Thomas McGrath 1/22/11
When I was recently in Olympia Washington visiting family, I spent a rainy Saturday cruising the used bookstores there. I did want to mention Last Word Books and Browsers’ Book Shop. They are both good.
When I was at Last Word, I came across and purchased a wonderful book of collected poems by Thomas McGrath titled The Movie at the End of the World. While McGrath is well known to poetry lovers, he is not well known to the general public.
McGrath (1916-1990) was from North Dakota, a farmer’s son. He had various nicknames including Dream Champ, Tommie the Commie, Crazy Horse, Peasant Poet, Longshot O’Leary, and Tom Fool. He is best known for an epic poem Letter to an Imaginary Friend. I have not seen it but there is a documentary available from Amazon about McGrath also with the title The Movie at the End of the World.
I have barely scratched the surface of his work but I wanted to share some of his poems i liked best. I would encourage all who read this to check him out. He was an absolutely fearless American original.
On Monday he died.
A few heard of it and were shocked but not surprised.
A newspaper noted his passing.
There was a small service and some people came.
They buried or burned him at the beginning of a long weekend.
They went to the beach, doped, drank, fornicated, had a “good
With headaches, a few went to a bar and one remembered a line
of a poem.
He would have understood perfectly the “human condition.”
How could I have come so far?
(And always on such dark trails!)
I must have travelled by the light
Shining from the faces of all those I have loved.
My dead father comes back
In the shape of my little son.
And I sing him to sleep with his songs
Still in my own child’s ear.
O’Leary’s Last Wish:
In Case the Revolution Should Fail
I want to be buried in Arlington Cemetery,
Somewhere at the patriotic center of the American Death,
With my bones full of the sleepy dynamite of the class struggle
And the time-bomb of the century under my private’s shirt.
I want to lie there and tick like a pulse among the defunct
Heroes, the quiet deserters of their own body and blood-
The ones who stood on expensive roads in the total shell fire of money
Being cut off at the balls for their own and the public good.
I’ll be there, the anti-bourgeois neutrino of the irreconcilable
Among the tame terrene charges of those patriotic stiffs.
Contra-Destiny Factors ring midnight, but there’s no gold in their
Cock crow chimes thrice. Reveille. No one is stirring yet
But under the ghost-overgrown honortabs to the wars,
The real estate and spirit-money my fellow-death-workers have won,
Is the Word of the Four Last Things of the Working Class, the rumored
Revolution of the Dead which Heaven, and the Boss, want put down.
Nevertheless, I’m still here, hell’s partisan, with my anti-god bomb,
Agitating toward the day when these stony dead
Shall storm up out of the ground in their chalky battalions
To judge wars, Presidents, Fates, God and His Own Elect.
Gone Away Blues
Sirs, when you are in your last extremity,
When your admirals are drowning in the grass-green sea,
When your generals are preparing the total catastrophe-
I just want you to know how you can not count on me.
I have ridden to hounds through my ancestral halls,
I have picked the eternal crocus on the ultimate hill,
I have fallen through the window of the highest room,
But don’t ask me to help you ’cause I never will.
Sirs, when you move that map-pin how many souls must dance?
I don’t think all those soldiers have died by happenstance.
The inscrutable look on your scrutable face I can read at a glance-
And I’m cutting out of here at the first chance.
I have been wounded climbing the second stair,
I have crossed the ocean in the hull of a live wire,
I have eaten the asphodel of the dark side of the moon,
But you can call me all day and I just won’t hear.
O patriotic mister with your big ear to the ground,
Sweet old curly scientist wiring the birds for sound,
O lady with the Steuben glass heart and your heels so rich and round-
I’ll send you a picture postcard from somewhere I can’t be found.
I have discovered the grammar of the Public Good,
I have invented a language that can be understood,
I have found the map of where the body is hid,
And I won’t be caught dead in your neighborhood.
O hygienic inventer of the bomb that’s so clean,
O lily white Senator from East Turnip Green,
O celestial mechanic of the money machine-
I’m going someplace where nobody makes your scene.
Good-by, good-by, good-by
Adios, au ‘voir, so long,
Sayonara, dosvedanya, ciao,
By-by, by-by, by-by.
Fargo-Moorhead, about 1980
Friends, I am old and poor.
The ones who lived in my house have gone out into the world.
My dogs are all dead and the bones of my horses
Whiten the hillsides.
All my books are forgotten.
Are asleep, though they dream in many languages.
The ones I love are carrying the Revolution
In far away places.
This little house has few comforts- but it is yours.
Come and see me here-
I’ve got plenty of time and love!