.
The second and third section pay tribute in perhaps the most fitting way possible: they create new art that interrogates social issues we face today with an eye on the human experience, using McGrath’s wide array of techniques and rhetorical strategies. These two sections, in my mind, make the book worth reading even if you’ve never heard of McGrath. Only rarely in these two sections is McGrath mentioned other than as a dedication. However, these are poems that would have honored him: by using language to engage the world and take a political stance against the power brokers who damage our lives through greed and indifference.
While the third section has longer poems (Michael Henson’s “To Tom McGrath in Heaven: A Letter from the Ark” and Ray Gonzalez’s “The American Sphincter Muscle” are standout poems from this section, as well as Denise Duhamel’s “Girl Soldier.”), the second section is entirely devoted to McGrath’s love of the short poem. McGrath often emulated the style of the ancient Chinese poets, who used very few words to pack an emotional and intellectual punch. John Bradley tells us in his introduction that he continued to write these succinct poems all the way to his deathbed. Kathleen Winter emulates him well with her poem “Late Moon,” writing
The moon is very old
and will rise late.
Have a little patience
with her. She has seen
every battlefield on earth.
Winters uses not just McGrath’s form, but emulates his imaginative imagery by anthropomorphizing the moon. The sympathetic tone of the poem is also a trait shared by McGrath, whose poetry was highly sympathetic of the victims of war and those abused by the system.
John Bradley explains in his introduction that the fourth section offers poems that “invite the reader to not just admire McGrath’s legacy, but to honor him by engaging the world.” This section echoes the first, but the poems get more complex and interesting. Where the first sections poems pay tribute directly to McGrath by looking at the world through him, these poems view the world that McGrath inhabited and his impact upon it. It’s a subtle difference, but it is a fitting end to the book.
Overall, this collection of poetry is a tribute that needed to be written for one of American poetry’s most underappreciated gems. These are poems that not only express a deep love for Thomas McGrath, but also to the man’s legacy by striving to engage the causes that he championed all his life. Not only that, but the book is arranged in a way that creates an engaging and emotional read. The faith I had that this book would be an entertaining and thought provoking work was well justified, and I would recommend this collection to anyone who enjoys smart, political poetry.
John Gardner is a graduate of Indiana Purdue University Fort Wayne. He lives, writes, and works in Warsaw, Indiana with his wife, his son, a cat named after an anime character and a snake named after a Welsh god. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org