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Natural Selections

Natural Selections

by Joseph Campana
Natural Selections

Natural Selections

by Joseph Campana




Whether wandering the paths of the imagination, driving through sparsely populated countryside, or listening for the voices of animals, Joseph Campana’s poemsattend to the ways we are indelibly marked by habitat. Shot full of accidental attachments and reluctant transience, Natural Selectionsproduces from vibrant contradiction potent song.
In poems both lyric and expansive, Natural Selections finds in the simplicity and strangeness of middle America a complex metaphysics of place and an uncanny perspective reminiscent of the landscapes of Grant Wood. Birds and beasts, frequent storms, country roads, a fraught election, and some of Ohio’s literary guardian angels (James Wright, Hart Crane, and Sherwood Anderson) haunt the poems. Whether enigmatically refracted or brutally direct, these poems attend to the way life is beautifully, violently, and unexpectedly marked by place.
 With a boldness of vision that might overwhelm a lesser talent, Joseph Campana gives us a collection guided by a focused intelligence and yet containing wonderment and awe at its heart. By turns ferocious and charming, contemporary and mythic, grief-stricken and funny, the poet’s voice is always original, direct, and pitch-perfect. The poems in this book are a wonder.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781609380816
Publisher: University of Iowa Press
Publication date: 04/01/2012
Series: Iowa Poetry Prize Series
Edition description: 1
Pages: 88
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Joseph Campana teaches Renaissance literature at Rice University. His poems have appeared in Slate, Kenyon Review, Poetry, Conjunctions, Colorado Review, and many other venues. His first book of poetry, The Book of Faces, was published in 2005. He is also the author of The Pain of Reformation: Spenser, Vulnerability, and the Ethics of Masculinity (2012).

Read an Excerpt

Natural Selections

By Joseph Campana


Copyright © 2012 Joseph Campana
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-60938-081-6

Chapter One


    Crow said murder and
    then there was one. If

    there were two, if
    there were myriad

    black wings covering
    black winds beating sky.

    Sky said malice. Crow
    saw it shining. Glitter

    of the needful, glitter
    of the wanting ones:

    dark hunger dark in
    trees. Whither, crow,

    now: who will you run to?

    Crow said murder. And
    then there were more.

    And then there were more.

    Ohio 229

    Afternoon hawk circles.
    Another senseless road
    ripped around a bend.
    How potent the longing,
    how potent the fear.
    The two as one, the two
    as hawk and shadow
    comb a lifeless road.
    Doesn't empty mean
    safe? Another snap,
    another twig, another
    instinct ended. We
    were all hungry,
    circling each other's
    flesh as if it were
    nourishment. How
    did the hawk know
    what was left
    on the side of this
    road would spite
    appetite, never end it?

    Natural Selections


    Evidence that life invents
    the conditions of survival
    was visible, there, on those
    roads. Driving away from
    the center, away from
    distraction: what is life
    if not the index of what
    waits to be desired?


    Leaving you was something
    else entirely. And for what?
    A little nowhere: a few hills,
    islands of rarefied growth
    isolated from the streams
    of death and convergence
    below. Driving back and
    forth I could hear some
    whisper of the new.
    Everything was wrong.
    The principle of evolution
    is change, not growth.


    Nothing to do now.
    Nothing but leave trees,
    find streets of shoes and
    the myriad satisfactions
    of stores. In one a woman
    identified our particular
    species. When I said I
    was a teacher, she sighed.
    You probably have to teach
    Darwin, don't you?
, I said, Shakespeare.
she said, warming
    to her theme, it's all
    the same in the end isn't it?


    Careless watcher
    of dark thinking birds
    without anywhere to
    roost, climb to the top
    of the sky, look down
    and see everything:
    how deeply small,
    how slowly moving
    without purpose or
    origin or end. From
    this distance you
    can pretend you
    are one of the sad,
    one of the small
    animals below.


    Tell me again how we were
    at the top of the food chain,
    how the climb to the leafy hilltop
    made us believe it. This is not
    to answer the question you
    asked me. Nothing here
    resembles an answer.


    When I arrived there were only
    hand-wrought planks, work
    of a banished carpenter, and
    green light from the windows
    creating the suggestion
    of forest floor. It was,
    I was told, an old and storied
I was moving to, moving
    away from you. At night I
    could hear only myself and
    the motions of unknown animals.
    In the bookstore, the biography
    of a great and suicidal poet. What
    held the book together, the glue,
    was so dried up, each page pulled
    out as I read. Not all of them,
    I thought in the dark, and in
    the darkness, I wanted so much
    to live I would have killed to live.


    Nothing is more complacent
    than a house. Its secret,
    in the end, is what is shared.


    Every so often I heard noise
    without a body between the walls
    of my kitchen and the world.
    I tried not to think ill of
    what I could not see and
    remembered there is nothing
    either good or bad but thinking
    makes it so.
This seemed
    one of many exceptions.
    Unable to sleep I listened to
    its travels. Where could it go?
    The house was so cold it made
    no sense anything would stay
    day after day, night after endless
    night knowing at some moment
    one of the tired animals would
    falter while the other would
    live on, awake and obsolete.


    Imagine there was no reason
    to live as we did, in danger
    of nothing at all. Imagine
    there was something wrong
    with being harmless. That it
    was, in fact, a form of harm.
    No, the house would whisper.
    It was always a matter of survival.
    The fittest were those with
    the least to lose. I sat in
    the center of a house that was
    nowhere particular in Ohio,
    in the world, in my life, missing you
    so deeply someone might have
    mistaken my song for the elusive
    language of beasts and birds.


    It's you, said the tree, and
    the darkness said nothing.

    Summer turned to snow
    and still no answer.

    It's you, said the sky, but
    the darkness scarcely blinked.

    Eyes opened wider and wider.
    So the world began: it showed us

    nothing. It's you, I said. And then:
    I'm waiting. The night was so dark

    and still so real. I was tiny, and
    the trees tired. All was silence:

    ravenous, unmoved.


    Outside, and without warning,
    the inexplicable raised its ugly
    head. The temperature went,
    again, and the sun went too:
    all south. And wouldn't you
    know a single dark crow was
    sitting on a gravestone like
    a vicious monument to patience,
    mocking sleep, as if the world
    needed more cheap significance.
    All night through the woods
    rain made the same sullen song
    because the world had drunk
    and drunk and drunk it in. All
    the bottles are empty: all the
    storm clouds have given up.
    You are not yourself a form
    of truth. You are drowning but
    knowing so will not help you.


    Hare says Moon but Moon
    won't answer. Hare twitches.

    Overhead darkness. Moon peers
    down at the blues and greens:

    scuffle, darken, fade, fade to black.
    Everything's shutting down now.

    Moon says where am I?

    Hare rolls its eyes at circling
    lights. Hare trembles. Even

    the light will grow weary.
    Moon all alone bleeds out

    a reddish wake of grief. Moon
    says I never mean to leave you.

    Hare says no. Tremors from
    the treacherous undergrowth.

    Says, I know I know I—no.

    Rural Morning

    There's no irony in storm.
    There's no irony in Ohio
    as strong as the force
    that binds torn petals
    to the soaked porch.
    What you wanted
    from leaf, what you
    wanted from tree
    died in the night.
    You could spend
    all morning trying
    to sweep them.
    You could spend
    all morning trying
    to clean. Splintered
    boughs blossom
    in disguise, the scars
    proof that you must
    believe the trees.
    You must believe
    the last good drop
    of honey dripped
    from the lips
    of a broken deer
    hanging dead on
    a branch above a creek
    drying beneath the sun
    only then to drink
    its fill from the sky.


    What could be elegance is all instinct.
    I am so tired of the fear around me

    but I have no idea whose fear it is.
    All I know is another roar and cry

    another sweeping light and my legs
    frozen fast now and something so

    startling it must be good though I
    know it cannot be anything but

    another night black scurry, another
    disaster waiting to seize, on the

    dark roads, on the dark dark roads
    it is so cold I could crouch down

    here on the crackling leaves, and
    let the black snow bleed over me.

    Hunting the Beast

    You're old enough to lie,
    to grab the beast by its throat:
    cock the rifle, grip the barrel,
    jam the butt to your shoulder
    so it hurts and loose the bullet
    from its cavern of scorn, howling.

    To know the beast, to know
    the deer, to know an enemy
    scuffling in undergrowth:
    shudder of capture, now it's over.
    Rabbits lie down in their warrens
    but you will drive them forth.
    Hawks twist in the clouds:
    they will hide the sun.

    You're old enough to know,
    to be the bowstring ripped taut,
    to stretch air into shape, to feel
    the arrow explode into form and
    catch in the haunch of a dark
    forest, its flesh your nightmare.

    To speak of anger, to speak of failure:
    report of weapons, retort of trees,
    taunt of wind. You want to trail the beast.
    You know the paths of twisting wood
    but you cannot track yourself.
    The mind is full of sound, like the body.

    You're old enough to kill, to drag
    corpses in snow. This is how you
    learn to see the world: the bird
    hauled up with its dun plumage.
    It is your hand alone that makes
    the wings flutter, that squeezes
    dream from the lungs of the dead.
    If you can't fly away, no one will.


    River gave up no
    tokens of certainty.
    The husk of its
    revelation was
    a body beyond
    its own death.
    All night, the deer
    would not speak.
    All winter it hung
    from a tree over
    water the color
    of envy. As if it
    required witness.
    You are no hunter,
    you, no purveyor
    of dream. You can
    do nothing for it.
    Here comes spring:
    the world blossoms
    and blows away.
    No one looks up
    to see. No one
    drags the deer
    down from the tree.



    I've seen in you that awful
    need to tell: the way the water
    slicked you back, all surfaces
    now beyond resemblance.


    To say a thing was frozen in
    the tree or that it hauled its
    dying bulk up the slickened
    bark counter to sensible
    recourse, for there was
    nothing there: no leaf, no star.


    The way the cold will break
    the will. It will scatter. The
    thousands pressed, the will
    now everywhere dark and
    cooling deep in soil. The body
    was a test, and you failed it.


    The condition of the river is
    flux. So too the condition of
    the beast that cannot sleep.
    Imagine it crawled up into a
    tree seeking dream. Imagine
    ascent a form of prayer. The
    end of all animals is stasis.
    Birds bed down in bushes,
    deer freeze to unfeeling bark.


    If there is no motion there is
    still motion of a body, a body
    collapsing into little crevices,
    into ever smaller mysteries. If
    you listen closely, you can hear
    the gradual shattering of the
    branches under that weight.


    Is it a ladder or a broken tree?


    To stretch forth into, to hang,
    entire, over a blighted scrap of
    land because there is nowhere
    else to run to, and the river
    that was flood is now the
    barest trickle. The tree is dry.
    There's no reason to touch it.


    How the sky tracks you. How
    lines connect your stars.


    There was a story of how you
    came back. Slowly, at first,
    stirring deep in the entrails
    of the thing and then the dead
    no longer dead, crawling forth
    from a slickened gray body
    first like a slug and then in
    flight with such vicious, such
    violent joy. You were always
    changing. You said nothing
    was ever so sweet
. I could
    hear the riddle bristling like
    a miracle.


    To be the tree broken by its
    own heaviness. To be hanging
    in a posture of determined
    rupture: the lesson in question
    was for the hands. They will
    not be beside themselves.
    Break now, hands. Break now
    or reach out and be broken.


    Were you lying there, were it
    your breath escaping, visible,
    wouldn't you want to be lifted
    into someone's snaking arms?


    Nothing left to be. The colors
    were all cold, even as spring
    limped back. There was such
    silence in the world and it
    would not let go. Why should
    you stay, why should you hold
    on unless you were waiting all
    this time to billow back to life?


    Everyone wants to be saved.
    The finches just won't do it:
    they don't even sing right.
    Then, again, neither do you
    wheezing along the river as
    if you broke something
    and waited to be punished.
    The river fills with life
    to spite you. How it stinks
    before you, how it glistens
    like dew on leaves, murky
    air scented with the taint
    of lightning. Look down:
    what broke was you.
    The only angels here
    hang from sodden trees.

    Homer, OH

    Forty-nine miles from my
    doorstep to the terminal in
    Columbus. One quarter tank
    of gas. Three small roadways,
    no tolls, no time to stop.
    Inevitable transit, from which
    time seemed absent. I could
    name my destination, or I
    could name my love. There was
    always rain, wind whipping ice
    across steely roads. As I drove,
    I counted the highway lights
    because I knew they would
    never run out.


    Nor did most of the suitors
    believe Penelope spent all
    that time on a single tapestry.
    Could she have been so
    industrious as to finish each
    night, a new one appearing
    each bright morning? Might
    she have been enjoying the
    suitors in turn under cover of
    night, each sworn to secrecy?


    If the heart is made of flesh,
    there is no way to say it breaks.
    If it is made of blood, perhaps
    it can only bleed. King Lear in
    King Lear asks his own heart
    to break. He asks because it
    won't and he is a stubborn man.
    What luxury to have a body
    that breaks when the mind can
    stand no more. The mind is
    pure in and of itself. The heart
    bleeds in the mind as the color
    of the sun crashing into the
    hills. I drove with the sky right
    behind me, burning itself alive,
    but never did I look back.

    There was a secretary I knew
    who lived in Homer but worked
    in Ithaca. She spent her time
    typing. We were no longer to
    call her a secretary. She spent
    her time driving as well:
    twenty-six miles each way, each
    mile a different letter, each trip
    a useless expression of want,
    each habitual transit another
    sentence without end.


    Ungrateful heart, love is far
    away. Even were it near, it
    would still be an imprecise
    designation. Stop talking.
    Someone could be waiting
    for me. Stop looking at me:
    someone must be holding his
    heart out in his hands.


    Homer never saw Ohio.
    Still, he crossed the wooded
    passageways from the towns
    of New York to the edges of
    an elaborately empty garden
    only to find himself left alone
    with houses sliding into creeks
    and cars waiting on the lawn to
    be taken for a ride. Of course,
    Homer never did see anything.


    The condition of waiting is the
    string pulled so tight it might
    bleed. If only the fates can spin
    the threads and measure the
    lengths woven between us, let
    them make them longer, for
    though I am not as far from
    you as I might be, I feel the tug
    of each mile, each numerable,
    each vibrating with the hushed
    roar of time passing over.


    Ignominious, the fate of
    names. There are nine towns
    named Homer in the United
    States, eleven if you include
    Homerville. Homer was no
    match for Arcadia (12), Aurora
    (18), Athens (16). Troy (26) wins
    hands down. Figures.


    I try to imagine the settlers,
    the makers of place, styling
    themselves latter-day Adams,
    scattering the names of gods
    and poets, cities and heroes.
    Did they allow themselves to
    imagine Homer could tame the
    trees or send game hurtling into
    the hungry arms of the pioneers,
    ripe for the kill? Why name me
    an already forgotten dream?


    Outside the car we pass several
    towns in succession. Each is
    named Homer and none of them
    is home. Homer has one soda
    machine. Now it feels as if a test
    is about to begin. If the machine
    is filled daily and a different,
    desperate traveler passes by
    each night with a thirst nothing
    can quench, what could possibly
    be left by morning?


    There are no Homers in
    America. I knew you anyway:
    not by the scar, not by the
    writhing trunk of the olive tree
    we made our bed. Before I saw
    your face I knew you, like a man
    in midst of marathon, each mile
    before and behind pulling like
    a taut string. Like the man who
    already knows whether he's
    running from or running to.


Excerpted from Natural Selections by Joseph Campana Copyright © 2012 by Joseph Campana. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Ohio 229....................3
Natural Selections....................8
Rural Morning....................12
Hunting the Beast....................15
Homer, OH....................26
Ohio 308....................28
Winesburg, OH....................33
Sheltering Bough....................37
Blue Heron....................38
Democracy in Ohio....................42
Rural Evening....................48
Spring Comes to Ohio....................51
Ohio 661....................52
Rural Night....................59

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