Alternative Medicine

Alternative Medicine

by Rafael Campo

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In his sixth collection of poetry, the celebrated poet-physician Rafael Campo examines the primal relationship between language, empathy, and healing. As masterfully crafted as they are viscerally powerful, these poems propose voice itself as a kind of therapeutic medium. For all that most ails us, Alternative Medicine offers the balm of song and the salve


In his sixth collection of poetry, the celebrated poet-physician Rafael Campo examines the primal relationship between language, empathy, and healing. As masterfully crafted as they are viscerally powerful, these poems propose voice itself as a kind of therapeutic medium. For all that most ails us, Alternative Medicine offers the balm of song and the salve of the imagination: from the wounds of our stubborn differences of identity, to the pain of alienation in a world of unfeeling technologies, to the shame of the persistent injustices in our society, Campo's poetry displays a deep understanding of hurt as the possibility for healing. Demonstrating an abiding faith in our survival, this stunning, heartfelt book ultimately embraces the great diversity of our ways of knowing and dreaming, of needing and loving, and of living and dying.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Compassionate, adept with inherited forms, and easy to follow, Campo (What the Body Told), in this sixth collection does justice to his many commitments. A Harvard Medical School physician who performs extensive clinic work and a gay man of Cuban-American heritage, Campo keeps readers aware of all these identities throughout his work, both essays and verse; here, though, he sorts them into the volume’s three parts. The first addresses his own childhood, his immigrant pride and his Cuban-American heritage: “ghost of Cuba, vestige of a dream,/ what makes me pity you?” The real power of the collection, and its real newness, comes in part two, devoted largely to a physician’s professional charges: patients with cancer, HIV, self-cutting, and other disorders. These become launch points for poems that combine human feeling with biomedical information, and they inspire from the poet clear metrical technique, as in the blank verse of “The Third Step in Obtaining an Arterial Blood Gas” or the pantoum that begins “I’m not a real doc without my white coat./ I could be anyone.” The third section looks at the poet’s love life and at more recent public events, including 9/11. A double villanelle, couplets, a sestina, strict unrhymed trimeters, and other challenges arrange the sometimes very general sentiments (“We are both/ voracious and limited by flesh”) into patterns reminiscent of Marilyn Hacker: they should please readers who seek such technical skill, readers who want a determinedly accessible poetry of contemporary gay life, and the many readers who want a doctor-poet as inviting and informative as Campo has become. (Nov.)
Booklist - Briana Shemroske
“In a style both precise and emotional, playful and earnest, Campo delivers a most extraordinary message: that in writing, in seeing, in remembering, and in being, we embody, simultaneously, the ache as well as the cure.”
The Arnold T. Gold Foundation blog - Steven Cramer
“I’ve rarely heard someone describe his or her doctor as “accessible.’ Rafael Campo’s poetry has always been unapologetically so, but his formal decorum (from décor: ‘beauty, grace’) makes for poems that are both objects of deep contemplation and acts of open-hearted expression.  In a word, art.”
Seminary Ridge Review
"These poems are thoughtful, grounded, elegant and free of B.S. If only more doctors, preachers and writers were willing to do this in the midst of teaching and healing: to listen, and to speak the truth even when that means admitting the truth is not fully to be had, at least not yet."
Canadian Medical Association Journal - Tom Lombardo
“Dr. Rafael Campo's poems are precise and incisive. You measure their beats as if listening through a stethoscope. You feel the scalpel cut through to your soul—eschewing anesthesia because you want to be awake and alert for Campo's kind of surgical intervention. He slices through the facade of your life to pull back layers of skin and mores to the core mystery of the purpose of your body.”
Journal of Medical Humanities - Audrey Shafer
“Rafael Campo’s Alternative Medicine is indeed what this doctor orders. And it is alternative: to the tunnel vision, where-did-the-day-go, mind numbing way I, and I daresay many of us, frequently pass time. Take a swig or a nibble, hold the poet’s hand, meet a new universe.”
The Journal (Martinsburg, WV) - Sonja James
Alternative Medicine is a stunning and valuable tribute to humanitarian love as the one necessary constant in a chaotic world where suffering is all too real. These wise and humane poems are therapeutic and generous. As such, they are essential reading for anyone who feels not only compassion for those who suffer but also believes it is our duty to live a life in the service of humanity.”
From the Publisher
"Alternative Medicine (a wonderful euphemism for poetry) is an extraordinarily powerful and moving book—especially its central poems about doctoring, about the sadness and helplessness of being a doctor. Only someone who has actually lived these poems could have written them. Rafael Campo is that rare poet. This book makes art out of the pain and blood of experience."—Lloyd Schwartz, poet and Frederick S. Troy Professor of English, University of Massachusetts, Boston

"Rafael Campo is an extraordinarily skillful poet: his technique manifests itself in the range of forms he so brilliantly masters. But he is also a poet of gravity and poignant observation. Unlike so many people writing today, he has subjects, passions, and themes that are profoundly important."—Sandra M. Gilbert, poet and Distinguished Professor of English Emerita, University of California, Davis

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Duke University Press Books
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Duke University Press

Copyright © 2014 Rafael Campo
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-5587-8





When we were six or seven, Dad would quiz us on the capitals of the world, me and my kid brothers who didn't even know our own address. We lived in New Jersey, not Cuba, and our ignorance seemed like the reason we would never, ever go there. So I tried to memorize the names of the stars printed on my National Geographic Map of the World: L-I-M-A was the capital of Peru, not just a kind of bean I hated; I wondered if Peru was anything like Cuba. I wondered if I would ever see what I imagined were the horrible, muddy streets of Helsinki, which sounded like a place where sinners like me would be punished, sucked into the earth for good; even Ottawa, in our nice neighbor Canada, seemed incomprehensibly far away. It was always at dinnertime when he'd start in on us: Who knows the capital of Burma? I stared into my succotash, pushing it around and around with my fork, sure that children there were starving, dying of starvation in a city whose name I didn't even know. One night, with the distant stars flickering outside the steamed-up kitchen windows, he asked, Does anyone here know the capital of Cuba? Every bone in my body ached with the answer, the one place in the world I most wanted to visit, the one place in the world whose name was always impossible for me to remember.

My Kind of Love Poem

Unluckily, the day begins: a bomb has detonated in Mumbai. Again, we ask ourselves: Is this what we've become? Unluckily, the night has eyes. A train makes music of the city's sleeplessness again; a baby shrieks with hunger or the need to have its diaper changed. Unless he finds a job, the man who lives next door will have to go on unemployment. Bombs explode in other places, ruining other lives, scarring other faces. Crumbs form constellations in my sink. The ring of doorbells, telephones, and certain phrases: The night dies. Unlucky Saturn rises.

A History of Poetry

The first poem was the sound of a tree falling in the vast wilderness.

Soon, human beings roamed all the earth. They scrawled poems on the walls of caves.

Thousands of years more passed. When God made himself known, poems became prayers.

Then poetry evolved into an art, its music mimicking the beating heart.

Tired of airs, poets wrote new poems that broke the rules for a while, anyway.

Even those poems grew old. Ergo, poetry came to mean that meaning came. (What the #@!!?)

Now, it's only a matter of time before poetry on the Internet becomes self-aware.

The poetry of the future will destroy its masters. In the aftermath, as in the beginning, none

will be sure it even still exists. Only then will it remember what it always was: everything

the survivors might one day understand.

Wilhelmina Shakespeare

Blond hair, blue eyes, buck teeth: we taunted you because of your intelligence. You loved to read, and secretly I envied how you gave yourself to poetry, alone beneath the shade a mango tree provided. We dubbed you "Wilhelmina Shakespeare" when we locked you in the basement, proving force could triumph over wisdom. "She's a witch!" we bellowed as we torched your diary— but nothing we could do would make you cry. You knew the scientific names of rocks; you tried to teach me Spanish once, but I responded to your questions in pig Latin. At night, when all my other cousins watched reruns of Hawaii 5-0, I'd sneak away to spy on you. Out on the porch, you'd be there with your sketch pad studying the moths that crowded the bare lightbulb, starved for that dim light, that least illumination. Your features softened as I gazed at you: I understood my insignificance as I saw it was possible to know the beauty in even the plainest things.

The Common Mental Health Disorders of Immigrants


My nephew watches the survivalist on television drink his own dark piss, eat spiders, clamber down a waterfall—he's white and blue-eyed, good-looking, agile. He makes a shelter from his parachute. Behind him, no one chases after him, besides the desert's looming black eagle as silent as a shadow, bored as God. He doesn't hope to have a better life. His thirst is momentary, hunger an imagined state; his sister doesn't sell herself to British tourists so her kids can have school books. Dogs barking distantly, flashlight beams needling the night, nowhere to go but in the steps of those before. That night, they ate cold beans from cans; they drank the water pooled inside a cast-off tire. They left the little girl with diarrhea asleep beneath a rocky ledge. No one found a parachute to make a tent, or drank his own piss in order to survive.


She smokes, as if she could inhale it all and make it vanish: all the poisonous miasmas, all the mysterious dreams, the tears my grandfather shed, where she hid while soldiers smashed the grand piano, black as a deep lake, to pieces. Now, her house is small and spare: telenovelas blare, though the volume's turned off, in black-and-white from a room's corner, ashtrays filling with what her lungs cannot, in the end, absorb. Her eyes are bleary, sunk in, with dark rings, tender from life's beating. Did such a place exist? I imagine huge banyan trees encircling the nearby swamp, their ropes dragging the whole world down into jungle; screams of monkeys at dusk, and the knowledge that when they were quieted, danger lurked; the hopelessness of learning Beethoven in a small Cuban town, her father's cigarette decomposing to cinder while she played. There was a patio; a fountain tinkled. She has his eyes, dark and handsome and beaten. Miami's highways purr outside somewhere, like unseen predators hunting the dark. As she smokes, the TV making its ghosts dance on her linoleum floor, I see again the resemblance. I see her breathe, inhaling memories, becoming him. Now, almost quiet, it is almost safe.


It's 1969. I'm five. The man is knocking. Green shag carpet like a lawn of chemicals. My mother vacuums it. I fear the television's cloudy eye. The man is knocking at our door. Outside, it's winter in New Jersey, confusing what's dry, what's cold: the salt-stained street looks parched, my mother's face looks sunburned. The man knocks; he has a black briefcase, looks official. She mutters to herself, like we're in church. Outside, the winter day seems tilted in the small suburban windows of our house, a "ranch" that lacks the cattle and the horses of my father's fabled Cuban past. He knocks. My father combs his hair so carefully it's like he's trying to tell me something. The vacuum cleaner whines with righteous rage, soft pings of detritus consumed oddly satisfying. Meanwhile, the knocking stops. My mother studies lamp shades, curtains, me, the vacuum cleaner whining at her feet. She bites her lower lip, alone with us, alone with winter's tilted, cold, dry days; the kitchen sparkles with her loneliness, as if being seen through a film of tears. I realize I fear he won't come back, that we can never return home again.

Advanced Placement

Señora Haines is blond and has big tits, the reason mostly guys enroll. We get

to pick our Spanish names: I choose Raúl. My girlfriend Sally is Pilar. The school

reminds me of the plastic packaging my dad brings home from work, tubes and weird things

American Can says will make life better. "You don't pronounce the 'h'" —and so we wonder

exactly what to call our teacher. Down the hall, the polished floors emit a sound

silent as gleaming, almost like desire. I realize I don't love Sally. "Liar,"

she calls me when I grope at her flat chest under the bleachers, while the others blast

baseballs into the infinite white sky. We settle on just plain "Señora." "Y

is I GRIEGA," she writes in sloped script, the Spanish painted on her full red lips

a shade lighter than what my tía wears, the one who drinks and teaches me to swear:

"Pendejo. Hijo de puta. Cabrón." I mouth the words, but lack her venom.

"You never learn, you too soft from this place," she garbles her English, pinching my face.

She's right. I only took this class to get an A. Pilar stares past me. My ears hurt.

Elegy for a Revolution

You, ghost of Cuba, vestige of a dream, what makes me pity you? Your stout cigar now trembles in your scaly hands, your beard is thin and gray like my abuela's hair. Strange that I preferred you when you were gruff and threatening, almost sexy in those olive-green fatigues, thundering your condemnations of America. You were huge like my father, furious. One Christmas, I asked Santa Claus for Cuba, as if the island were a plaything that a spoiled child could own; years later, still bereft, I wrote to you directly, begged for your forgiveness, begged to be rescued like my Tía Marta was, who eloped one starless night with a Puerto Rican guard stationed at the base in Guantánamo. I wanted freedom, yet you proved as cruel as any Latin lover, promising your heart, but giving only loyalty. You were the first man I ever loved, but your arranged marriage to that ugly hag of your own hubris was the end of us. You, ghost of Cuba, now your insides rot. Some say that you're dead already, but not to me, your Yankee whore, your last great hope, your forsaken joy, your sworn enemy—I pity you and your outrageous dream.

Patriotic Anthem for a Lost Homeland

on the fiftieth anniversary of the Communist revolution in Cuba

It is the way of revolutions: worlds turned upside down, but only until words

begin again to redefine what was as what went wrong. O Cuba, did you wash

away all injustice, make greed extinct? Has capitalism gone to the brink

of excess you condemned so forcefully? No revolution honors memory,

so you will once again deny my faith, the scar on my grandfather's sun-worn face,

and even your own people's successes. It is the way of revolution: less

will be retold as more, lies will be truth, and fifty years from now, there will be proof

that neither one of us was right. O Cuba, admit your failures, say we too are human,

say it, that all of us are joined in that same hope. The revolution in my heart

keeps mixing oxygen with blood, despair with passion. Someday, I will breathe the air

of your green mountains. Words will fill my head, and what I say will have been almost dead

for fifty years. I will dream, "Cuba, have you missed me?" "O Cuba," I will vow, "I love you."


for my father

I wonder if his memories omit the same things that we don't see here. He stares out at the view, which is as tropical as it is trite. The grounds are orderly, the jacaranda are in bloom. No one is poor. Like lions caged too long, the waves loll lazily along the beach. He stares out at the bright horizon, lost in thought. I wonder if his memories might hurt. Tonight, beneath a moon as clear and plain as need, we'll drink banana daiquiris. He'll ask the mariachi band to play a Cuban song, which they'll almost get right. But in the morning, he must realize, we'll still awaken here. Same sun, same sea, same staring out involuntarily: the simulation, if more dream than real, is close enough. The birds-of-paradise, though mute and flightless, still seem nearly free.

New Jersey, the Garden State

"A state of mind," my grandfather would say, the sun as fierce as Mr. Cossimo's critiques of everything, from his wife's sauce to Senator Bill Bradley. Usually, we talked about his garden, where he grew tomatoes, Swiss chard, peppers, cucumbers, and white eggplant he said were better than the Cossimos'. "A state of mind, grandson." He talked in quiet tones, as if suspicious of his gigantic dahlias, which were as tall as I was, leaning in from beds he tended just as faithfully. "A state of mind," I said to myself, mimicking his resignation to such forces I could never understand—like those that caused the cucumbers to grow, they were, like God, or like whatever kept my grandmother's bouffant hairdo from collapse, powerful and yet mysterious. He himself was bald, like Mr. Cossimo, but not as fat, which made me sometimes wonder whether that was really why he thought his eggplants were superior, and why they disagreed on politics, religion, and the Mets. "The Lord is everywhere," he'd say, "so why they need to put Him in the laws?" Lunchtime we sat outside, splayed in lawn chairs, him with his wine and me with my Kool-Aid. We'd admire the huge dahlias; I'd look for God in the tomatoes. "State of mind," he murmured to himself, dozing. Inside, my grandmother and my two great-aunts cooked a feast for the whole family, black pots releasing steam at intervals as if divulging the forbidden love affairs of those who stirred them ever warily, while God kept watch like in Calabria. That kitchen was too small for all those large Italian women, whose torpedo breasts would smother me as they leaned over us to serve. With darkness falling, baseball on the radio, I knew they'd be back soon. The headlights washed the house in ghostly white; bugs' shadows flitted magnified against the blank expanse of the shut garage door. "A state of mind," I told my parents when they questioned me about my day. I held a shopping bag on my sunburned lap, heavy with fragrant, ripe tomatoes. "God," I told them, crying, "He is everywhere."

Rio Grande

I have a drug cartel inside my heart, and they're killing innocent bystanders, like those parrots in Frida Kahlo's art and the gods of the Aztec calendar.

Who wouldn't think of leaving this desert where zero was invented? Millions now look to Texas and the Spanish defeat, remembering the goddamn Alamo

as if they had nothing to lose. Across the border in my decrepit hometown the viejitas are skeletons dressed in black, pure mourning: another son drowns

in this great test of our humanity. We never learned to swim in bitterness; to us, the river's water's flow is free. We're all addicted to some form of grace,

the Spanish translation of which is pain. Great River, cleanse us of sin, carry us like corpuscles in the deepest of veins. Heroin's heroism, maze of maize:

America is paved in gold, they say. I squint at the distance, but what I see is haze. Guns fire, executing the day; my dreams make the crossing to memory.

Fish Story

Some lies we can't help but forgive: the one that got away, the unaccounted-for ten pounds, where you were, father, on those days you missed the baseball game or the class trip.

I'd say you were on business in Taiwan, invent a secret mission somewhere spies lived their unfaithful lives. I watched your face at dinnertime, but you were perfect in

your alias, your smile inscrutable, your weariness believable, your eyes averted. Following your lead, I told you everything was fine, my heart like tin,

my head like wood. The kitchen light was dull; even the dog seemed fake, wagging his tail not joyfully, but out of need unfilled. One night, you said you'd take me to the lake

to go fishing. Morning came so on time it seemed like just another plot. We sailed on placid water, lines plumbing the depths, the immensity of what we might hook

impossible to say. Some commit crimes, while other men tell lies we could forgive: The fish that broke the rod, the wish that leapt just out of reach, the one that got away.

Times Square

Six stories tall, displaying perfect abs, he floats above the yellow taxicabs:

Apollo, clad in underwear. It was to us nothing less than miraculous,

two kids from Bergen County thinking we were lost, amid the throngs impossibly

converging there. But we were never more assuredly someplace, where Broadway bore

down brilliantly from Central Park, as if it were a river not yet overfished,

still full of dreams and possibilities. Still teenagers, we'd purchased fake IDS—

ironic, now, in retrospect. We'd kissed before, but no one ever witnessed it:

here, we'd have the world's attention! Marquees throbbed rhythmically with all the urgency

of heartbeats, an odd lady cursed and sang; some Puerto Rican dudes were breakdancing

around a huge boom box's thundering. The pigeons' iridescent spiraling

marked the center of the whole universe—while everywhere, America in force,

the countless flags at once hubris and grace. He leaned toward me, tilting up his young face,

eyes closed in the crowd's get-on-with-it embrace.

Excerpted from ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE by RAFAEL CAMPO. Copyright © 2014 Rafael Campo. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Rafael Campo teaches and practices general internal medicine at Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. He is also on the faculty of the Lesley University MFA Program in Creative Writing. Campo is the author of The Enemy, Landscape with Human Figure, Diva, and What the Body Told, all published by Duke University Press. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize, the Gold Medal in Poetry from ForeWord, the Paterson Poetry Prize, two Lambda Literary Awards, and a National Book Critics Circle Award nomination. Campo's poetry has appeared in numerous periodicals, including The Nation, The New Republic, Paris Review, Ploughshares, The Progressive,, Yale Review, and The Threepenny Review.

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