Michael S. Begnal (#5)

Review: Consent (Doire Press, 2013) by Kimberly Campanello

Kimberly Campanello is an American poet who, as her bio tells us, now divides her time between Dublin and London. The theme of Campanello’s first full-length collection, Consent (Doire Press, 2013), is the dynamic between force and acquiescence. The Canadian poet and critic Todd Swift notes on the back cover, “these poems compel us to see . . . submission and coercion as entangled.” The title poem itself begins,

Shit makes me involuntarily hungry.
Shit or its wafting smell.
Rape makes me involuntarily horny.
Rape or a scene of rape (portrayed).
Consent is psychological.

In the bigger picture, Campanello raises questions about living in the West as a person of privilege, whether that privilege is asked for or not. In “The Maya,” the speaker refers to herself as “a rich white girl,” who, on the one hand, fears rape as woman “walking alone, drunk” but, on the other, is aware that she has it better than the homeless “Maya” (i.e. Central American immigrants) who earlier in the poem are arrested for vagrancy by police in South Beach, Miami, Florida.

The threat of rape is taken up as a subject elsewhere in the collection as well. The body is a commodity, Campanello seems to suggest, and in poems like “Sunday Morning” (set at a nude beach) and “Chicken Skin” the speaker considers her own genitalia. In “Cut and Pressed,” which begins with a quote from Foucault regarding “the fascism in us all,” Campanello once more examines the construction of “whiteness,” here as it intersects with sexuality. Part one, set in Miami, deals with race in America. It begins,

She says he pressed the pads of her fingers
to see if they came back pink.
He checked her pussy lips against the pale plastic rose
he bought her at the gas station.
He pronounced her white.

Part two, set in Ireland, continues the theme from the speaker’s new geographic vantage point (with a nod to the history of the Irish in America), but no true resolution to the vexed question of race is on offer. The poem implies that there never really can be such a resolution — despite the speaker’s declaration, “I want to believe we are redeeming / something” — as long as we live in a society predicated on economic exploitation.

Campanello’s style is breezy and conversational, something like a contemporary Frank O’Hara (at least I would make that loose connection), or like any conscious post-postmodern talking to herself in her head. Her tone is personal, but she never falters into the purely self-confessional mode. The persona of her speaker is a device through which she evokes larger questions even as she exposes her own ambivalence. There is much irony here, but not the kind of irony that defers feeling or meaning — rather, the kind that opens the way to deeper insight. And what may initially seem on the surface to be an un-worried free verse is actually, on second glance, quite well-made poetry. In “The American People,” lines are fragmented and broken off, suggesting both the incompleteness of the American project and many Americans’ lack of self-awareness: “The American people believe more than anything that / Most Americans know nothing about [. . . .] / The American people are better off than / Americans are weighing the. . . .”

Indeed, Campanello’s Consent reads like something of a breath of fresh air. It is political without being heavy-handed or dogmatic, personal without being pathetic, and original in its handling of language and speaker. It is not beholden to any earlier school or movement that I can see, or even any specific, singular poetic predecessor. Aside from Foucault, there are epigraphs from Thomas McGrath, Ted Hughes, Baudelaire, Eliot, Wordsworth, Beckett, Wallace Stevens, Whitman, Philippe Jaccottet, and James Joyce. Certainly these and others have impacted Campanello’s poetry, but she has forged ahead and created something new here. I recommend this book highly.