A Unified Roar: Peter Campion’s The Lions

BY STEELE CAMPBELL

The-LionsPeter Campion’s new book of poems, The Lions, articulates both the private intimacies of life and a robust involvement with the natural and political world. He intensifies the individuality of his first book, Other People, also published by The University of Chicago (2005), to show how the personal is inescapably public. To traverse from the personal to the public, Campion establishes both intimacy and grandeur. The collection begins by intoning the dual involvement:

It happens in our ignorance.
Fringing the steep calderas and
sinkholes
the blacktail deer descend.
Trembling. All systems on alert.

Then, in short declarative statements he describes the natural world descending into the technological to gaze “however long / Then tense. Then pulse out through the air / smelling of buckwheat and water.” Reminiscent of Lowell, The Lions contrasts two usually separate spheres utilizing the terminology of the technological to describe the natural and the natural to define the action of the technological. This rapid contrast seems as effortless as it is profound, creating comparisons which are unexpected but once heard, undeniable.

Though the book is divided into three parts, the comparison of the individual and the political jumps forward in the third poem. In a description of war violence on the televised news, an event termed “average,” Campion chooses one image to define the others, culminating in a sense of being inextricably involved compounded with the conscious futility of resistance. The singular image of bullet casings across the screen encapsulate the actual events in the distant and perceived surreal world and the individual’s fascination. This establishes the world of news, riots, and current events as factors of development. Though rarely as eloquent as Campion’s sonorous verses, the impact of worldwide events upon the personal sphere is not usually addressed without an implied moral understanding, especially within the national identity of a post 9/11 America. But The Lions doesn’t become preachy or overbearing, rather it uses the political events to send the private reactions into sharp relief, creating a necessary bond without delineating cause and effect.

Once the stage has been set with the differing spheres as major actors, the individual poems are presented as graceful dialogues among the various resulting interstices. The poem “Magnolias” is a meditation on solitude and its possible causes followed by the bare power of “Capitalism,” a poem of terse sparse lines, modeled after a Korean poet. As an individual speaking to others who ineluctably feel similar, the poems build up to “That feeling of substance/ emptied” to carve out a sanctuary of a “blind / plunge where again and again we find each other.” These lines, close to the end of the first chapter, elucidate a loneliness and a desire for companionship, no matter how brief; they also cultivate a hope that though the emptiness may reside within all of us, there will be unavoidable moments wherein twinned souls can and will mesh creating memory and enough strength to survive the “sweep of what we will not stop.”

The second part opens in a response/continuation of the first. The first poem compounds the images of the entire first part and continues the arc of the initial poem. In poems like “In Late August” and “Lilacs,” the presence of nature becomes more distant and autonomous as the spectator contemplates the useless vanity of human actions where

. . . all we own
is the invisible
web of our words and touches

which is then directly described as “silence and fabulation.” The chapter continues to show the increasing large public world and the shrinking private sphere constantly shaped by outside pressures. To keep the individual away from any reductive generalizations, strains of ancient history and comparisons to mythology illustrate both the majesty and common minutia of everyday life. In one moment, which is a loose translation of book VI of the Aeneid, a father explains to his son the significance of Lethe, the “river of oblivion,” in the next a young swimmer is immersed in a New Hampshire lake thinking of dreams and memory in an impressionistic splashing of sharply soft images.

Though the first two chapters are exquisite by themselves, The Lions would not be complete without the third part. The opening poem, “Sparrow,” is a single sentence broken up into two and three word groups which slow appropriately and mimic the dive of the title’s bird. This “diving past” is the observation of the natural world, which is then turned into the human experience:

the same way
we survive
our happiness
and also: sorrow.

Visually and aurally pleasing, the poem moves from sparrow to sorrow in twenty-one lines, a plunge which finally unites and initiates the human into the natural. This newfound unification of the elements compounds their inner relationships. Immediately after the calm dive of “Sparrow” we are thrown into “Protest” where the protestors watch themselves on the news assessing their political impact, completing the elements’ unification, which consequently unsettles the concepts of unity and completion.

The title poem is split into five sections which begin with the “neural drizzle” of memory which bounces between the present personal/political/natural and the past. This poem addresses the existence of the two dedicatees and establishes the poet as speaker. As speaker, we are now privy to private details of the poet’s life, his parents’ lives and their involvement with Robert McNamara. The reference of McNamara as memory conflates the images of television in the prior poems to complicate cultural and private forms of memory. More obviously autobiographical than the other poems “The Lions” references many of the previous images and imbues them all with a renewed intimacy. The poem climaxes with images of the now naturalized humans in staggered lines of sensual sounds. Campion’s highly polished prose is always surprising and yet never jarring, leaving the reader ultimately forced to mete one’s own balance among the many forces playing into the quotidian, but allowed the brave, private ruminations of a poetic predecessor. The Lions shows that balance is possible without sacrificing any poise or elegance. A fine addition to contemporary poetry, I look forward to this young poet’s next compilation.

The Lions by Peter Campion
The University of Chicago Press, 2009.
63 pages. $18.00 paperback.

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STEELE CAMPBELL is a graduate student in English at Auburn University.  He has previously been published in Rope and Wire, Touchstones, and the Boston Literary Review. He  has been awarded the Robert Hughes Mount Jr. Prize in Poetry from The Academy of American Poets and serves as a Student Editor for the Southern Humanities Review.