NEA Literature Fellowships

Joseph Campana

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(2007 - Poetry)

"De Rerum Natura"

I am all of one space now,
all things being one in your
presence--to eat, to drink,
to scour the dirt from my
skin, as if to touch myself
so was still to be part of a
singularity you fashioned:
how the books leaned, the
windows breathed, and all
utensils fell into disrepair.
Tell me, Lucretius, is this
how I am to be moved,
whirled into constituents
and assembled by hands
I cannot recognize? The way
enclosures would not open
and voices would be heard
in wood, in glass, in waters
screaming for collection: all
points of light, all miracles
of conspicuous knowledge
shuttered and barred. How
the cold would soon pattern
diamonds on stone and in
branches. How could I think
that the fragments of volition
might take shape or bear fruit
or cherish their own ill will
toward me. Collisions in a
small space and the making
of more such collisions and
the generation of heat from
the collisions of volition and
the sanctity of resolute matter:
all that warms and warns of
recombination. How is it I am
to divine, bounded as I am?
Tremors passing. Tremulous
waves of air and music striking
the skin of your own private
planetarium. Where the waters
will collect, and what grows
fetid equally well in light as
in darkness, and what scuttles
from the horizon of attention
with a grace you could never
equalize: is it true, as they say,
that there is a sadness entirely
composed of ordinary objects?
A tightening, the tension that
bespeaks only an unequivocal
gratitude, and the steady whir,
the steady whir of a universe
of elements racing now apart
and clutching now together.
I am all of the one and same
patent that will spin and spin
into a hundred contradictory
promises, a composition of
furious cultivation. How the
small green things will live
and live and how truly small
they are and how they will
breathe out their own nutrient
despair: how they live, Lucretius,
and what now tends them.

Joseph Campana grew up in Johnstown, New York, in the foothills of the Adirondacks. He has degrees in literature from Williams College, University of Sussex (UK), and Cornell University. His poems have appeared in Beloit Poetry Journal, Colorado Review, Hotel Amerika, New England Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Poetry and are forthcoming in Triquarterly and Prairie Schooner. His first collection of poems, The Book of Faces, is a meditation on the life, films, and faces of Audrey Hepburn. He writes a weekly blog for the Kenyon Review and currently is completing a study of Edmund Spenser, parts of which appear in PMLA and Modern Philology, and a manuscript of poems entitled Spring Comes to Ohio. He has taught at Kenyon College in Renaissance literature and creative writing, which he currently teaches at Rice University.

Photo courtesy of the author

Author's Statement

When Andrew Marvell wrote "To His Coy Mistress," one of the great poems of seduction in any language, his insistence on the perennial brevity of time was both an erotic strategy and an admission that the ticking clock of the body always comes to rest. For most writers (if we're lucky) time represents a different threat. It feels as if there isn't world enough or time to devote to the page. The obligations of a life lived well -- to the ones we love, and to the students we so often teach -- all distract. And these are the good obligations to have, the ones that make us fortunate.

My own time is perennially split between teaching and writing about Renaissance literature, on the one hand, and writing poems and teaching creative writing on the other. I have never felt the writing of literary scholarship, in and of itself, to conflict with the writing of poems. Each world enhances the other. At the same time, the business of being a writer and the business of being a scholar I often experience as institutional schizophrenia. How not to be conscious of "Time's winged chariot" nipping at my heels? So the gift of an NEA fellowship makes time an ally, not a foe.

My first book, The Book of Faces, was a study in icons. If the icon in question happened to be Audrey Hepburn, it was nonetheless a work built in and around experiences of devotion: how we become shaped by that which we love. The challenge was to elaborate a sequence of poems, each in a unique shape, to embody the many forms into which we twist ourselves in devotion to the icons we love. Having just finished a second manuscript, Spring Comes to Ohio, about the way in which we become, willingly or no, rooted in particular landscapes, I realize that so many of my poems are studies in attachment. Perhaps all poems are.

My newest project is a study in attachment and also a return to cultural icons. These icons are ones that inspire skepticism and belief. In the time made available to me by the NEA (a semester and summer off from teaching), I'll have the chance to complete Seraphic Monologues, a work composed of four sections. Each section treats a particular figure -- Caravaggio, Lucretius, Milton, and Descartes. Painters, poets, and philosophers all, they force us to ask: how do we believe or not believe in the powerful systems erected by artists and thinkers? How is it we believe in anything? More fundamentally, how, despite the most energetic and even beautiful forms of skepticism, do we end up not being able to resist belief in (if nothing else) art itself?