Poems by Paul-Henri Campbell: Injured Bodies, Warm Atolls

An admired master thinker of aesthetics once asserted that in a poem there is not only room for “dejection and melancholy” but also for “the swift flashes of carefree hilarity and jest” but that in the end it is only “the soul of the feeling” that matters. This definition of the world spirit philosopher Hegel has been repeated by several generations of poetry theorists.

Two centuries after Hegel, the German-American poet and pugnacious theologian Paul-Henri Campbell seeks to declutter the lofty notions of poetry and banish gloomy reflection in favor of ritual, incantation, and litany. Instead of tender “soul work”, Campbell propagates in his new book of poems “Innere Organe” a sensual poetry of the body, poetry as somatic art.

Paul-Henri Campbell, who was born in 1982, belongs to the small circle of poets who write on an equal footing with death. The author has been suffering from a serious heart defect since birth. He had already added an essay on the “salutonormativity” of the healthy and the existential exposure of the sick to his exciting book of poems “nach den narkosen”, which was published in 2017.

Snow-white stone beaks

Campbell now rehearses in seven cycles in this new volume (Verlag das Wunderhorn, Heidelberg 2022. 80 pages, €22.) the poem as a polylingual body of language. The book begins with reflections on the injured body, on which the “mark of the scalpel” has left a number of scars. In the second chapter, the excessive litanies on the lungs or the spleen demonstrate the author’s delight in unleashed language games.

But dark visions of an omnipresent pandemic are also present: “…sick years // and streets are haunted by rigid beak masks / chalk-white snow-white stony beaks / that strangles everything and strangles…”.

In the “Luftbrücken” cycle, which revolves around a few places in Frankfurt am Main that are steeped in history, Paul-Henri Campbell then attempts an experimental border crossing between languages: a highly comical montage of German and English vocabulary. Playing with the “awful German language” ironicized by Mark Twain produces a graceful “gibberish” here: “I wandered lonely as a cloud.”

The last two cycles of the volume point in a decidedly political direction. The “re:aktor poems” take stock of the nuclear disasters from Chernobyl in 1986 to Fukushima in 2011 in glaring snapshots. In the poem “three mile island” Campbell transforms the reactor accident in Harrisburg, USA, into a historical scene of German emigrants.

They came to Pennsylvania in the 18th century in search of the new Jerusalem and spoke their own dialect there, the “Pennsylvania Dutch”: “& down by the river there the miehlraad creaks, shoveling in the stream”.

At the end of the volume, the cycle “warm atolls” recalls the devastating atomic bomb tests on the Marshall Islands in the Pacific, which devastated the living environment of the islanders there between 1946 and 1962. What began as an expedition into the injured body now ends in the horror image of the apocalypse: “…like / champagne cork rises in the suction / from cloudy veils the atomic mushroom / into the tropical chaos”.

These poems from the “atolle” cycle oppressively anticipate the scenario of impending nuclear escalation that the world has been facing since war returned to Europe.

By Editor

Leave a Reply