Lauren and Megan are back with more poetry recommendations, this time highlighting books with a connection to the Midwest. We’ve had this region on our minds for some reason. Enjoy!
David Wojahn wrote that “the principle business of the lyric is heartbreak.” In the brand new collection Natural Selections (winner of the 2011 Iowa Poetry Prize), Joseph Campana invokes one of the greatest masters of heartbreak, James Wright, paying him homage by both echoing Wright’s landscape, forms, and imagery, and breathing new life into them. This is 21st-century “Ohioan” song—both heartfelt and academic. For example, in the title poem, Campana moves from the cerebral (“What is life / if not the index of what / waits to be desired?”) to the poignantly direct (“I wanted so much / to live I would have killed to live”), as his speaker longs for a lost love without a single mawkish misstep.
The setting of Natural Selections is one of rural, rolling Midwestern hills, perfect for taking contemplative long drives. It is riveting to be inside Campana’s mind, whether his speaker be human, animal, habitat, or even abstraction. Notice how many different entities Campana gives voice to in “Cardinal”:
Spill or be spilled said the
law and the forest grew
and grew quiet: the quiet
was lasting. If I had blood
to spare, said the air, it
would already be spilling.
The air stopped short,
the earth trembled.
Had you any nerve you’d
have already stretched forth
to spill me. Then there would
be no one left to be singing
If I had hands I’d have
blood on my hands.
It is no small feat to craft a political poem that, instead of relying only on message, pleases so much through its music and movement. “Cardinal” isn’t the only poem in Natural Selections that expresses the environment’s suffering. Campana often paints a devastated milieu that mirrors the speaker’s struggle, as in the poem “Wright”:
acquaintance with nightmare: he held
it in his hand. The holding was a kind
of love. No one wanted to touch it,
this land. He held it up to the sky,
held acquaintance with a sky clean
and undeserved. He held it, and he
suffered it. He held it up and sang.
Like James Wright, Campana both loves and loathes his Ohioan homeland, but he could not sing as powerfully without it. This conflict and complexity, as well as the ways Campana goes beyond the territory his Midwestern forbears staked out by achieving his ultimately original voice, makes Natural Selections a must-read for anyone whose home haunts them.
The window they’ve installed
in the center of my
back has made it hard to
lean forward. Although I’ve
been assured by many
different doctors, I’m concerned,
now, we elected the wrong
These lines kick off one of my favorite poems, “What Must Be,” from 2011 Tupelo Press/Crazyhorse First Book Prize winner, Daniel Khalastchi. This poem appears in the vibrant collection Manoleria, which debuted last year but is worthy enough to keep discussing nearly one year later.
Khalastchi is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, recent fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and currently is the Assistant Director of the Undergraduate Certificate in Writing Program at the University of Iowa. He tackles the natural world and its forthcoming disintegration with a striking physically ill narrator, who leads his readers through wild and potentially destructive surroundings. His protagonist—distinctly masculine with eerily feminine echoes—struggles with babies, tails, rot and decay emanating from his sickly frame. The environment revolts and attacks our speaker with hysterical call girls, eroding sands, and torn limbs—both of the body and of the surrounding trees.
A sense of wild impulse dominates Khalastchi’s verse. In his visceral poem “Principle Misstep,” he brings his readers to an alley, where dogs are fighting for food:
In the alley, by the rear
entrance to an Italian rest–
aurant, a pack of wild dogs wrestles
me for the scraps. Very quickly
they sense their advantage: they
secure the meat, corner the cheese–
es, pile the shrimp tails but leave
me the sauce.
The crustaceans continue to evoke the sea (a setting Khalastchi returns to again and again) and he continues with:
I pocket some
bread half smothered in motor
oil, but that too is lost
in the fray. While the dogs eat,
I throw forks at my ankles.
Although we are tired, more rustling at the
door brings all ears to perk. A woman
walks out holding big pans still
steaming. Like the others, I look up
and whimper. I am already on my
haunches when she bends and pours
hot grease down the length of my
bare chest and forearms. The skin that stays
whole breaks out almost
immediately. In the headlights of
a food service truck, I bathe the misfortune.
Khalastchi gives us these images: a battle of survival of the fittest, human hunger reducing one to an animalistic state, and pure violence vibrating from his powerful images.