El Dorado

El Dorado

by Peter Campion

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In El Dorado, Peter Campion explores what it feels like to live in America right now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Splicing cell-phone chatter with translations of ancient poems, jump-cutting from traditional to invented forms, and turning his high-res lens on everything from box stores to trout streams to airport lounges, Campion renders


In El Dorado, Peter Campion explores what it feels like to live in America right now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Splicing cell-phone chatter with translations of ancient poems, jump-cutting from traditional to invented forms, and turning his high-res lens on everything from box stores to trout streams to airport lounges, Campion renders both personal and collective experience with capacious and subtle skill.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Devotion to fatherhood; an economy strained to where it almost snaps; an inheritance of venerable forms (Dantean tercets, heroic quatrains) able to handle contemporary troubles; American cities (Cleveland, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles) and the wide spaces between them; and modern media, “a trace/ of networks” that won’t leave us alone—from these materials Campion (Other People) constructs his thoughtful, intensely memorable, and sometimes winningly exasperated third collection. Also a noted critic, Campion has an eye and an ear for American detritus, for “heat lamp glow from Sbarro” in an airport, “a concrete channel for flood control” in L.A., and “all the cell-phone signals/ spidering air with bargains and blandishments/ complaints and cries.” Campion also notes the energy, and the pathos, of the near future, as he sees and hears his children: “what if giraffes stampeded/ down the road beside us/ and why do people die?” Inclined neither to praise nor to condemn, he shows instead how his characters—himself, his father, his children, his deceased friend (“Elegy with Television”)—have understood the places they live, tried to fulfill responsibilities, and received aesthetic pleasure. (Nov.)
Slate, Best Poetry Books of 2013 - Jonathan Farmer

“Campion thinks openly and gracefully in his poetry, reckoning with the uniquely privileged state of being privileged in America right now, as well as the ethical and intellectual burden it requires of anyone who chooses to live fully aware. El Dorado wears its real and compassionate intelligence with all the alert articulation of our skin—the same skin through which Campion summons hints of ‘one molten soul inside / the finite ways skin rides the bone and bone / pulls skin across it.’”
Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Awash in signals—televisions, cell phones, car radios—we are distracted from the here and now. Campion roots his poems in time and place, not by tuning out those signals, but by integrating them into rich meditations on place. . . . In Campion’s poems, the speaker listens, remembers, and records. Even in liminal spaces like waiting rooms and highways, he searches for America’s ‘barely knowable soul / swift as an eel escaping the slit mesh.’”
Michael Collier

“Peter Campion’s El Dorado yearns for the ‘sweet barbaric closeness of our skin’ that, given the way we live among the ‘neural simmer / of wired voices’ and its ‘American everything jammed at once,’ has become increasingly difficult to find, and yet Campion does find it, and recording its patterns in fluent, fast-paced, dexterous, and formally various lines leads us back to the ‘peculiar animal impress’ of human encounter in which ‘all connection / feels possible again: another’s heat / and breath and laughter.’ Unlike much contemporary verse that mimics the noise of modern experience, Campion’s moves through it to find the deep and ancient melodies that insist on the truth and beauty of human love and friendship. El Dorado is a richly textured and provocative collection that clearly demonstrates Peter Campion is one of the most vital voices of his generation.”
Los Angeles Times - Carol Muske-Dukes

“Campion’s gifts for controlling yet spinning the illusion of lost control in a poem are prodigious.”

Product Details

University of Chicago Press
Publication date:
Phoenix Poets Series
Edition description:
New Edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.30(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.40(d)

Read an Excerpt

El Dorado

By Peter Campion


Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-07711-6



    After the accident when we were
    safe on the shoulder and she leaned against me
    gripping our son as the cruiser
    strobed blue and red

    there came the helplessness the bare
    nerve shudder giving up to air

    so in those moments
    "I" was this person with my name and also no one

    so remembering
    crumpled steel and
    sun on the silos for miles beyond us

    I can make no connection

    * * *

    Only the ancient story how a man
    clambered from caves where days he dwelt alone
    and tribesmen came anointing him
    with balsam gum then
    sputtering gold dust
    through wooden tubes all over him
    He walked the talus to the lake where a raft awaited
    braziers lavishing shine on the heaped gold

    At the center of the lake he scattered
    handfuls of gold to the water
    and returning to the shore
    he doused himself
    so colors elusive as the coins and squiggles
    on the dorsal of a trout

    fell to the cratered basin treasure
    the invaders found
    vanishing always to wild interior

    fell as the tribesmen
    bellowed through jaguar masks

    * * *

    No one along the breakdown lane in northern Iowa
    dressed as a jaguar

    No one dripped with gold

    But that shiver of surrender
    flooding my chest
    that tremble of unclenching muscle

    stranded in the miles of soybean fields
    between one home we left and one we'd never seen

    I tell you my wife and son
    their warmth against me
    the houses
    small from the road as a spatter of paint chips

    even the billboard above us chewed up
    furniture bobbing in the blue
    even my own skin

    shone with the promise
    there was nothing more than this
    train of moments

    streaming through air
    everything gathering
    light to its contours
    before it disappears


    Beyond my father's distance and beyond his father's.
    Back a century. My great grandfather's desk
    in Cincinnati. How he must have cherished
    its distance from the power looms below
    and must have known: the fierce
    precision of his nib on the accounts
    pinning him down as sun
    leaked orange across the river
    kept him from falling
    back there
    and kept his wife
    if this year she was
    home from the sanatorium
    afloat in her complete
    edition of Browning
    (which I own)
    and kept his children
    bound to the education that would carry them
    thank God away from there.

    The desk. It must have been a rolltop.
    Maple with locking drawers and blotter.
    Ribbon of accounting tape. Ledgers in which
    the loops and slashes must have borne
    even through Palmer Method regularity
    his own peculiar animal impress.

    But across such distance
    so much "must have been."

    This morning
    wrestling my son
    I kiss his chest then trumpet a tickling fart noise
    until he wriggles free
    and shouts "again."

    What aristocratic privilege
    to squirm in bed like this.
    What sweet barbaric closeness of our skin.

    What solace and uneasiness
    to know: however long from now
    however distant in the loom of
    office towers
    underwater green at night
    and wing lights on cargo planes
    and glimmer from the squatter shacks
    under an overpass

    one memory of nerves
    tensed then released to
    warmth in his ribcage
    will flow from this.

    And then what solace and uneasiness

    not to know
    and only to press my face to him again.


    Up from subway stairs

    ringlets and cleavage
    slick with glitter paste she used

    to advertise down Washington
    down Tremont and that city

    we were born in
    swiping her consonants:

    "hey Peetah got a light?"

    My warmest "oh so good to see ..."
    while groping pockets

    (she knew) was a lie

    and this betrayal miniscule
    but absolute.

    the lowest currency how many
    husbands and fathers must have paid before
    coming inside her.

    "How does a girl like you?"

    But oh
    our Saint Paul's Sunday school

    our lips orange smeared with alphabet soup.

    oh more than I can hold
    in my mouth.

    You swatted your hand to mean
    some small forgiveness

    or none

    before you disappeared again
    inside the wide

    electrical fire.

    after the Exeter Book, Riddles of the Wind

    Frequency-hopping spectrum spreads
    that cell-phone gabble rides.

    And microbes.

    And MPEG compression signals
    buzzing the news.

    Incredible to picture
    all that invisible
    swirl of the concourse.

    Some stranger sidles up
    and spits to his headset:
    "Bob is such bullshit.
    He tells me standard chassis, standard chassis.

    Where's his order though? Our ass is getting
    reamed in the Carolinas.

    Florida too.

    Hello? Hello? Can you put Helen through?"

    Beside him, phosphorescent palm to ear

    as she gingerly dabs mascara:
    "I was like
    the silence tells me

    you have issues with dependency.
    But he was like
    you turn it all emotional."

    Spliced with CNN's "subprime lenders
    Peshawar car bomb"

    the words unfasten:

    free from their meanings and sources
    as smells of coffee or Givenchy.

    High on the plate glass
    an ashen roil
    pulsed by lightning

    lingers above the hangars.

    Fused with the rush
    (this sheer American everything jammed at once)

    the storm could be a signal
    gathering up all others cramming air
    with their binary streams:

    its voice some ancient soothsayer's
    riddling glottals and plosives:

    "Who is so smart
    that he can tell who drives my outcast force

    when I arise along fate's road in wrath

    and, groaning so grandly, spume down my power
    on forests and village homes

    cracking their rafters as I plunder?

    Smoke and ash plume out and cries of the dying.

    Then in the woodlands
    I splinter flowering branches and slash down
    trees as I wander (water for my roof )

    this path enclosed by ... whose enclosing power?

    The rains that spin from me
    once wrapped the flesh and souls of men.

    So say who shrouds my force.
    Say who I am.

    Who makes me bear this hurt?"


    The heat lamp glow from Sbarro
    and Popeye's Chicken.

    Runway lights awash
    though lines keep boarding.

    And the crowd still
    rises on escalators from the train

    as the news feed returns
    to burning tires and
    (cordoned off)
    a woman's mute howls.

    Whatever force propels us
    shows its true desires
    (monstrous, innocent)

    only through narrow bands.

    The way that no one dares
    stare at the soldier
    late for boarding
    off to the corner

    hefting his toddler son.

    Or those voices that disclose themselves
    naked for moments in the digital rain:

    "Sometimes I ride the clouds that ride my back
    and spill their water
    all across the earth.

    And sometimes I collide them.
    Metal on metal's

    no louder when they lash against each other
    shedding their angled flames.

    Bare terror fills
    whole townships as the battle gleams and bellows.

    Only a dullard never fears the arrow.

    He dies regardless when my leader flies
    down through the rain to loose his fire-shower."

    Static again.

    "I know he loves me, but ..."

    "Hello? Hello? Can you put Helen through?"


    Broadcast all down the Shenandoah Valley
    Reverend Billy shouts "surrender
    to the love of Jesus Christ will get you there."
    His drawl a stream
    beneath the words
    floating the words
    his voice goes streaky as the sun
    slashing through sumac.

    Yammer from Watkins Glen:
    "Juan Pablo on the rumble strips
    and Allmendinger, wheel on fire."

    The signals grow then wane
    as exit signs and billboards press
    then disappear inside the bright
    corn syrup blur
    where everything
    feels dizzied toward a promised future.

    Here though (wherever here may be)
    only white noise now.
    And her last night.
    Her voice around our clutch
    of friends half lacquered on lawn chairs.
    "From when I was eight I had to suck it up.

    When Mom was sick I cooked our meals.
    I never questioned this arrangement.
    People kept saying pray. Just pray.
    And when she died
    Kathleen and I got tested.
    The results were clear:
    both of us carry the disease.
    I left the seminary.
    Life was a sinkhole
    and I was wild and straggling
    and one night
    I woke up in a mansion naked.
    No one had, you know. I was fine.
    Just walking through this mansion naked."

    Box stores and crosses on the hills.
    An Appaloosa shakes her mane against the purple
    mountains tumbling south.
    Reverend Billy shouts
    "some seeds fall down in thorns and thorns grow up and ..."
    Shadows of the summits blue
    across the stream of cars
    still streaked with orange.
    It feels so close:
    that deepest human space
    as she described it.
    "From the window I could see
    neon I knew was Bourbon Street.
    My hands grasped air
    then tables and mantles.
    At the end of a corridor stood a woman.

    And she was beautiful.
    Everything glistened: curious and living and
    I walked
    by catching myself while falling."


    The green so green it must be chemical.
    Faint drift of charcoal smoke. Rock radio.
    The pink azaleas thrusting at the blue.
    And all the same desires come crashing back:
    incredible X-ed out scenes and afterward
    the whoosh of traffic surf, our bodies bathed
    in the whole sweep of towers and freeways and
    meadows of blanket flowers. I want it all:
    heat puddle in the chest, moments like handfuls
    of honeycomb, split, dribbling.... Enough.
    We've lived apart for weeks now and your voice
    cracks from the cell reception, hums and dips
    and breaks for seconds, as evening peaks to orange
    in the sycamores, and the need to see you stretches
    into the days that follow: stray lifetime spent
    in office rooms and parks and station halls
    as they fall to the curve of earth, the ocean.


Excerpted from El Dorado by Peter Campion. Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO 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

Peter Campion teaches in the MFA program at the University of Minnesota. He is the author of two previous collections of poems, Other People and The Lions, both published by the University of Chicago Press. He lives in Minneapolis.

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