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The Etiology of Rafael Campo

by Rafael Campo. Duke University Press, 2002. $15.95 (paper). 88 pages.

As Reviewed By: Randall Mann

Grave things occur in Rafael Campo’s poems: AIDS, intolerance, exile, the inequities of the health-care system. One might applaud such ambition–that is, if the primary concern of Landscape with Human Figure were not to show the empathy and humanity of Rafael Campo. (“I’m all our pain,” he writes in one poem, inclusively.) In this, his fourth collection, the Cuban-American poet-physician soberly offers his determined, metrical prescriptions–and further casts himself, as Randall Jarrell wrote of Muriel Rukeyser, as “that terrible thing, a public figure.”[private]

“Quatrains for a Shrinking World” is typical. One of its sections, “The Modern Cartographer’s Lament,” begins:

My globe confuses me with distances.
An island only ninety miles lee
fades infinitely far, while Budapest
(at least the part that’s little Hungary)

thrives only blocks from where I shop street stands.

This cartographer suffers from an unsteady hand: the pentameter’s plodding and padded; “distances” and “Budapest,” meant to rhyme (based on the poem’s abab scheme), do not. And after this comes the laundry list of hatred, “the African- / American whose tortured death defaced // the Texas hills, the NATO bombs unloosed / upon the Balkans.” Unfortunately, atrocities often are an excuse for the poet to turn back to himself–he says, “I see / each horror, all as near as neighborhood,” and ends with a characteristically false epiphany: “I plot out borders nature never made, / the shapes of nations random to my eye / whose peoples wander, equal in their need.” It’s all a cheat, the reader thinks, a violent excuse for some poetry.

In another section of “Quatrains for a Shrinking World,” Campo wishes that he were in exile not from Cuba but the old Soviet Union, so that his “presence in America / would cause as greatly dignified regret / as leads to literary coup d’états [sic],” a kind of exile-envy: “my poetry, / if plagued by form, otherwise does not threaten” the poet writes, that word “plagued” too coy, self-congratulatory –formalism, let’s be honest, is as threatening as it is new. (Though one might find the clumsiness of the pentameter a little scary.) The poem ends “I’m nothing yet, although tomorrow’s near,” as if the goal is not to be heard but admired.

For Campo, even throwing a dinner party turns perilous, an excuse to show how multicultural he is, how multiracial his guests and their daughter, the child “still young enough to trust, to love without / ‘diversity.'” No sentiment could be more noble, certainly, but the lines just lie there, poor and torpid, even scare quotes around the words “multiculturalism” and “diversity” failing to shock any life into them.

All this is to say that Campo could have used a better editor. As I think of the book’s brash blurbs, think of Mark Doty writing that the poems are “essential to our moment,” that “We need them,” I have to wonder if we “need” an epithalamium for Campo’s brother that refers to the bride with the heroic couplet “herself more rare than all of this world’s wonders, / some Venus from a temple never plundered”; or multiple poems about the poet’s dog; or one regarding the virtues of not shaving; or a paean to the joys of on-line shopping (with the argument–you guessed it!–that the world is getting awfully small these days). And in the poem “Upon Hearing ‘Anyone Can Write Like Elizabeth Bishop,'” he defends, strangely, the honor of Elizabeth Bishop (“How dare they try to calculate the angle / That she first theorized was rain?”) with four incredulous quatrains. A poet such as Campo might do best to leave Bishop out of the conversation altogether, for one is reminded not only of Bishop’s superior talent but the judiciousness of her writing and collection (there are roughly the same number of poems in Landscape with Human Figure as there are in all of A Cold Spring, Questions of Travel, and Geography III combined) and the fact that there is more pathos and political import in, say, the final stanza of “Brazil, January 1, 1502″ than in all of Campo’s “enormity / of yearning and of disbelief.”

Conveniently, the world is a series of set-pieces of injustices; just as conveniently, Campo is there to chronicle it. In “Outside Fayetteville,” for instance, a black man takes a walk beneath a billboard that reads “Southern Pride!” The man is not simply sweating–sweat drips “like a baptism, / the ritual absolving us of what / we never should forget”: Campo cannot afford the readers their own conclusions. (Think of the inevitable, agreeable nods and murmurs of the poetry-reading audience.) The poem ends with “The black man, slowly moving onward, gleams,” and Campo’s fetishization of culture is complete–yes, he seems to say, there is still beauty in all of this oppression, and lucky thing I was there to notice it!

For further poetic injustices, one need only look at the long sequence “Afraid of the Dark,” a meditation on blackness. Campo presents a commercial starring a black family at McDonald’s, “caricatures / made up by ad execs to paraphrase / some liberal pretense of tolerance,” the poet tells us, programmatically–then serves up such rhymes as “Big Mac” and “blacks,” “Happy Meal” and “feel.” There is an alarming superficiality to all of this: when he dreams of being black he dances with Michael Jackson; when, in the ER, he takes the history–get the pun?–of his black, homeless patient, he thinks of “The great Society / Tuskeegee, Martin Luther King.” Late in the poem, while watching a WNBA game, rather than reporting the beauty of the moment, Campo writes, “I’m seeing Amazons and Audre Lorde, / Aretha Franklin, Nefertiti, crazed / old Tituba, the nameless women slaves / escaping North to change their destinies.” I am inclined to believe that such references are only for the sake of poetry, and that is troubling, since verisimilitude is all in such reportage. Then again, I suppose, who wouldn’t want to see a little one-on-one with old Tituba and Audre Lorde? How is Nefertiti’s jump shot? Does Aretha get her propers on the court? Campo has never been so campy.

I believe that this doctor-poet believes he wants to help the world–and that he wants the world to know it. I don’t believe that Campo strives to sound patronizing. And yet he does, in “What I Would Give,” when he wants to give his patients “not the usual prescription with / its hubris of the power to restore,” or “reassurance,” but “my astonishment / at sudden rainfall like the whole world weeping,” or “the joy I felt” at staring into his beloved’s eyes; i.e., his own God-given powers of perception. I’m not convinced that this is advice his patients would welcome. Or, in “Undetectable”–which begins as a moving vignette about a couple, both HIV-positive, one responding to medication and one not, filled with small, good details (“his blond hair combed / and held by gel in place”)–the poet, rather than just telling us about it, insists on writing that “I see” and “I can tell” and “I search” and “I notice” and “I watch” the action. At the end, when Campo admits “it’s impossible to see / their love’s immeasurable quantity,” it sounds more like a perfunctory admission of the writer’s failure of insight than a recognition of the couple’s bond.

Not everything is this dire. The title poem, an ekphrasis, is relatively lovely: it is the only poem in the collection that seems overheard rather than HEARD:

Arguably, it is less beautiful
because of you. A sweeping vista, trees
discernible along a river’s bank
where one imagines how a darkening
of colors in the quiet shade must feel–
not cool so much as safe, not wet but dank–
as if the artist somehow painted song
a bird the viewer doesn’t really see

let’s wane.

The meter’s unsteady, and by the final stanza the poet identifies with the addressee, sees this “human figure”–and by extension, himself–as here to “register the grandeur”; but I quote the above lines to show that when the poet occasionally climbs down from his soapbox, in a passage here, a stray line there, he is capable of understatement.

Yet most of Rafael Campo’s landscape lies in the seemingly paradoxical comfort zone of oppression. The poem “On Valentine’s Day,” for instance, which starts out as a sweet little trifle about the domestic life of the speaker and his lover, ends, dispirited, with the line that the couple are “Two men who’ll never marry, still just queers”–that word “never” a symptom of Rafael Campo’s simplistic polemics. What of civil unions in Vermont? What of gay marriage in Holland? What of, as he writes in his Valentine poem, “believing love is real”? In the end, no. This is a cynical, almost artless, almost hopeless collection.[/private]

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- who has written 2 posts on Contemporary Poetry Review.

Randall Mann has published poems and reviews in American Book Review, The New Republic, Poetry, The Paris Review, Verse, and Salmagundi. Complaint in the Garden, Randall Mann's first volume of poetry, is the year 2003 winner of the Kenyon Review Prize in Poetry for a First Book. He lives in San Francisco.

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