Scott Owens, Review of Pris Campbell’s “Postscripts to the Dead”

by Scott Owens

Pris Campbell
MiPOesias, 2011

Pris Campbell’s new collection of poems, Postscripts to the Dead, is largely a book about loss, about the loss of friends and lovers, relatives and icons, certainly, but also about the loss of a dream, of a way of life, of a belief. Ultimately, these poems form an elegy to an America we used to know, an America before betrayal, betrayal of our bodies, of leadership, and of significance, an America before post-structuralism encouraged the wholesale abandonment of integrity and turned everything to surface and sensationalism.

Don’t think, however, that this is the common pining for illusory better days one might encounter among sentimentalists. Despite the personal ravages of loss, Campbell participates in no romanticized Golden Age fantasies, for in the America she mourns there is infidelity and ambition, gluttony and grief, sickness and folly, but there is also innocence, an absence of malice, and a belief that things will work out, that there is, after all, permanence and meaning and good intentions.

Thus, in these poems, we find Elvis “Lost in Graceland,” unable to comprehend that everything, even the sanctuaries of love, home and memory, can be lost to the insatiable lust for celebrity:

Elvis wanders through Graceland,
wonders why the rooms are roped off,
why strange women in Elvis tees,
scarves over their curlers, walk
through his house weeping.
. . . . . . . . . .
He wonders where Priscilla is,
why Lisa Marie looks right through him
. . . . . . . . . .
Most of his sequins have fallen.
They leave a starry trail
to trace and retrace each night but
he trembles when a new one tumbles.
If they’re gone before the Colonel returns,
how will he find his way?

Gone is the land of opportunity where a boy can rise up from nothing and become a king. Gone is the land of dreams where everyone believes they have a chance to kiss Paul Newman (“Blue Eyes in my Dream”). Gone is the land of heroes. Instead, we find “Hemingway’s Ghost” revisiting a changed Key West where “Ten plump older men, bearded like him,” but who “have never run / with the bulls, hooked marlin, / bedded exotic women,” “stand on the bar” so that “one of them will be him tonight.” Gone is integrity and dignity such that we encounter Marilyn Monroe (“M.M.”) regretting not only that “Jack and Bobby . . . . only wanted / the sex vamp, notches in their belts, / their face in her cleavage” but also that “the hullabaloo [may not] even outsell stories / about Charlie Sheen and Justin Beiber.”

On a more personal level, in poems like “Consolation,” we also encounter the poet herself, painfully aware of what she has lost to her own body’s betrayal:

You’ve only known me
with my body slain and
curled deep into soft spaces
. . . . . . . . . .
You’ve only seen me with my brain
in under-drive, thoughts short-circuited.

And in poems like “My Father’s Many Funerals” and “Undertow,” we see the emptiness left by the loss of loved ones: “She slipped quietly into that undertow / and I was left alone on the beach, a girl again, / weeping.”

Through a breadth of imagery that ranges from the personal to the cultural, Pris Campbell helps the reader begin to understand that it is not simply our losses that have exacted a heavy toll on our way of life but also our failure to meaningfully fill the vacuums left in the wake of such loss. Thus, these poems of unrecovered loss become a collective image of a waning personal, cultural, and political life, an idea reflected in the presence of a waning crescent moon at the top of each page of the book.

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