Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1491
The Russian Formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky observed that in the history of art, the legacy is transmitted not from father to son but from uncle to nephew (and from aunt to niece—or from aunt to nephew). Each new generation of novelists, painters, and composers is likely to look for inspiration not to their immediate predecessors but to figures more distant, whether from another culture or from the neglected riches of their own traditions.
Writing an essay?
Get a custom outline
Our Essay Lab can help you tackle any essay assignment within seconds, whether you’re studying Macbeth or the American Revolution. Try it today!
People should not be surprised, then, if the young writers and artists in their acquaintance all seem to be reading Paul Metcalf. After working for decades in splendid isolation (his books have been published by small presses in very limited print runs, often years after they were written), Metcalf could walk today into any major bookstore and find his long-inaccessible books on the shelf next to best-selling fiction and the latest literary sensations. Readers owe this miracle to the enterprise of Coffee House Press and the largesse of the Lannan Foundation. Supported by a generous grant, Coffee House Press undertook a three-volumeCollected Works, which includes some previously unpublished material. The first volume appeared in 1996 (see Magill’s Literary Annual, 1997), with volumes 2 and 3 following in 1997.
One of the reasons Metcalf has heretofore labored in obscurity is that no one has known how to categorize his books. They are not fiction (except for stretches in some of his early works) or poetry (though they most closely resemble the long poems of Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Charles Olson) or history (though they quote copiously from historical sources). What are they? Twenty-five years ago, when national boundaries between and within the arts were vigilantly policed, that was a disabling question. If writers or artists could not be plugged into a familiar pigeonhole, they were likely to be cast out into the limbo reserved for “experimental art.” Since then, however, technological innovations have eroded traditional categories and all manner of hybrid artists are flourishing. Suddenly, instead of seeming merely odd, Metcalf looks like a pioneer from whom there are useful lessons to be learned. He is also, for those not driven off by the initial strangeness, an immensely entertaining companion who drops in for a visit now and then, always with fabulous tales to tell.
Metcalf himself has generally avoided fussing about labels, but he has occasionally sought to spell out what he is doing. One such occasion—unusually explicit—comes at the very beginning of I-57, the first book included in volume 2 of the Collected Works:
Not a poem, not a novel, not a history, not a journal, yet at times some or all of these—I-57 is an idiosyncratic approach to a place, a region, and to an interior and an exterior life. . . .
The choice of title is random, dictated by virtue of the book being written during the author’s 57th year . . . hence, the title dictates the material: Interstate 57, the state of Illinois, Sikeston, Missouri (just across the river), to Chicago.
So the title is a pun: both the highway and “I, Paul Metcalf.” Likewise, the journey recounted therein is both exterior and interior, and in this archetypal road trip the past is always present, sometimes insistently, sometimes like a faint and haunting music.
I-57 is indeed an ideal introduction to Metcalf’s work. What might sound like a self-indulgent caprice—the sort of thing that exercises Jesse Helms when it is funded by the National Endowment for the Arts—is in fact a wonderfully crafted book drawing on Metcalf’s omnivorous reading and showing to good advantage his poet’s ear and painter’s eye. (The text is illustrated by images from the artist Leni Fuhrman and by Metcalf’s own photographs.) His exuberant zest for language (one imagines him rolling the words like candies on his tongue), his robust sense of humor, and his boundless curiosity (the gift of the true autodidact, not self-absorbed, for whom learning is an endless delight) are all on display here.
As Metcalf traverses the state of Illinois, he shifts from geological description to an unsettling interior monologue to snippets from historical sources (the bibliography at the end of I-57 takes up more than six pages of small print). The layout of a typical page recalls Pound’s Cantos (1917-1968), Williams’s Paterson (1946-1948), and Olson’s The Maximus Poems (1953-1968), neither a linear narrative nor a conventional lyric but rather a collage of voices. The opening movements render the terrain as if it were a living thing, intercutting historical vignettes: contacts between the American Indians and the white settlers who displaced them, extracts from diaries and letters dating to the time when Illinois was the frontier, and bits of trivia about U.S. president Abraham Lincoln. The provocative juxtapositions and the artful arrangement of language combine to engage the reader in a way that no standard guidebook or history will.
About halfway through the 120-odd pages of I-57, the “journal” begins with an entry for Friday, April 11, 1975, in Sikeston, Missouri (“inception of I-57”). From there, it moves quickly into southern Illinois. The interstate highway provides Metcalf with a starting point and a terminus, but in between, like Odysseus, he wanders, exploring the back roads and small towns of Illinois (the journal entry for each day concludes with a “log” recording the day’s journey, with all the roads taken).
Viktor Shklovsky would have loved this book. It was the young Shklovsky who famously proclaimed that the business of art is “making strange”: provoking people to see afresh that which the habit of perception and the narrowing of their preoccupations prevent them from noticing. A reader of I- 57 will see with Metcalf-trained eyes the next time he or she barrels down the interstate. For example, Metcalf considers the names of the towns he passes through (Cairo, Thebes, Karnak, Egypt), then suddenly shifts to the Civil War era and reminds the reader that southern Illinois is southern (the accents say so). The pro-slavery politicians of the time thought the state would join the South, “but Illinois went north.” Then there are the towns of Ullin (“Fingal’s bard, . . . one of the eight heroes of Ossian, in those legendary Gaelic romances”), Dongola (with a photo of a sign for the First State Bank of Dongola, the name coming from the ancient African kingdom of Nubia, “on both sides of the Nilin ruins”), Anna (where the Southern Illinois Hospital for the Insane was established in 1869), and what was once the village of Jonesboro (where Lincoln and Stephen Arnold Douglas debated, “now a pretty little park”).
History is different when it is seen thus, part of the landscape, in people’s bones as they eat breakfast at a fast- food restaurant before hitting the road again. Metcalf’s journal and the various texts interleaved with it offer a condensed poetic history of Illinois, westward expansion, the destruction of the American Indians, the legacy of slavery, ethnic diversity, and the decline of small-town America, all interwoven with passion and humor ranging from puns and bawdy jokes to subtle and not-so-subtle ironies.
Naturally, the traveler pauses in Metcalf (formerly Metcalfe), which had celebrated its centennial the year before, in 1974. The reader is given a garland of extracts from a centennial publication, a cross-section of life in the heartland over that span. There is also a stop at the William Jennings Bryan Museum in Salem and a superb mini-biography of Bryan presented largely through deft, Pound-style quotation. Finally, Metcalf moves on to Chicago and the end of the trail.
I-57 is vintage Metcalf. There is much more of that class in these two volumes. Even the most dedicated fan will find failures here, but Metcalf’s batting average is very high. It is particularly welcome to find, in volume 3, the previously unpublished Huascaran (pronounced “Woss-ca RON,” Metcalf kindly tells the reader). This short work, inspired by his “reading of Barbara Bode’s No Bells to Toll (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1989), an account of the great Peruvian earthquake of 1970,” is one of Metcalf’s best, mixing deep compassion with savage indignation. It is no small feat, in this era of media overkill, to tell a “disaster story” with genuine feeling, but Metcalf once again succeeds in “making strange” that to which people have become indifferent. Readers of Patagoni (in volume 1 of the Collected Works) will recall his great affection for the people of the Andes, and that imaginative sympathy informs his account here.
Miracles do happen: The existence of this three-volume collection is proof. Perhaps, then, it is not too much to hope that the editors of an influential anthology will discover Metcalf as they are trawling for the lost treasures of American literature. Meanwhile, a small library of pleasure and instruction is ready for anyone who takes up these magnificent books.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. XCIII, August, 1997, p. 1870.
Library Journal. CXXII, July, 1997, p. 87.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, August 18, 1997, p. 72.
The Washington Post Book World. XXVII, September 7, 1997, p. 5.