By Tess Taylor ’00
A poet-physician explores the strange, fumbling ways we attempt to heal others and ourselves.
[Poetry] Seventeen years ago, Rafael Campo ’87 was my professor. He’d recently published his first book, What the Body Told, and was well on his way to his second, Diva. Amherst had invited him to teach one class to the aspiring writers of the late 1990s. Campo was then, as he is now, a full-time doctor. Amid his work at Beth Israel Medical Center he found time once a week to drive west to Johnson Chapel and talk about poetry—usually over pizza, which he ordered, because by the time he arrived, he was hungry. He was often called away suddenly. We were in awe of him. I remember his generous presence.
I admired Campo (left) then and admire him now. I have also been skeptical of some of his poems. Campo is agile with form and rhyme, but some of his cadences have seemed too agile, too prone to easy resolution. Yet when Campo hits ambivalent notes, he plays them with enormous skill. Many of his best poems use formal (and therefore finite) shapes to house longings and distances that cannot be resolved.
Robert Pinsky once noted that one point of a lyric poem is to talk toward someone who can never answer—to someone lost in the past or the future, to the dead, to the world to come. In his newest collection, Alternative Medicine (Duke University Press), Campo speaks into and about ambivalent spaces—his father’s lost Cuba, contemporary border crossings, the AIDS crisis.
Indeed, many of the strongest lyrics in Alternative Medicine occur when Campo-the-poet addresses his patients in ways that would never be possible as Campo-the-doctor. In the poem “Alternative Medicine,” 10-line iambic stanzas detail encounters with people in an HIV clinic. Campo’s patients are vulnerable strangers, like the father who “refuses to acknowledge” Campo outside the hospital, despite the fact “I know his … T-cell count, his medication list/ as if these data somehow pinpoint him.” Campo-the-doctor tallies viral load. Campo-the-poet wonders how the lyric heart survives the accumulation of proximate losses. Campo-the-doctor-poet plays both roles at once without trying to resolve them.
In another meditation, “Recent Past Events,” Campo captures the uneasiness of a married gay couple who feels a nagging post-traumatic stress at having survived the AIDS epidemic only to encounter a more suburban existence. The speaker remembers the early days of AIDS:
We prayed for it to end. We feared their blood.
We were afraid to call our parents who
We knew would think the worst.
We learned to speak in acronyms.
We watched two women kiss
on television late at night.
The poem moves toward the present with a wry unease:
We watched two women kiss outside the door
of our favorite Chinese restaurant.
We talked about adopting kids. We feared
What people thought of us. We bought a house.
We painted the back bedroom red like blood.
We gave less money to the charities.
We found a nice church that accepted us.
So what does it mean to heal? To medicate? Survival is bittersweet. It is a tribute to Campo’s skill that such questions remain delicately open. Indeed, in the poem “Reforming Health Care,” Campo writes:
I grasp at last what I’m still thankful for:
Not the disease that lets me comfort her,
Or my unexceptional abilities,
However insufficient they might be,
But in the final absence of a cure,
The need in all of us for someone’s care.
In search of what it means to cure, and out of his own need to care, Campo explores the strange, fumbling ways we attempt to heal others and ourselves. Between Thom Gunn—gay, formal, experimental and roving—and William Carlos Williams—daily, bound to New Jersey and his patients—Campo leaves his mark.
Tess Taylor ’00 is the author of a book of poems, The Forage House. She is a visiting assistant professor of English at Whittier College and reviews poetry for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered.
Photo courtesy of Raphael Campo