Poet in a Landscape
Rafael Campo's poetry is uniformly elegant. Lyrical, and concerned with form, his work explores the various facets of the author's identity as a gay Cuban-American doctor. His previous collections, The Other Man Was Me, What the Body Told, Diva, and the essays in The Desire to Heal, are the work of one of our best poets and most humane and interesting writers.
Campo's new collection, Landscape with Human Figure, surveys familiar ground. Within the framework of a year—he begins "On New Year's Day" and ends a few titles past "On Christmas Eve"—Campo's work remains elegant, and, for the most part, affecting. But one wishes the author would stretch himself a bit. The poems about human rights, the Cuban past, his relationship, and his patients have an air of sameness to them. The concerns raised here have been discussed, in many cases better and more deeply, in his previous collections. Campo seems near the end of his ability to ring changes on these topics. In "On the Virtues of Not Shaving" he attempts to 'rejoice as I turn darker, more // overtly masculine, my face the man // I just as easily could have become" and one wishes he would follow that thought and climb out of himself more often.
One newly explored area in Landscape is race. The sequence of poems titled "Fear of the Dark" limns attitudes toward blacks. While the African influence on Cuban culture is very strong, it is often elided, and darker skinned Cubans find themselves further down the socio-economic ladder than their lighter skinned fellow countrymen. So it is interesting to see Campo deal with his occasionally guilt-filled feelings about African-Americans. The section ends with a paean, inspired by the women of the WNBA:
The crowd is nothing but its cheering waves
of pure approval, almost on its knees
for more of that these athletes can provide:
not only entertainment's heedless joy
but also the exuberance of pride
in mastery, in the intelligence of play,
in what once seemed the unattainably
humane, great dream, to be this strong and free.
One of the more exciting moments in Rafael Campo's previous, more satisfying collection, Diva, was the final section of poems, a set of translations of Federico Garcia Lorca's "Sonnets of Dark Love." The thought that as fine a writer as Campo was embarking on a project to translate more of the great Spanish poets relatively unknown gay love poems was immensely tantalizing. One hopes that Rafael Campo will continue with translations, and exploring issues outside his usual concerns, and that Landscape with Human Figure is just a brief, bucolic walk before he returns to his desk to present us with more marvels.