Review | The Lions, by Peter Campion
|University of Chicago Press, 2009
On its pensive surface, Peter Campion’s second collection of poems, The Lions, shuttles between irreconcilable poles: the tumult of human conflict and culture versus the “ancient and ahistorical” life of the animal. While the path between these two pounded stakes becomes rutted with repetition, the poems try to speak beyond their famous motif. The route between Campion’s thematic icons is highly determined, but the rider’s unrealizable urge to integrate what has been flung apart provides the poems’ dramatic tension. Through this arduous task, probing memory, society, and nature, Campion sometimes envisions a quasi-mystical force rushing through everything. Such a mission must necessarily test one’s language. The management of strain through exactitude of language is the work’s most notable feature.
Civilization in The Lions is depicted as an unstoppable transit. In “The Great Divide,” the speaker addresses someone whose family, known for its “impassive severity,” has driven him to a fatal retreat. He is now remembered: “we carry you in silence not even thinking. // At crosswalks sliced by the long horizon. / In the swarm of the concourse. You burn // in that loneliness. In the passing faces. / Their cycles of departure and fierce arrival.” The elegiac sentiment sinks in quickly. But The Lions is also a fierce cycle, highly controlled in its refusal of any resolution of competing claims, especially its own. Campion has erected a structure sturdy enough to handle a vacuum of consensus.
We recognize the poems’ alternating gestures early in the first of three similar sections. The three-part poem “So Here Is How We Live Now” begins with the book’s central image of the human world, “so much power propelled beyond us,” and an indistinct but ominous reaction to it, “a streak of nerve end / shudders: saying that nothing lasts except / the current ripping us away from here.” Part two recalls a river “descending to the canyon past staggered walls.” Is the natural power of the “white roar of the tail race” an analog to the thrust of human enterprise? In the final section, Campion speaks of “that feeling of a substance / emptied,” followed by “sheer presence: dream and warmth and speech.” The Bay Bridge’s “funneled lunge / and shudder toward Oakland” leads directly to the poem’s final lines, “This blind / plunge where again and again we find each other.” The ambitious scope of this poem, a plunge into understanding, embodies its materials.
The Lions reenacts these movements in several poems, varying length, syntax, and sources (flash of memory, slice of life, extended narrative), but not their tone or preoccupations. Through modulations of rhythm and use of materials, Campion turns repetition into a polysided meditation of a single existence. In “Invisible Bird,” a wren calls out from within “this moment, in this waking drift,” its two-note sound “circles / back to its source the way the self returns // to make a home of the space around it. / What a cowl of illusion.” The line resonates as a comment on the poet’s enterprise: a home in language, a circuit of thought, a monastic dream. The morose song (and poem) may be made of “tattered reassurances” but clarity is the sufficing, binding result: “And the body will stand out shivering // if need be. Claw through garbage if need be.”
The second section of the book begins by echoing the concerns of the first but clipping the linelengths of “In Late August.” Once again, the scene opens with animals, two deer drinking from a ditch near an airport, representing the same “narrowest purchase” experienced by humans. “Only this / suspicion ripples / through our circles of lamp glow,” a response nearly identical to the wren-song in “Invisible Bird.” Then comes the comment on language, another repetition: “this sense that all we own / is the invisible / web of our words.” In The Lions, an expansion of expression must contain its own frustrated diminishment; structure inevitably results in stricture, but empowers vision.
Campion’s thematic recaps suggest that having gotten it right the first time, he can be confident in a modest variation. His occasional fussiness with language points us away from a strange obsession to its willful manipulation. But his insistence on inserting an unexpected word also underscores the role of this carved language as the most reliable stay against the types of confusion in The Lions. In the short poem below, “Big Avalanche Ravine,” Campion clears away everything but the compressed core of his concerns:
Just the warning light on a blue crane.
Just mountains. Just the mist that skimmed
them both and bled to silver rain
lashing the condominiums.
But there it sank on me. This urge
to carve a life from the long expanse.
To hold some ground against the surge
of sheer material. It was a tense
and persistent and metallic shiver.
And it stayed, that tremor, small and stark
as the noise of the hidden river
fluming its edge against the dark.
The deliberate structure, rhythm, and repetitions of this book frame Campion’s creative struggle to get comfortable with his materials, “the surge / of sheer material” – everything human, animal, and natural. Reverting to “that tremor” as some sort of vibrating, blurred response to the tumult, Campion accomplishes a feat if the reader regards the language of “the tremor” as sufficiently equal in packed affect to the hyperactive, counterpointed world. This is what’s known as taking a risk in one’s work, and the attempt here puts much at stake. I think he pulls it off.
The book’s third and final section reprises its key actions in the five-part title poem. [“The Lions” appeared in Blackbird (v7n1).] The speaker recalls a family gathering during which, as his younger self, he was free to imagine a world beyond. “I imagined a lion in Botswana,” he says, “His claws / were regulators, rulers of the flow.” Part II dredges up Vietnam, as seen on a DVD, then mixed with more memories of the family summer: “the secret / fenced from view was the failure of their war.”
And to pull
against it, tearing through the surface, feels
Unless some animal
intelligence, sharp toothed, could slice a path.
In The Lions, force is sometimes inhuman and cleansing, at other moments human and destructive, and again unceasing but neutral. There is the muted sense of yearning for something beyond the nonstop, vexing oppositions (or beyond the ordinary: “how inescapable the present feels” he writes in “1989: Death on the Nile”). This more removed existence is figured in “Display Copy.” Here, two people in a Nan Goldin photograph are “utterly withdrawn / from where they are… They are the shapes that they erase.” But they are also exactly what Campion, a stubborn builder of frames to see through, cannot be. The tremor of recognition and the cowl of illusion are available to him. And that’s it. In the book’s final poem, “September,” we return to people arriving at destinations, “throbbing with this / bare imperative.”
Expansive and speculative, then withdrawing and bitter, The Lions is richly imagined and tightly trussed, made of turbulent poems that achieve a fine, dissatisfied balance. Peter Campion’s voice is essential to the telling of the struggle of our time.
Peter Campion is the author of the poetry collections Other People (2005) and The Lions (2009), both from the University of Chicago Press. He has held a George Starbuck Lectureship at Boston University, as well as a Wallace Stegner Fellowship and Jones Lecturership at Stanford University. He is currently assistant professor of English at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, and editor of Literary Imagination.