by Rick Campbell
Autumn House Press, 88 pp., $14.95
How do you reckon yesterday with today? This is the daunting question that Rick Campbell attempts to answer in his 2008 volume of poetry Dixmont. Named for a mental institution in South Pittsburgh, this volume practically pulses with the desire to not only understand but to manipulate time. Each poem manages to capture the swampish heat of Campbell’s Floridian home, as well as the tender affection he seems to have for every life experience.
Dixmont is broken up into four unnamed sections of varying length that each grapple with the passing of a life in a subtle yet distinct way. The first section unearths the beauty implicit in simplicity and teaches us that everyday moments contain gems worthy of a poem. Campbell is skilled at combining humor and pathos to create images that linger in your memory. In his poem “Road House” he describes a bartender after hours dancing with his dog while his wife sleeps at the bar:
The Fat man I imagined sad, long eyes
of a Basque sheepherder, would look at his wife
sleeping on the bar, head in her arms,
and then whisper to his dog—who waited for this moment—
wanna dance. Between bar and empty tables
he’d wrap his big arms around the mutt and sway
in the yellow light. They danced in a slow circle,
no matter what the music said.
This is a scene that is at once undeniably funny and also quite sad. One does not know whether to feel badly for the wife left sleeping, or the bartender, who so oddly delights at dancing with his pet. Balance such as this permeates the first section where Campbell staggers his heartbreaking poems, such as the title poem which explores a childhood visit to his mother at a mental hospital, with poems that uplift. In “A Poem for Della,” he learns how valuable patience is to his young daughter as they sort through her collection of seashells.
The second section hearkens back to Sylvia Plath and her poem “The Arrival of the Bee Box,” where she questions whether she or the bees are in charge and says, “Tomorrow I will be a sweet God, I will set them free.” Throughout this section there is an attempt on the part of Campbell to assert himself as an authority in his world and also to question whether that is the truth. Section two is riddled with questions about creation and fate. A somewhat darker portion of the book, it is also in this section that he begins to experiment with formal poetry illustrated by his inclusion of a sonnet about the Vietnam War. However, this is not to imply that all of the poems here are burdensome or philosophically inclined, for it is in this section that we can find what is, I believe, his most successful poem in the book: “Naming Things.” This poem is deeply original and questions the origin of titles and language. It is at once playful and haunting. Here is an excerpt from the end of the poem:
…We will have forgotten
know; the card for rain will be wet,
but that we will have forgotten too.
The card for wind will have a picture
of trees bent and swaying, but the card
for trees will have been lost. Bent
and swaying will be motions we
Here again is a perfect example of how Campbell is able to combine simple images to create deeply tender emotions. There is even a hint of redemption from all of the questioning at the end of this section when a shopping mall Santa Claus gives a child CPR.
Throughout the book thus far, we have been gracefully jerked back and forth in Campbell’s timeline, but section three serves as a reprieve from this time travel as it seems to skid to a halt. The third section is devoted to remembrance. Most of the poems here are highly narrative pieces concerning a specific memory, both in the past of the poet and the culture. There are no moments of sentimentality and very few that show any true regret, and it is Campbell’s undoubting honesty that makes this the perfect group of poems to follow the first two groupings. Here again, he plays with form to deal with the heavier cultural topics with a villanelle titled, “Elegy for Matthew Shepard” to commemorate and comment on the Matthew Shepard tragedy. This, of course, is balanced by other, softer poems like “Alligator,” where he contemplates the risk of taking his young daughter and dog to swim in a lake inhabited by alligators and how they narrowly miss an encounter with one. Campbell’s frequent use of repetition becomes a kind of mantra that makes it hard to forget that for every situation someone has authority and that, more often than not, we don’t really know who that authority figure is.
Part four is both literally and figuratively the culmination of the entire book. The poems in this section are marked by a more relaxed tone of acceptance. Whereas the previous sections asked an array of unanswerable questions, this section puts aside all query and we begin to see Campbell look ahead towards an unknowable future. In the second section we learn about Campbell’s battle with throat cancer, which is progressively expanded upon throughout the third section, and by the fourth there is a definite theme of healing. Contrary to its title, the poem, “Time Running out on the Millennium” goes beyond the ends of things and focuses largely on the times yet to come:
Now, I measure the past by how much
I remember. Measure the distance
by my drive from town. Measure the sun
by its height in my windshield.
measure joy by each time the gate
swings open and my daughter
runs up, flanked by dogs.
Here, the pattern of sentences greatly reflects the poet’s expanding sense of optimism. As the stanza begins with three short anaphoric sentences and digresses into a longer sentence that spans three lines, the poem ends with the inarguable message of finding happiness in simplicity. Perhaps the most telling shift towards hopefulness and continuation occurs in the final poem of the book titled, “Prayer for Daily Neglects.” Written in couplets and with no end punctuation, this short poem is quite simply a list of miscellany—a to-do list that would mirror that of any average American. By ending the volume with a focus on his lawn, Campbell has both satisfied our need for resolution and created a very linear narrative that mirrors the narrative arc of the book. As the speaker of this poem adds “the grass” to his list, echoes himself, then fades away, the book too draws to a close and seems to linger (or echo if you will) into the infinite possibilities of the future. There is no doubt, however, that it is the “pedestrian” that makes this poem a tremendous comfort and a stellar way to end the book:
The hoses that need coiled
the firewood that needs stacked
The dogs that need brushed
The birds that need names
My life, my life
The grass, the grass