The Book of LIFE
Joseph Campana
Tupelo Press, 2019

In the opening poem of his latest collection, Rice English professor Joseph Campana describes an encounter with a box of crumbling LIFE magazines destined for the trash bin — and the sudden impulse to save them. “And the years kept passing, all the pages/ passing so swift and delicate they might tear/ as I touched them. Didn’t I want them to tear?” he asks. “Didn’t I want history to rip itself open/ and take me in?” 

The poems that follow frame an individual life within the larger context of the historic events documented in LIFE. Many of those events — the Great Depression, the Korean War, the Cuban missile crisis, the Kennedy and King assassinations — predate Campana, but all are part of what he calls “my America,” noting that “Walt Whitman called America the greatest poem ever written.” And they continue to shape our collective and individual consciousness. 

“The past isn’t really ever past, which is why my reading of those magazines was, at times, so haunting,” Campana told Rice News. “I’m thinking especially of a poem I wrote [‘Count’] about the University of Texas clock tower shooting. When I read that poem some years back on campus — before I even knew this would become a book — someone in the audience had been in the plaza that day. I think that poem must have been hard to hear — to relive those memories. As I recall, that person still has a notebook with a bullet hole in it.”

Looking into The Book of LIFE

Much traveled, yes, always in realms of yellowed

paper, black and white and blue: the whole

a globe in a book in a box and on each page

a face, a name, some wonders of use and want.

Was this how it began? A boy who stared 

at stars, a boy in love with the moon. A swirl, 

some sheer and stirring roundness that was sky.

Apollo, now that I have opened the book, it is

so quiet I can hear beneath the dense

and layered noise of life. So little of

my body that will last, and those I love

now fade to black before my eyes. You pass.

Far-darter, light-bringer, tell me what’s true:

Living is not coming to be but passing away. 

“Looking into The Book of LIFE,” reprinted from “The Book of LIFE” collection by Joseph Campana. Published by Tupelo Press, used by permission.

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