Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Erik Campbell, _The Corpse Pose_

IT HAS BEEN ten years since Campbell's previous (and first) collection, Arguments for Stillness, and in the interval he has apparently seen some serious reverses; several poems are about the death of his father and quite a few are about a divorce precipitated by his former wife's infidelity. (There are no poems about the death of Sandy Taylor, founder of Curbstone Press, who published Campbell's first book, but that event too probably played a part in the long wait for the second.)

Plenty of bad news, then, and even the somewhat more upbeat, highly colored poems written when he was still married and living in Papua New Guinea are gathered in a section titled "Canaries in the Mine," as though hinting that already the oxygen was getting thin.

The good news, though, is that the poems are stronger, more varied, tonally and emotionally more complex, and equal to the losses they address. It is exactly the kind of second collection one hopes to see after a promising debut.

The playfully sardonic humor that was the characteristic note of Arguments for Stillness has not entirely gone away--here it appears most often in the several poems featuring the minutes of meetings of the Village Green Preservation Society, in which the League of Young Curmudgeons imagined in the Ray Davies song take on such topics as recent elections and the Kool-Aid Man. Traces of it appear as well in poems like "The Sorrow of the Cold War Re-Enactor" ("Everyday the battlefield is everywhere") or "One Day the Kids Were All Reading Books about Zombies" ("imagine a zombie / being interviewed on the  red carpet: / 'Is that decay you're wearing?'").

The humor now has shadows and hauntings, though. One of the best poems, "Things Nabokov Knew" is about the presence of what could not quite be uttered lying under the perfectly enameled surface of the prose: "So much was hidden in / the hired rooms of paragraphs."

The poems about the most painful memories--one says this with a little reluctance, because of what they must have cost--are probably the strongest. Sometimes they remind one of the trimmed-to-the-bone ironies of Dickinson:

There will be a life
you did not choose;

it will include
many rooms.

There will be a room
you will not leave;

it will be a room
you did not choose.

The poems about the end of the marriage describe psychological turmoil with an almost eerie calm, the syntax negotiating the bends of the enjambments in always surprising, always telling ways.

I was surprised she recognized the allusion,
but it does explain the why behind the crisis

team standing in my living room at 2 a.m., 
trying to give me a raison d'ĂȘtre.

In yoga, the "corpse pose" is performed lying stretched out on one's back. "Like all things practiced," one poem tells us, "it seems simple but isn't." Poetry like Campbell's can seem simple, as in the loosely-stitched "A Partial Summary" (reminiscent, for me, of James Schuyler), or its conversational just-sayin' rhythms, or its frequent invocations of Bruce Willis. But it isn't.

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