By Peter Campion
The University of Chicago Press, 2013
Review by Kelly Slivka
Do you know the legend of El Dorado? Early European explorers of the Americas heard about a tribe of people who lived high in the Andes. This tribe was rich with gold, and each time the people crowned a new chief, they would coat him in gold dust and make offerings of gold nuggets and jewels to the lake near where they lived. Many explorers ran their lives dry searching for this storied lake, this gold-gilded village: El Dorado.
It is this legend that lends the name to Peter Campion’s most recent collection of poetry, his third, El Dorado. The collection is well titled. The poems within row through the workaday facets of our American existence—television news programs, celebrities, traffic, advertisements—until they come upon kernels of wonder and infinitude hidden amongst the dross.
Campion’s main strength in this collection is arguably his ability to reincarnate a moment on the page and imbue that moment with lusty vitality. He describes a singer on the radio in “Car Radio Near Cleveland Near Dawn”: “her torn soprano / curls and slips the words / above the tremor dragging them back down / as fields of pavement jitter past and birds / circle in slant sun.” He lassos an immediate impression—the ripe, instantaneous flash of existence as it is experienced by the sensuous mind before thought or comprehension intervenes.
This lassoing insists that merely being open to the life around us is a treasure. Though the rote can taste bland, the most spectacular and robust parts of our natures seethe just below our surfaces, creating an inner glow under our skin that we lose from time to time but to which we instinctually know the way back. This inner glow is our individual El Dorado, as Campion’s poetry leads us to perceive it.
Yet Campion does not simply find glittering gold moments tucked in with a lot of dull ones in his poems. Rather, he weaves majesty into the ordinary, elevating what may seem like trivial or banal details into messages laden with meaning.
“Each profile glowed distinct and yet a tincture / pooled in the eyes: one molten soul inside / the finite ways skin rides the bone and bone / pulls skin across it,” Campion writes about passing faces at LaGuardia airport in his poem “Elegy with Television.” In the lines that follow, Campion expertly merges the sublunary nature of his setting with his more saturnine thoughts. “On hanging screens / the soldiers glowed night vision google green. / Machine guns. And the anchor’s face shellacked / with decency.” A person’s deepest ways of existing, as a “molten soul,” is overlapped with one of his most superficial, as a consumer of media, in such a convincing way that the separation becomes less distinct and even CNN pulses rife with significance.
Similarly, in “Indy Car,” Campion describes a trip to Best Buy with his son, the televisions there blaring a NASCAR race, and his son’s pleas to visit Petco afterward. He sums the scene up as “the present tense / holding us in the whole / fissuring gorgeous flood / of all I can’t control / or understand or keep,” capturing the deluge of commercial American life, the overstimulation, and the counterintuitive euphoria that ripples, breathless, along the edges.
“Closeness of the uncanny to the quotidian is Peter Campion’s kind of material,” said Robert Pinsky in a review of Other People, Campion’s first collection, in the literary journal AGNI. This new collection is certainly an extension, and a stunning one, of Campion’s established tradition.