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Rafael Campo rescues language and meaning from politics

Beaten metaphors

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The Enemy
By Rafael Campo
Duke University Press, 99 pp.

Rafael Campo
  • Rafael Campo

Rafael Campo, master of iambic meter, doctor and former Durhamite, has long been a keen observer of human emotion. In his latest collection, The Enemy, he slices into topics like gay marriage and the rush to the Iraq war, proving there are not just conservative veins running through the body of New Formalist work.

The debate between free verse versus New Formalism has often been cast as the freedom fighters versus the forefathers, long-haired Whitmaniacs versus uptight syllable counters. But Campo's pulsing meter is simply his mode of poetic expression, not a loyalty oath to traditional values: He uses it advantageously in such poems as "Patriotic Poem," where the continual beat keeps things moving quickly, mirroring the rush to war. The poem gets at the crux of the political issue from the viewpoint most sacred to a poet: the abuses of the English language, the manipulated words, the complacent media and the quiet masses. "A metaphor lay beaten in the street/ while moonlight bathed it in white tears. The war/ on words had been declared, in language none/ could contradict."

Campo's strength as a poet comes in recognizing that the political is very much the personal. In his poem "Defense of Marriage," he describes a simple evening in the garden, one of many in the long, 20-year engagement of a gay couple, the night before gay marriage was legalized in Massachusetts. The poem ends simply, "I felt tired, and it would soon be dark/ but none can refuse love, not even us." It is with this kind, quiet spirit that a political issue becomes simply evidence of love. In his forms, the rhyme is soft, often slant, so a reader may not realize they've just read a sonnet or a pantoum (a Malaysian verse form similar to a villanelle), and it is with this same refreshing quietness that Campo explores the very human side of political issues.

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The Enemy, however, is not solely a collection of political poems, but details also the work of a doctor, his childhood memories, and his travels in the French countryside, as well as two lovely translations of Neruda poems. One can't help but compare Campo and Neruda as they lay side by side in the book. Although Neruda might never make reference to a frat party or Pat Benatar, both poets incline toward the sweetness of love poems—though Campo usually generates a darker undercurrent. For example, in Campo's poem "Open Air Market, Le Marais," a "plump Eurasian girl contrives/ pure joy from tossing coins to street musicians./ If only all the world schooled such magicians." This last line of the poem has the idea of pure joy in its sights, but that "if only" directs us back to the all things somber—Sept. 11, AIDS, the war—that appear in other poems. In "Detour," a traveler describing the French countryside can't help thinking of a dying patient back home. The darker mood of some poems in this collection seems to haunt the others; in this way they become threaded and the collection feels whole.

But the book has its lighter moments, like the felicitously titled poem "Ode to the Man Incidentally Caught in the Photograph of Us on My Desk," or the summer section in the poem "Changing Seasons," which reads "Four swans glide past, ignoring rusted signs/ that warn ice skating strictly prohibited," or the moment of awkwardness in a doctor noticing a patient's striped boxer shorts.

And it is this possibility of lightness over darkness that Campo, speaking for our time, leaves us with in the collection's final words, a timeless prayer: Grant us peace.

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