University of Chicago Press: 80 pp., $18 paper
Peter Campion, in his new book, re-creates the overheard sounds, ring tones, robo-blab and self-announcings of an airport concourse, spliced into imitation of Anglo-Saxon “riddles” as spoken by the wind:
Fused with the rush
(this sheer American everything jammed at once)
the storm could be a signal
gathering up all others cramming air
with their binary streams:
its voice some ancient soothsayer’s
riddling glottals and plosives…
Campion’s gifts for controlling yet spinning the illusion of lost control in a poem are prodigious. The book’s title poem begins on the shoulder of a highway, where members of a family, survivors of a car crash, sit in shock (“I was this person with my name and also no one”). This disconnection ripples into the image inspired by the ancient legend of El Dorado — the poem’s altered voice recounts the dazzling reentry into life of a royal personage locked in a cave, brought suddenly into daylight and covered with gold dust, as gold is showered into deep water — and “everything gathering/ light to its contours/ before it disappears.”
This powerful evocation of “lockdown” in the moment, then release from expectation, occurs in poem after poem — from the shock of seeing a childhood friend, now a streetwalker and object of “pity” — to radio broadcasts circling the globe as memory, plane flights and “digital signal cheeping.” Time holds onto love here, then lets it go into the permanent reclamation of loss.
Under the Sign
Penguin: 160 pp., $22 paper
“Under the Sign” is an impressive collection of pensée poems amid islands of prose — one moment quoting from Emerson’s teenage diary (“I need excitement”), then William James on pragmatism, then random moments of sudden illumination. The author honors the poem’s own living volition, thriving on its own “need for excitement,” as in these lines:
Her vision is empirical
even as love of mystery refutes data.
Geese on the baseball field,
A flag, red tile, a metallic balloon.
The aggression of sorrow,
Marianne’s orange jumpsuit.
Seasonal Works With Letters on Fire
Wesleyan University Press: 132 pp., $22.95
How we make poetry of our lives, as well as politics, has been Brenda Hillman’s subject throughout her four-book series on the elements: earth, air, water and now fire, with her new collection. Hillman has an extraordinary capacity for cheerful integration of “elements” of politics and spirituality into the swerving Now. Sometimes the point is at first hard to decipher:
If the fog is too thick, the meteors are on-line:
The first voice is God waiting: that
continues of course. Then a couple of pings.
It sounds like the back of the universe
is getting acupuncture::
@@** a spinning is entered by needles
of gloved rain.---
The reader follows into the fluid description of meteor showers (with incorporation of digital signifiers), but the real message is from an absent God, his/her voice heard in fire “needles,” falling burning stars, a burning bush, flame-letters, lightning:
You stand in the field not yet being
struck, talking to nothing, jagged
& unsure. You knew this
when you started the experiment; you wanted
to be changed & you were —
The remarkable sense of change, of being changed, as matter burns and is transformed into energy — heat and light — is the animating force within these fiercely ignitable poems.
Knopf: 112 pp., $26
“Stay, Illusion” brings together the purest of lyrics and impossibly unconnected concepts. For example, a poem called “Meditation on the Sources of the Catastrophic Imagination” describes a saint turning “great sorrows” into “greater egrets,” adding a touch of surreal hilarity — but ends with the language of a “do not resuscitate” order:
In the living will, if it says Hydrate. Please.
Hydration only. Do not resume me then.
It’s hard to imagine any other poet bringing off those final lines — but Brock-Broido’s obsession with mortality, with death and refusal of its finality — is capable of making grim instructions perfectly pitched as poetry.
The exquisite, lush, odd music of these poems paired with cross-hair insights is irresistible. We don’t know where this startling consciousness will take us, but we follow its flights and spins, from the heartbreakingly plucky doomed thoughts of death-row inmate Ricky Ray Rector to Paris, where “a castrato who lied about killing a swan” loses his ability to fly — “or take to anything at all that glitters intermittently.”
Muske-Dukes is an author, professor of English at USC, founder of the PhD program in literature and creative writing there and former poet laureate of California.
re and former poet laureate of California.