Friday, November 6, 2009

Review of Pris Campbell's "Sea Trails: Poems and 1977 Passage Notes"

Review (first published in Wild Goose Poetry Review)
Sea Trails: Poems and 1977 Passage Notes, by Pris Campbell
Lummox Press (2009)
ISBN: 9781929878024

If you like poetry, you’ll love Pris Campbell’s new book Sea Trails (Lummox, 2009). If you don’t like poetry, even if you don’t understand poetry, even if you resent poetry and poets, you’ll love this book. If you like a story, if you like the sea, if you like memoirs, confessions, and reality shows, you’ll love this book.

It’s easy to be impressed with the creativity on display in Pris Campbell’s decision to juxtapose log notes from a sailing journey down the East Coast with highly personal and evocative poetry written about that journey. The complementation of prose and poetry, art and memoir creates a unique example of mimesis in action, a wonderful opportunity to speculate on the relationship between art and life, and the most enjoyable means of facilitating the comprehension of a poem that I’ve ever encountered. All that’s missing is the movie.

What might be overlooked in all of this is that even were there no log notes, no interesting details about sailing, no overarching narrative, and no innovative design, these would still be fantastic poems, and as much as I enjoy all the things that make this book unique and that make it more readable to a wider audience than every other collection of poetry from the past 10 years, it is still the poetry that makes it a great book. Campbell speaks in these poems with a clarity and vibrancy that create an unmistakably familiar emotional impact on the reader. Each poem contains its own catharsis as they build towards the summative climax of the narrative. “Why I Call Him My Lover,” for example, establishes the central conflict of the book while manifesting the oxymoronic desperate resignation of a lover falling out of love.

He’s not my mate.
Not my husband, either.
I don’t think of him
as my partner.
He’s not sweetie, hon,
darlin’, or luv.
I no longer use his given
name except when calling him.
We create what seems like love
in the V-berth each evening
and, sometimes, for a sail
flutter, it is again.
That and the boat
are our only tether.

Similarly, these lines from “Reversals” embody that same speaker’s stubborn hope that something worthwhile can yet be crafted from what has gone stale: “Unknown harbors wait to embrace us, / to cast roses upon hope that what / has been lost can still find fresh breath.” And, one of my favorite poems in the collection, “Original Sin,” re-envisions the myth of Adam and Eve to carry the conflict forward while beautifully expressing the inevitable disappointment one feels in loss:

When Adam bedded Eve in these dark pines
I wonder if they laughed in their nakedness,
threw kisses at lopsided stars.
I doubt Adam searched for other Eves to ogle,
found fault or ignored her. . . .
Our boat swings with the tide, waking us.
He slides inside. My very own Adam,
already tainted by original sin.

The flow of emotions engulfing this waning relationship is not, however, the only current that runs through these poems. There is also a movement towards independence, self-actualization, and, as first made clear in “Rebirth,” a joie de vivre expressed in the thrill of sailing:

I’ve birthed her hundreds of times
just as she’s birthed me,
but each time is a new time.
Umbilical cut, we move towards the open sea.

Even as the relationship between the speaker and her lover fester, this growth towards self-discovery and happiness continues in poems like “Newport Mayhem,” which concludes

I’m glad to sit on Little Adventure
under the darkening plum colored sky, feeling
every fresh second merge with my heartbeat
until my chest splits wide open to the glory of now.

Eventually the contrary currents of waxing self-discovery and waning co-dependence diverge as the speaker achieves her epiphany in “Daytona Redux:”

Suddenly I know I have what I need without him.
My little boat.
Good friends.
Sea air caressing my face.
This day, so beautiful it could break your heart.

The bottom line is that this is a brilliantly satisfying work of art. From the innovative combination of log notes, maps, charts, photographs, and of course, poetry, to the beautiful cover, the enticing narrative, and the sharp, clear, and engaging poetry, it is one of the best works I’ve read in several years.


  1. Terrific review! Can't wait to order a copy from Pris once my poetry inbox has shrunk a little bit more :)