Poems by John R. Campbell


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Fourteen Poems


A man of about seventy years of age sits at a table holding a pencil in his hand. It is cradled between his fingers as though he is preparing to write with it. “What is this?" a woman asks, pointing to the pencil from across the table. “Uh, it's a wedge for the rain...?" he replies with a sort of questioning tone, and moves it in a vague writing gesture. “What do you use it for?" the lady continues. “...For the rain to scretch," he answers. “Very good," she responds.

 from The Symbolic Species, Terrence W. Deacon


A stroke has altered our patient's speech,
an absence of blood has starved it. Dry
and unremitting, the absence expresses
itself on command, with every lilting
intension. An entire, if isolated, world
ensues. Think of a ship in the Galapagos,
of Darwin scribbling in meticulous logs,
of the pilgrim at the grail of necessity.
So absence commands its lexicon,
a wrong but familiar order of words,
a species of speech borne, by storms,
to a separated island. There it quickly
diverges, evolving to suit its habitat,
to carve a niche out of niches.
(These caverns, this absence, are all
that remain: the island is water: mirage.)


There is the mistake of interpretation;
our patient depends on his error.
His “questioning tone" is to him a new
music, “the lilting intension" a spree.
Our patient has suffered immensely--
not only his fall, his symptom,
but the world that precedes the disease.
Health was always his nemesis,
his many blessings his curse.
There was always slippage, the oblong
silences filling with breath, and
the bloodless center (left hemisphere,
temporal lobe) obscure. Remember:
there is a life he longs to retrieve,
inexactly, devoutly, it's true. His faith
in his speech spans every rupture,


and sutures the gashes that nothing
can heal. Disease redefines his terms.
While “a wedge for the rain" rings true
for outsiders, for him it is essential.
“A vague writing gesture" may very well be
a precise and mysterious venture. This,
for our patient, is the crux, is the accident
of his calling. He beseeches the world
with every mistake. Ownership, origin,
passionate speech: our blood rises gently
inside. While a world away he survives,
a variant right beside us. Aphasia
is a place, equatorial, calm. Exotica
thrive in this Eden, and hot storms swirl
around a dead eye. There he names the world
as he pleases, exquisite in his need.


When the pious fall from the mountain like sated fleas,
when the loggers spit their last tobacco in the innocent salal,
when the woods are empty of the equal curses sacred, profane,
then his words will emit their real ramifications, like fungus
spreading its mycelial net, its ripe body in the soil. Until then,
he's hidden. He slumps like a fern, scrapes his knuckles
on bark. He slips in his cheap shoes on the slick lobaria.
Sooty from his fire, he falters among boles nine centuries old.
He's forgotten how as a young man he first saw lightning,
no longer abstract, score a fir with black spirals. Now
it's all routine: sound and silence as categories, no nuance
in between. The ouzel, no longer an angel, dips mechanically
in the creek, while salamanders deliver their young unseen.
Though tourists and murderous officials lurk beyond the trees,
though animals are assigned numbers this time, not names,
the prophet is still: no savior to announce, and nothing so colorful
as apocalypse. Pausing among the firs, he's surprisingly slight,
like a thorn, or a comet, or the owl's body beneath its down.


A little soup
would be appropriate.
We are sick, and our parents are far-flung,
victims of plate tectonics, sad
recipients of acid rain. Their suffering
is behind us now, and our lives
unfold like unforeseeable insects,
grotesque. A moment ago
I wondered if brothers and sisters
are variations of each other,
if, then, cousins and animals and palm trees
are variations of each other, if
light might be a variation of fog,
or the desert an altered sea.
It turns out I'm right,
that even science agrees,
that my own family is as distant
as steppes or tundra, and as near as the phallic pine cones
scattered under my tree. It turns out
that a nativity occurs nightly,
that dumb kings gather around my bed,
humming while I sleep. It turns out that I'm responsible
for all this, that my confusion
is the chaos of nature, my ego
the invisible dome
that holds up the jungle canopy,
sustains the thin blue sphere.

A Large Garage

The first snows had blanketed
Newberry Crater, and
Paulina Peak was transfixed.
Paulina Lake was turquoise and green,
and olive in the depths
where German browns were slowing,
bobbing in their sleep. Kokanee
swayed in the outlet creek, sluggish,
and died. Then ravens had their way,
leaving tracks like arrows
and burgundy stains in the snow.
The world was sleeping, all falling to sleep, oh,
and the part of the earth that is all-inclusive
wanted me to know. Was it only a scene,
everything, the ducks and the pines,
right down to the scent of snow,
the promise of cruelty in the air?
The problem from the first was my love
of scenarios,  absurdities in sequence
that I called my life. I turned to paintings:
as with Degas' dancers, the moment
was rendered so vividly
that history, in a fit of rapture, fled.
Left here afloat, I can only observe
as the girl in the tutu spins. Now all I can love
is this theater, as absurdities spill out
to the street. Alone and uncertain,
I walk among rows of garreted houses,
each turret smothered in autumn maples.
A man is urinating behind a tree,
singing, and a large garage is harboring
a green and secret jeep. Drivers
in their darkened cars, moist amidst upholstery,
and warm among their metals:
these are the sinister,
comic in their search for meaning
as they clutch and shift and marvel,
enclosed in a world that is not their own.


Shine a light on a fire and it's a pitiful thing.
Or lay a highway through a forest,
and the occasional car splits the night
like something otherworldly.
I'm wandering the Umpqua boulders,
cleaning trout in a pool, 
burning corn, burning wet wood.
I'm hearing my little baby's cries in the river.
What I think is a grebe is a gray root.
What I hear in the trees
is my own jaw creaking. I require pity:
we all still live under the sky.
Cockpits, oxygenated
and dimly lit, are only wombs
in the blue animal's womb.
Even the moon: it was flung from us
in an ancient collision, held in orbit by physical
bonds. Pity appears spontaneously
out of indifferent stuff, just as in our innocence,
when pearly maggots emerged
from piles of greasy rags.

The Aesthetics of the Hunt

October sunlight is listing in the trees.
Late ospreys turn and plummet,
stabbing the waters and lifting out fish.
All this time I've walked inside language,
insisting I'm free, while the lake
is slowly choked with rubble,
while men and boys, eternally lonely,
fire their rifles in the woods.
Words as material as the curl of a pod
spill from me in chaotic song.
I sing the hunt, and the tunnels
that rabbits gnaw, and the scraped bark
marking a border.  I hum the scampered-down
entrances to dens, and my song runs long,
where the fox can't follow.  As sugars block
the tiny gates to maple stems,
as the cells in cones sense the dry weather
and relax their grips on seeds,
as the red anthocyanin in woodrush and fescue
screens them from the sun,
so I too have my meek strategies,
even as I greet, over open ground,
a camouflaged hunter waving his gun.


All creation is a project: the wilderness a garden,
and sex merchandise. We like having a project,
unlinking our words from the physical world,
maybe just for fun. But the single moment pushes out,
crowning, and the world dilates,
not because we will it,
but because it must. Certain animals emerge,
clothed only in feathers and hair. 
Desire is metonymy,
so we want eros, we want suckle: 
we want the earth. Even if colonial lust
has begotten it, there is an Eden of the moment.
So cast out, there are women,
and they hunch in eroded soil. Oxen
and caribou enter the cities at night. There: 
only men, their genitalia elegantly hidden. There
the adolescent courses through empty rooms,
like an androgynous moon and sun.
All thought is drunk by the sun,
reduced to the salt and chemicals
of its origin. One might walk incessantly,
as one always has, but without thinking,
strictly, of anything. Eventually rain
exposes a fossil snail, an artifact
of pure sex: rhythm and exchange,
and the turn inward, toward the pin-point
of becoming. A few millennia later, look:
the yellow-humped boulders
have formed tombs upon the snails.
In that landscape of privacy,
I project myself onto others,
whatever sex or species suits me,
and hop off to the half-light in the cave. 
I'm mobile. Something of the body,
unmediated, is urging me on. 
I respond like an animal,
like a limousine. I'm the alpha: 
I'm free of time. I'm the sweet no one
you love.

Misreading Anna Akhmatova

This is how it happens: a feeling of tranquility;
clocks strike incessantly in my ears;
in the distance the thunder dies down.
                                                            --Akhmatova, “The Secrets of the Craft"

But what clocks and what thunder
we'll never know. I miss your meaning,
favoring instead the specific clock,
carved as it is with owls and crude
feathers, and hiding ivory birds
behind doors. Birds hidden in time,
and time rendered in wood,
a time we can understand, unlike
the time in rocks or in cesium,
appeal to me. As for dying thunder:
your words affect me like that.
It's a mood, the moment
the storm fades, neither
nostalgia nor remorse,
but more like a pine, the needles,
having shunted the brutal light,
calmly returning to black.


The dogwood is angelic,
despite your protests. If it pleases you, then,
it's pastoral, and if you had a hand
in its beauty, it's beautiful.
But who posed this question of the dogwood,
you have to ask. And then wander the woodlots
in search of an answer. It's hopelessly old fashioned,
but there's something to 
the symmetry of trees,
something more than the dappled 
halves of an equation.
It provokes you to assert the impossible again,
and in this way you repeat yourself--
I mean you regenerate yourself--
your romantic body, fed by romantic proteins,
clones its romantic cells, and branches
in a pasture you'll never see. 

Our Makeshift Houses

The trees are thinning with their usual exactness,
and autumn's iambic clock
has wound all down.
A cold front comes on,
and a storm the size of a dime
opens the mountain sky.
Soon snowfields writhe beneath their own weight,
and a line of firs is halved by an avalanche,
and an elk comes plodding,
breasting the snow. Soon we know
we're suited to this storm,
we match its intensity with our mammalian will,
the sum of meshing pressures,
of the young Cascades
bowing under ice. Soon we'll crouch,
subject to the sky, shaking
in our makeshift houses.
The creeks will turn feverish,
and the soil offer up its lonely nitrogen,
and our children sleep on mats of humus
and roots. Our houses, new
and elegant as empty trees, will allow
the wind and the light,
allow the storm's undeniable density,
the icy factors that crest and fall,
and our lives, slow
and transparent,
will allow and allow and allow. 

Home, Thought Odysseus

Home, thought Odysseus, is just another stop
on this rolling sea of terrors.
Worse than just another stop: home,
relentlessly identical, grinds hope to a dust
that drifts over state lines.
For every city I wander through, pastel
or gray, and each island adorned with orchards,
the filthy bays dotted with boats,
seems charged with its own death-like energy,
a current nearly dead in the walls and bark,
but present, and sustained so that no one discerns it,
like locust eggs enduring the years.
When the muse eludes us she arrives just here,
dormant in the hollow cells. Calls
won't rouse her, nor will entreaties, false in their elegance,
distract her from her covenant with death.
In death-like spaces she accommodates us,
but only in silence, her hand too steady as she pours our tea.
Home, thought Odysseus, is the crate of spices
carried dry over the sea, the jars
of undiluted oil. A trick of wood, an uncanny ship:
a displacement of water, the body,
home. An annoying knot
falls open at last, and
a hulk slips from its moorage,
receding over the lacquered sea.


He could name each ornamental
that the landscapers planned in their pastoral zeal.
And he'd call to the birds happening through,
nod knowingly at the mushrooms
that peek from the duff. Given enough time,
he could catalogue the Saturnian rings
that circle his body, each species
twirling like ice. He could lapse into a trance
in which all motion ascends and descends--
not objects, but motion itself repeatedly plummeting
like waves in a substanceless ocean.
It's a wonderful hell, amoral, sans
suffering, but hell nonetheless for the sentence:
never to gaze upon god's stiff face. Still,
he could perch on a cliff of air,
look down upon the atomic frenzy. And feeling
the ecstasy of removal, he could negotiate
this neutral hell, delve in the valleys, or rise
on the slopes of thermal mountains
like a vulture buoyed by death. He could
in fact penetrate death with his naked head
and neck, and this would be his erotic secret,
the source of his powers and his shame.
As the oak proclaims itself with its own lobed
leaves, clandestine and open to the sun, so
he might regard himself as self-evident,
self-descriptive, complete. A few square yards of soil
might sustain him for a lifetime. A minute amount
of rain, really, and few more resources
than an animal requires. Sure: he'll help himself
from shelves in the earth. Nature will serve
him masterfully. Separate from the chaos of hunger,
faint in the thralls of art,
he'll be possessed by an ardor unlike anything
he's known. He'll lie awake all night regarding a statue,
something animalesque. When dawn
interrupts his reverie, he'll address the sun formally,
in awe of its dome. He'll speak in sleepy sentences
of cathedrals, of planetary gestures,
of a light over cities
that augurs their demise.

The Landscape Painter

She shows me the underpaintings, the brush-strokes,
and all the values involved.
A little light here against the darkness,
she says, and all is forgiven.
In the water there are shivers of black, just here,
and in a gully, the shadow is definite-- all the earth,
she says, is being eclipsed.
It's just a matter of rendering the degrees.
As when we make love, in the afternoons,
as when we shade each other's bodies,
as when I ask,
is this what you mean by eclipse.
Seeing her astride me is like watching a heron lift--
I'm awed at her slowness, her width,
at the pull of her muscles beneath her plumage,
at her awkward gratitude
for her own gift. And I know that birds
and wind and soil find their own way,
in spite of us. If we submit,
we are shaped by streams more powerful
than even our own stupidity.
Once on the Umpqua River,
I stood over the slow apparition of a steelhead.
It showed me its huge flank,
spotted and gleaming, and a band of violet
like a dusk sky. So I can believe in nothing more than a canvas,
or a fish's side. I can believe in a two-dimensional world,
even as I yearn for the moment it tilts,
becoming almost full. The blue marbled globe
is still only an image to us,
we who've travelled so far.
The earth is still flat and translucent,
hinting at what's beyond. But there's a process of osmosis,
fluids moving through miraculous walls,
and there's a distance as flat as perspective,
where everything exists, in reality,
on a single plane. So I'm urging lines
and terraces of color. I'm urging rivers
and granite shelves. I'm urging the striated joy
that animals know, and I'm urging
their gestures. When the painting is complete, she says,
you'll know it by an almost inaudible sigh. All form
will fall away. You'll look at your world
and cock your head. You'll suddenly crave salt.
You'll be proud and glad at being a mammal.
You'll go and wash your hands and hair.

Bidding the Child Goodbye

Maybe you're tired of these thresholds.
Maybe you're tired of clinging to the doorjamb like a guest.
Maybe we usher you to just this point,
then swoop up, maybe
skirting the sky, but at any rate
leaving you, as always. And who taught us to value flight, if
not the clumsy, earthbound philosophers?
Birds themselves are nonchalant
about the virtues of the sky,
preferring seed or insects to grace,
liking their own techniques to nothing but wings
and bills and dipping tails: blissfully
sufficient bodies, eschewing,
with pure action instead of intent,
the spiritual sky. So you're thinking
you want to cross lines,
enter deeply into a world in reality so shallow it could hardly contain you, 
like a leafy closet, or horizontally,
a stratified coffin of rock.
You long for a touch on the arm and a phrase that might introduce you, politely,
to your imagined swirling persona,
a human turning like a slow cyclone
among ferns and drooping orchids.
The forest seems endless, and metaphors
of the heart keep occurring,
organically, of their own accord.
Ropes and hemp mats are scattered in a clearing,
and here and there are signs of exquisite basketry.
Even the clay curls up from the ground,
suggesting vessels. Fleas
and alabaster-colored ants move freely, of their own accord,
among mammals and debris.
A few oddly unmelodic birds
conceal themselves in the trees.
You've entered your imagined cave of nature, peopled
as it is with unfathomable life.
You've created the world, beginning
with light. The sky is finally the limit,
a lit and rounded wall. Remember as we leave you here
that we love you,
that we forgive you every error, that you
are the terror of our generation,
and that we'll always love you,
because nothing can stop you now.