Monday, December 23, 2013

Thirteen Best Poetry Books I read in 2013: El Dorado by Peter Campion

I read a lot of poetry collections in 2013.  In addition to the fifty-some-odd published books, I read two-hundred unpublished manuscripts, searching, along with the other editors of Trio House Press, for the best work that we could find to publish.  I found a lot of good poems in more books that I have time to list or write about.  But far fewer books impressed me as complete works, every poem earning its place in the manuscript, contributing to the larger work as if it were one long poem, as well as standing on its own.  I've come up with thirteen books that did it for me.  They were not all released in 2013 (some were), but that's when I got around to reading (or re-reading) them.

Here are the books.  After the list is a brief review of one of them, Peter Campion's El Dorado.  In the next twelve posts, I will review the remaining books.  Perhaps you've read some of them.  Perhaps you'd like to do your own list.  Feel free to join in on the comment section.  Note:  I've already written about some of them, and in those cases, I'll be elaborating on what I have taken (or can take) from them for my own work.  They are listed in the approximate order that I read them, beginning with a copy of the original issue of Awake which I read in January (and re-read when I purchased my copy reissued by Carnegie Mellon), and ending with El Dorado, which I just finished today.

My Thirteen Best Poetry Books Read in 2013

Awake by Dorianne Laux
Mayakovsky’s Revolver by Matthew Dickman
Holding Company by Major Jackson
Blue Rust by Joseph Millar
Gospel Night by Michael Waters
Throat Singing by Susan Cohen
Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey
Inventing Constellations by Al Maginnes
No Other Paradise by Kurt Brown
The Double Truth by Chard DeNiord
Eiko & Koma by Forrest Gander
Listening Long and Late by Peter Everwine
El Dorado by Peter Campion

Readers of this blog should know that I'm a huge fan of Peter Campion.  But placing El Dorado on my top thirteen list for 2013 was far from automatic.  It earned it's way from the very first (title) poem, where I recognized Campion's voice--tight, understated, lyrical, narrative, with virtuosic metaphorical sense--as one that I trusted.  If I didn't know better, "El Dorado" might have distanced itself from me in its opening lines with the very accessibility of its diction, the cool reporting of the trauma of an accident involving a family where

safe on the shoulder . . . she leaned against me
gripping our son as the cruiser
strobed blue and red

there came the helplessness    the bare
nerve shudder giving up to air

so in those moments
"I" was this person with my name and also no one

so remembering
                           crumpled steel and
sun on the silos for miles beyond us

I can make no connection

But, true to form, Campion makes a move that shows his readers the connection between the existential angst of being "this person with my name and also no one" and the ancient story of El Dorado, of

                         how a man
clambered from caves where days he dwelt alone
and tribesmen came anointing him
with balsam gum then
sputtering gold dust
through wooden tubes all over him

He walked the talus to the lake where a raft awaited
braziers lavishing shine on the heaped gold

At the center of the lake he scattered
handfuls of gold to the water
and returning to the shore
he doused himself
so colors elusive as the coins and squiggles
on the dorsal of a trout

fell to the cratered basin    treasure
the invaders found
vanishing always to wild interior

fell as the tribesmen
bellowed through jaguar masks


and then another move back to the present:

No one along the breakdown lane in northern Iowa
dressed as a jaguar

No one dripped with gold

But that shiver of surrender
flooding my chest
                            that tremble of unclenching muscle

stranded in the miles of soybean fields
between one home we left and one we'd never seen

In the remainder of the poem, Campion muses on the reflections that shine between ancient ritual and modern life by showing "wife and son," "the houses," "the billboard above [them] . . . even [his] own skin//shin[ing]"

. . . with the promise
there was nothing more than this
train of moments

streaming through air
                                   everything gathering
light to its contours
before it disappears

With the beginning lines of this section, Campion introduces "Ancient Story" as the first of three themes I found in this work; with these last two lines he brings in "Appearance/Disappearance" as a second theme.  The third, "Inside/Outside," creeps up on its readers as subtly as the curvature of a sixty-page-long mobius strip, beginning with only the slightest hint of an inward/outward tilt in this opening poem: "crumpled steel and/sun on the silos," the "clamber[ing] from caves," the "treasure/the invaders found/vanishing always to wild interior," and "surrender/flooding my chest," as examples. This interior/exterior motif grows from the interaction between the first two themes, poem after poem, until it declares itself in "1986: Recurring Dream."

 The dream was that the wilderness snaked up
against the house.   Except the wilderness
    was inside.  Which meant inside the house
       was the outside. . . 

The delight of reading El Dorado is found in both the ingenious way these three themes dance with one another throughout the collection, and with Campion's typical gorgeous language and spot-on metaphors.  "Elegy With Television," a four-part, seven-page poem, is emblematic of this complexity within a singular vision.  Witness the following lines selected from section II which intertwine the theme of interior/exterior with the theme of the (ancient) story, introduced in section I, a story of "Auntie Wisdom" who had "In her ranch house/wedged to a wicker cabinet, her TV/[that] fluttered above me all the afternoons/my parents dropped me there.  And the stories/up on the screen. . . "

I'm reading scholarship about TV.
The writer claims it streams two ways at once.
It pours the aggregate inside the home
so people of every race and cheetahs
in the Okavango, sales on furniture
and faces of refugees (some flattened ghost
at least in digital particulate)
all overflow the limits of the place
we're watching from.  It also filters out.
The spectacles of public life now shrink
to the console.  And what gets blinkered off
turns easier for power to control.

I've drifted from the theories.  But a trace
of networks cinching us between what screens
we're allowed to see--from the side porch, June heat
still thick at evening: the street lights strung
in forced perspective could be bastions, driven
into whatever's out there as inside
(shivers branching the gut) white heat coils down. 

Long corridors.  A whiff of disinfectant.
The complex she endured the last ten years
until she swallowed the pills she stashed . . . 

And with that last line (of the quote, not of the section), Campion begins stirring in the theme of appearance/disappearance that bubbles up as a question in section III:

. . . These entrances
of others in your life, however long
they stay, and then their disappearances:
I want to ask you is this all, this press
of faces more and more eclipsed to gray
and no great pattern holding us together? . . . 

By the conclusion of section IV, all three themes are mixed together to form new images rising from ancient ones:

. . . (her fingers liver-spotted on a plastic cup
enameled with daisies)
                                     could be preserved

and even her suicide appeared her slicing
through her expected slow occlusion to this
shiver of both arrival and departure

where any other pair of eyes meets yours
in long-remembered but till now forgotten
silent, articulate, animal glimmers.

And it snapped off.  No world behind the world.
Only the forced perspective corridor.

Only the crawl of numbers on the screens.

And hours later, like a dream but clear:
solidity of strapped-in bodies.  Snoring.

Out the window near Wichita, blue lines
of streetlights ascended from the snow.

Campion's knack for introduction and amplification of themes, pacing, and poem placement are never better demonstrated than in the ultimate poem of the collection, "Dandelions."  In it, the three-way marriage of ancient story, interior vs. exterior, and presence vs. disappearance is consummated.  The "small shock/of emptiness" that was born in the opening poem, that grew throughout the collection, comes to full maturity in

. . . this pure luxuriance to feel
the pull of dirt
                       again: sense mist uncurling
          to reveal
no architecture hidden behind the world

except the stories that we make unfolding:
as if our sole real power
                                       were the power
                    of children holding
this flower that is a weed that is a flower.

In El Dorado, Peter Campion, the poet outside the poems he creates, makes connections that his "I" inside its poems cannot.  These connections are as old as humanity, and as young as a child begging his father to "stay no stay/no Daddy just a minute."  The question Campion puts to us all is "Will we fully reside in the only minute we have?"  El Dorado can transform our minds and our hearts to be capable of exactly that.

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