There are many fine poems in Thomas McGrath’s final collection, DEATH SONG, but not so many as to warrant a 117-page volume. Two of the finest come first: “The Crippled Artist” and “Slaughterhouse Music.” The former portrays, sadly and beautifully, the artist’s (and one may assume McGrath’s) perseverance to create despite a crippling illness and impending death: “And still he struggles: to take them back alive—/ Flowers, birds, street, people the light that lies/ Still in some alleys. It is a kind of love,.../ ... And light illuminates all that he loves to praise!/ The centuries fall asleep: the adamantine walls soften—scary—working, he thinks:/ The lyf so short, the craft so long to lere.../ Despair so easy. Hope so hard to bear.” In “Slaughterhouse Music,” McGrath sings of the solidarity of all beings facing death, and sings well the book’s dominant theme: “And it seems proper/ To sing in solidarity a little while still together—/ Before we go under the axe.”
Where DEATH SONG takes turns for the worse is where the poet advertises, Coca-Cola style, his political convictions and distastes. For example, in “The Communist Poet in Hell,” McGrath decries “Daily instruction in politics/ By tiny petty Bourgeois critics and poets.” This is fine, perhaps, within a limited context; but it has a hypocritical ring to it when one considers that McGrath (recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts and the Amy Lowell, Guggenheim, and Bush foundations, to name a few) was a poet who appeared to nibble from the same bourgeois hands he bit in his poems.
The poems in DEATH SONG worth preserving would make an elegant small volume. In addition to “The Crippled Artist” and “Slaughterhouse Music,” other poems worth rereading include “For Boris Greenfield,” “A Visit to the House of the Poet,” “A Fable for Poets,” all of section II (a haunting meditation on the approach of death), and perhaps a few selections from sections 3 and 4. Within all the dross there are many nuggets of gold; there is a good book within DEATH SONG, and it is worth reaching in to find it.