The long and short of the prose poem is that it’s a product of deep inner contradictions. Its prose wants the freedom to wander, while its poetry wants the brevity of a few luminous words. It rejects the primacy of either of its parents in favor of a synthesis of both. It delights in frustrating the expectations of the readers of poetry and the readers of prose. In the end, its perfect realization is a construct of awkward grace that conceals as much as it reveals, that darkens the blank page with justified lines that are jagged with revelations.
What better genre, then, to utilize for a project like the one Brian Campbell proposes for his new book of prose poems, Passenger Flight. Situating himself as a “pilot,” his ambition is to send his readers, or “passengers,” on a voyage across the psychic landscape of the twenty-first century. He wildly navigates his craft (in both senses of the word) on an audacious exploration. The resulting record is a document of random indeterminateness that is decidedly postmodern. It does not respect consistency or continuity. It migrates across the stylistic spectrum with promiscuous abandon. The work it produces is of groaning inelegance and touching sensitivity, with the poems roughly divided about equally between these extremes.
Campbell’s method is to embody his subject matter rather than to describe it. The result can be difficult to assess. At its most puzzling, his work resembles the nonsense prose of Noam Chomsky’s exercises in deep grammar:
“Flick flick. Chuffle chuffle. Yes. In concupiscent caverns of hermetics, abstractions condense into moist tactilities. While the tongue goes slurp, teeth go crunch, and my crotch itches… “Gallimaufry”
At the other extreme, it sees the world as a place enchanted with intimations of mortality:
“Everything under a thin skin of dust. In the stillness it falls like snow. Beautiful, this falling. Soon I will be a part of it: accumulate on other bodies; as they move, they’ll shed my presence. We are all shedding presences of the dead. “Slough”
By conventional standards, the latter poem is superior in its writing, in its nuances, and in its claim on the observant mind. But Campbell presents all his poems as equal. There is no difference, to him, between the sacred and the profane. Everything is slightly absurd, everything has its own lurid charm. Whether or not the reader is willing to grant Campbell the aesthetic he expects, that reader will nevertheless find an intelligent sensibility at work in these poems, and a skillful use of a slightly incongruous angle of vision.
The reader of Passenger Flight will hear the faint laughter of the author on nearly every page. He laughs because he knows it’s the only intelligent response to looking into the abyss. He even sees a ray of hope on a winter day that’s a scene right out of Munch:
“The day is a creased grey brain… Wind howls through a funnel of nightmare. Leather collars are turned up against the cold… Smudged, bent figures in the rain walk head down… But beyond the brooding masses in the sky—canyons of light, brilliant rays under a blinding white disc. “Brainpan”
Roger Sauls lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. His most recent book of poems is The Hierarchies of Rue from Carnegie Mellon University Press.