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The Lions

By: Peter Campion
Reviewed by: Russ Kesler
The University of Chicago Press, 2009
$18, Paperback

Among contemporary collections of poetry, many books tend to be dominated by the personal narrative; others employ a more public, politically aware voice. Peter Campion’s The Lions blends these opposing temperaments. In poem after poem personal experience is set against the larger concerns of war and the “baleful knowledge” that an understanding of the world is by nature fragmentary at best.

That tension is often reflected via the juxtaposition of imagery from the natural world and that of commerce or the manmade, as in the first few lines of “Just Now”: 

        a ladybug, its carapace blown open 
        so a translucent trace of orange gleams 
        from its body, has ascended link by link 
        the smudgy silver curve of my watchband. 
        It must have helicoptered past the sill 
        while I was slumped here squinting in the paper 
        at the ashen packaging another bombing’s 
        made of a minivan.

While there’s nothing startlingly new about the speaker’s stance here—his peace and leisure contrasted with the devastation and terror left by a bomb thousands of miles away—this poem exemplifies Campion’s sensibility. We move from the ladybug on the watch through the awareness of faraway strife effortlessly, in language as plainspoken and unaffected as can be. “In Late August” achieves a similar kind of tension. The author stands near “a culvert by the airport,” where “wine colored water seeps / to this pool the two does / drink from.” And two lines later, the poem employs a characteristic trope: “The skyline is a wash / of barcode and microchip.” One beauty of the repeated overlay of the mass-produced and easily attained against the unchanging and vulnerable natural world is that Campion keeps readers aware of the ways in which the latter is threatened by the former without having to raise his voice. The poems never preach, relying instead on the implicit tensions generated by the imagery.

Another admirable quality of this book is in the variety of forms and structures the poems employ. Campion is equally at home with taut free verse lyrics of ten lines, with poems like the title poem that runs ten pages, and with such received forms as rhymed quatrains, represented by “Display Copy.” There, perusing a book of photographs, the speaker finds one of a young couple, apparently taken in his hometown. He is haunted by the fact that they should be familiar but aren’t: 

                                                The shading gives 
        the feeling that they’re utterly withdrawn 
        from where they are. But the town name’s printed on 
        the bottom: part of my family still lives 
        and two are buried there. 
                                                    It must be 
        one of those beaches my mother took me to: 
        leading up splintered walks until the view 
        opened below. 
                                                    Wide span of lavender sea.

The dropped lines and irregular stanza patterns here tend to mask the form and rhyme, again illustrating the subtlety with which Campion consistently presents his material.

The Lions is a generous book, and an ambitious one. The poems are never complacent, always sharpened by an intellect that is inquisitive but that also acknowledges the ultimate futility of finding easy answers to the implicit questions. This is a book that rewards each rereading. Sept 2009

Russ Kesler teaches at the University of Central Florida.

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