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By PETER CAMPION THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS
Copyright © 2005
The University of Chicago
All right reserved.
Chapter One Poem to Fire Fast transparency that explodes the fuel and air in the cylinder and shuts the intake valves and thrusts down on the piston so the crankshaft spins and spins you cut through all material that blocks your way so fast that driving now past rushes and billboards this pull to her could be your own impersonal presence cloaked in the day to day of the malls and condos all those wired sensors keeping on guard for you except you flicker even inside the wet wall where papillary muscle makes that sweet pulsation in whatever room she's moving through this moment under the cotton and the cool smoothness tinted blue The Population
One of the feelings which returns so often: I mean the way that winter afternoons call back those childhood sulks at the window. That incessant need to sketch in the people behind the lichened shingle of facing houses. Now, when evening gathers, the walls conceal no lion tamers lounging with the lions, no divers plunging inside an aquarium. Just a catch in the stomach like falling: sweet emptiness ... which others must also feel. Even hours after, mothers and children crossing the bright street by the supermarket cut such vivid profiles. And they have a fierceness: like ravenous hummingbirds who couldn't care about the thorns they thrust through to devour the little beads of honey in the flower. Or like themselves ... Lucent apartments shelve into the hills, the whole volume of sky falls on the spaces between, and passing strangers move with the urgency that darkness lends them: their skins much brighter against the expanse of towers, suburbs, and fields they pull behind. Two Doubles
They wear our bodies unsuspectingly. Make love, or fight, and they don't know that their lives go on like programs on TV we've muted. But their gestures show how she wheels around, trying not to trouble him with the sight of her smudged tears. Or how his apologies fall to babble. Or how some clownish splutter tears both of them up with laughter. Are they meant to be our bodies in projection? The life we live wholly as instrument beneath our souls' plot-mad direction? No. Like slippery creatures they evade any one view of who they are. Last night, our dwelling in the talk we made. Your story shushing us both far into the wash of us. The living room that much more our warm retreat. Then suddenly a dull, beam-rattling "boom!" Running outside to the puddled street and craning from the house to the alleyway I caught the dent on the circuit box. The wires shooting blue sparks in a circling spray. Screeching toward neighboring blocks the car that trailed smashed headlight glass behind. Mist for a second flashed through clearer and I saw (the memory's printed in my mind) how they grinned together in the mirror. 4 : 17 a.m.
That tremor coursing down his spine, that eyelid tremble while he checks his gut ... he thought he'd slogged beyond such fogs of denial. Though here in the glass are the outlines he held against himself. He feels as if he's fallen out of the pool of soothing liquid chatter into this cube of yellow cloth. Fingers knead and tug. Mouth even tries a knowing smile. And no revelation comes. Except he sees how his face has misted from the panting: how he shivers to return to the wholly imagined stream of you and I and he and she. The Elephants
after Leconte de Lisle Zagging from far away, a mottled brown, they rile the earth to the billowed sheet they run inside. Trampling a pathway down through dune formations with his massive feet this one in front is the old chief. His hide a mural that the years have learned to crack. His head a boulder. Ropes of muscle guide the arc and fall of his enormous back. He never slows or speeds the forward thrust his tribe keeps making, as they leave their mark in pounded sand, these pilgrims caked in dust all following their lumbering patriarch. Fanned by their ears, trunks jutting past the teeth, they run with their eyes closed. Their stomachs steam. Under the vapor, sweating runnels seethe where a thousand metallic insects gleam. But nothing holds them back. The burning skins. The thirst. Mouths blackened by the desert swelter. They dream the fertile kingdom where all life begins. The totem forest where they had their shelter. They dream the river cresting the mountain ledge where a hippo floats and roars and splashes. There, blanched by the moon, at the steep edge, they would descend to drink through splitting rushes. Soon, with all their courageous, plodding heft they cross the plain, become a mottled black, scattering, till only the dunes are left. The long horizon trails their crumbled track. New Hampshire: Two Returning
This seems to be their spot. They return each night. By moonlight, or street-lamps, they take long glances up the hill, as if setting something right. They like the older houses: all the lancet windows and lattice work on private lanes climbing the ridge. A view downward through pines: the stranded freight cars with their doors chained. Below the tracks, a river. Shattered spine of birch blurs under water. Sometimes he sees her eyes the way they were. Sometimes in the glow of strangers' yellow curtains he can catch a glimpse of how it was. He turns from the road. And then their car careening through the trees. Her irises blue, contracting like a cat's.
Those Painted Grins and Sneers
to Aaron Lisman
Rain that pelted the roof for days here cleared this morning. Boston shone through a cold glaze. My hands to the heat vents, I thought how weird that we swam, only a month ago, those days in the Berkshires when your firm then furtive look as you sunned on the dock said playing Stephano had sputtered out. The sheer resolve it took. The lines you had to know down to the marrow. These were merely punishments preparing you for future roles. While you rehearsed those nights, I crashed at your place. All was glaring impermanence. The drunk on the sidewalk cursed "You white trash whore!" at somebody's window. Inside the house, your clothes were strewn on the bed. You only had this place for the length of the show. Discomfort slipped to too familiar dread: this sinking sense I have that behind the simplest words for what we are and who lurks an impulse to break the very bond the speech attempts. I wasn't mad at you. And I was only amused the other day hearing you'd driven out to Chicago. But this morning in a flash café that dread returned, when a writer I know told me about her time in Mexico. Inside the prisons she went cell to cell clad in a Red Cross uniform. Each night she typed like a maniac in her hotel: the bribes, the beatings, gangs.... To get it right she played the ruse for weeks, until near dawn one morning, someone slid hotel letterhead beneath her door, with the scrawled words "get gone you don't have time." She left her things and fled. This didn't exist. This seemed a movie plot she could almost laugh at. Then the car ride out. Beneath a tarp in a trunk, the air so hot she said it hurt to breathe.... Her haze of doubt become a throbbing dread, inveigling her, she hallucinated past that sweat-fogged space the forced-perspective prison corridor cell after cell, until each inmate's face coalesced in a nullifying merge. For weeks after, when she drove through L.A. those cantilevered canyons seemed "one large illusion," swiped across the light of day. * * * Before your stage-call, the afternoon I left, we wandered the estate's lush ground designers had fashioned as Roman ruin. Chatting, though listening also to the sound of the gathering audience, I said, "I'll call or send ..." I'd guess in your show-time count-down you missed my pause. By the moss-mottled wall we walked beside, four masks festooned the overgrown spiraled wisteria vines. They startled me. Those painted grins and sneers seemed meant to flout both dissimulation's absurdity and its insistent presence, branching out of human nature. Maybe that's not true. Maybe it was simply the garish paint grabbing and slashing my touristic view. But how fast I recalled that moment's faint panic, this morning, when I saw the look of blank beguilement crossing my friend's face didn't come from shock at the risk she took: it came when she guessed out loud that any trace of her infraction had been scrubbed away. You remember how in Prospero's cell, as the speeches flare then smolder, Stephano waits for his pardon. He'll no longer "dwell in this bare island...." Everyone's free to go. That's how I felt this afternoon, alone, maundering gravel pathways to the river. Yellow crowns of the sycamores have grown thinner already there. High cattails shiver and the brick and stucco fissure into light. No, not illusion: those forms the skyline etched on the sky, blinking in then out of sight, made the city seem part of a network stretched beyond itself: street opening on street on where, these days, you walk the lakeside blocks to your rehearsals. I could feel the heat of summer linger in those jagged shocks. And in the warmth, then chill, that vast exchange seemed to occur through time as well as space: in the way that, curled inside you, past change the "you"s that you were face the world you face. Other People
In the dream where the dead return but never speak they sauntered up the lawn: my mother's father and Ned Gillette, who was shot in the robbery. Maple branches twisting between the houses scattered sun on their skin. And it didn't feel like an afterlife: bathed in silver shade and tennis shirts, they were just two other people with those stippled faces mere will had not remembered. Mussed bangs. The little lines on their lips. With kindness, and no need of me, they stared from the edge of an element so complete that sunrise, when bird cries from the roof shattered the airshaft, was catastrophe. Then minutes afterwards, I was standing pulling the chalky paste across my teeth. Confessional Poem
I love to open the marbled cover and find these moments ripped from the year. In this one, purple maples hover while my parents and I appear beneath like dots: as if background were the subject of the photograph and skin one surface sun has found. Our eyes contract and gleam as we laugh. I nearly wince to see that laughter. You know the plot. How father and mother and child will turn in the decade after to experts at wounding one another. How their balm of distance will salt the wounds.... Like my own voice played back to me, this picture of us mocks the assumption that there's a choice you make to become who you are. And the jolt of that is what I love: the lawn, the house, the gleaming car are simply there, while the trees above are so streaked that they seem tensed to the same, fearsome, invisible power the three of us hold our ground against as our faces flare from the paper.
Stephanie This evening a policeman buzzed the door. His walkie-talkie spittled static. We weren't the person he was looking for. But his doubt was automatic. Barking a woman's name, he glared at me. When at last he was satisfied our story checked out, he explained how she had called in mumbling "suicide." My meek "wrong number" faltered down the hall: lost in the glaze from a game show neighbors were laughing at. And that was all. That feeble green. Dim stairs below. But up and pacing now from room to room as headlights angle in then pass, as I open the blind, as buildings loom in tiers of light on this cold glass.... I see.... It's a sprawl of anonymities. And not some mere projected screen. More like a swarm of little creature eyes spiraling out through street-lamp sheen. And staring across the block (where earlier that squad car bleeped and peeled away) I chatter at the air. As if there were some healing spell for me to say. Someone would know what name to listen for and hear the prayer she muttered in doubt before I jerk closed my blind once more and watch this light shudder out. Miranda Kittredge
Gabbling away, she always seemed half lost in her decanters' sparkle when I entered. Grandson of more and more suspicious friends after her husband died I mowed her lawn. And listened while she told his dashing tales of celebrity: "Oh. He met Kennedy. Who loved to show each visitor the marks on the Oval Office floor from Eisenhower's golfing spikes. And...." Raspy from decades of Lucky Strikes, she'd pause to catch her breath then turn toward her view. It seemed as if she heard, under hers, her husband's voice as living presence. When she paused, in her silence, as she strained to remember, it must somehow have felt more true outside her on the darkening coast. Salt-tinged wind swaying her willows. Bird-feeder swinging as swarms of sparrows screeched around the plastic, seed-stuffed stalk. Two decades past. Thin sleep this morning like a skein of voices. And she appeared. No hoarse "young man ... young man!" Only her standing there in orange rayon while her neighbor's houselights stuttered on above the rock-churned surf. That unconstrained splash, and that gravel-throated backwash circled beneath her with such rich amplitude and deepened presence: the entire coast's long arcing bluffs gone blue then purple seemed a liquid space, a secret element that she would lead me through, though words would never pass beyond its darkened margin. Chapter Two Nephew You swivel backwards, sniff your mother's skin. Then your blue gaze returns and scours the page. It's difficult, this needing to begin in the middle. People live inside their age. And you are lost now as you strain to learn how letters are made by lines straightened or curled into themselves. How when you read they turn to speech, and speech to pictures of the world. Maybe you know. You remember how we took the Trailways. Banks and projects lifted faces crusted with snow, you climbed our seat to look, and Waltham and Chelmsford whooshed away to traces jagged as names shrouded beneath your shrieks. Now, the family room is a warm hold. You smack the pages as your mother speaks. Only the story goes on inside the cold where a bear has clambered from his winter cave to find a shopping mall. He blends with the flow. Lands a job, an apartment, learns to shave. You flinch, then laugh, at the words he doesn't know.
Excerpted from Other People by PETER CAMPION Copyright © 2005 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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