Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Review of Pris Campbell's "Hesitant Commitments" (Wild Goose, Winter, 2008)

Review of Pris Campbell’s Hesitant Commitments ($5, 36 pages, Lummox Press, www.lummoxpress.com)

Good poems come in all shapes and sizes these days, but one trait most good poems share is that they have an impact on the reader. That impact may be emotional, cognitive, or, in rarer but often more enjoyable cases, visceral in nature. The poems in Pris Campbell’s new chapbook, Hesitant Commitments, from The Lummox Press, run the gamut of types of impacts, but many of the best poems in the manuscript feature that rarer visceral impact. In fact, poems like “Silk Blouse,” “Voyeur,” and “The Reading” might be described as, frankly, arousing.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking, however, that this is a collection of simple, erotic poetry. Many of the poems are also emotionally or philosophically stirring. The single best poem in the manuscript is the one that delivers the most resounding emotional blow, “about my sadness,” where the speaker asks herself:

how many times can
I lie on my back with a stranger,
legs spread, in hopes
this will be the orgasm that draws
my sadness out of the shadows,
evacuates that old man’s touch
from my childhood thighs?

Good collections of poetry also come in all shapes and sizes these days, and while I can’t say that there is a single trait they all share, many of them do share the characteristic of an over-arching narrative, an element found in Hesitant Commitments as well. This is the story of an emotional journey that begins in inexplicable sadness, leading to desperate, aimless sexual promiscuity, and on to, at first, hopeful and then frustrated love, before concluding with the realization that it is not love alone which can heal the past, but a surrendering of the past to love -- a surrendering that gives up control and creates vulnerability and trust. That’s a mouthful for one sentence; fortunately, the poems take their time in drawing out this narrative. In short, it is a story of self-discovery and the reclamation of fully human emotion lost through childhood sexual abuse. This is, obviously, a timely and important story, and like so many important stories, it is one better understood through the subtle workings of poetry, which make the experience seem our own, than it is through news reports of any form.
Campbell does a masterful job in dealing with a difficult theme, avoiding at all turns being preachy or sentimental, and creating at all turns imagery that resoundingly earns the emotional response it requests. She helps the reader understand what one would think could not be understood. Just as the speaker of these poems reclaims her humanity, she helps the reader expand his.

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