Campbell, Christian. Running the Dusk. Leeds: Peepal Tree, 2010. 81 pp. $16.95 (paper).

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Reviewed by Raina León

A crossroads is a place of power, steeped in mystique. Christian Campbell’s first collection of poetry, Running the Dusk, does not simply enter the crossroads of light and shadow; it dances, twisting a magic in each movement.

In the dusk, there is a difficult balance to maintain as shapes shift and the world is transformed. The collection’s two epigraphs reflect this balance of forces: one from Jean Genet and the other from Pablo Neruda. With Jean Genet, Campbell builds a framework for the manuscript, one that delights in that hour of metamorphoses. With Neruda, we learn that walking with the speaker here, observing what is observed, pushes the reader into a lonely and difficult consideration of the familiar self and the other. Both subtly introduce readers this divided collection, its two halves: “Goodman’s Bay” and “Masquerade.”

The stripped-back poems of the first section, “Goodman’s Bay,” invoke ancestors and the natural world. Campbell exhibits a steady hand in the turn of line and the practiced inclusion of vivid, evolving images within each line, adding to the precise punch within the poems. The opening poem offers a prime example of this, capturing the elusive shadow and even quick movement of one’s life, unable to be conquered; rather the physical self is matched by the spirit self at dusk. Each line of “Bucking up on Evening” stands within the greater body, developing transfixing imagery with the simplest of words:

Time to time I dare
myself to race the sun
and when I think

I am in the lead,
I see my shadow ahead
pacing me step for step,

already in the blue hour
around my shoulders
like a shawl.
(13)

The motion within this section of tercets—just one example of Campbell’s apt manipulation of the poetic form—is fluid in its careful play of words and in its dance between the revelatory and the somber in content. The first stanza prompts the reader to imagine a child racing the sun and looking toward winning, but, instead, this is a dedicated runner pushing physical boundaries of breath and ache. The shadow becomes more than shadow. It can be conjured as spirit, past or end, particularly when reading the last line of the stanza which calls forth the dusk as a shawl—not only, but to also wonder at the occasion.

In the opening stanza of “Goodman’s Bay,” the title poem for the section whose lines also provide the collection’s title, Campbell allows the reader to see beneath the surface narrative:

A chewed bone, a used rubber
in the seaweed, cut glass
smiling beneath the sand.
We don’t see them.
(16)

The reader becomes omniscient, which intrigues, especially considering the presence of the divine within this runner’s ode to the bay. This is the first of the poems to explicitly indicate the divine, and here God paints:

We run the dusk
at dusk. Everything
is open and live
with silence. God,
there is too much
red in the sky!

[. . .]

You feel it when you run
the sand. All of it,
the whole of your body
in the world. The swing
creaks slow, like love
in the morning. God,
the night is so blue!
(17-18)

Within these two stanzas, the runners part time and space in a vibrant display. The first stanza presents a bloody show, a massacre of sky. In that fourth line, it is as if God is alive, silent and invoked for overindulgences in color. Later, that same divine energy releases into the body and into the natural world a kind of euphoria and peace. The dusk functions as the setting for this seemingly magical transference.

Goodman’s Bay continues to be a place of wonder in Campbell’s second ode “Goodman’s Bay II,” particularly with the creation of “moonshine babies”—a sand shape given life when a volunteer lies on the ground and is outlined in small objects, generally shiny. When the volunteer steps away, all witness the birth of a “moonshine baby.” Weaving together the story of John Goodman and the practice of creating these shining bodies that persist on earth when the physical bodies have gone, Campbell honors the past and dead:

[. . .] we jewel the edges of his body

with shattered bottles, then bear him
to the foot of casuarinas in order that his born—
silhouette self may freely flash and prance—

luminous shadow lifting from the sand
of this beach named after a black man.
(19)

With the last lines of the poem, Campbell gives a tangible and magical other life to the volunteer almost as an ode and offering to the man for which the beach is named.

While the section as a whole demonstrates an active control in its sequencing, one poem distracts from the theme slightly in its lack of personal stake in the narrative. “Oregon Elegy” draws the reader into an exploration of an unflagging belief in love, enough for the speaker’s friend to brave an unfamiliar and historically inhospitable terrain:

[. . .] I’ve never

set foot on Nez Perce land where
exactly one hundred years after

Tucker, he could go west to one edge
of America because he loves

his woman enough to be
the very last Negro on earth.
(21)

Throughout the book, Campbell broaches the subject of romantic love, but indeed, it seems to ever be secondary to the wonder of the occasions. This is the only poem where that romantic love stands front and center, but in this case, it is in the life of a friend. Rather, than express a personal stake, the speaker refers to a conversation with his friend and the corruption of words. The speaker’s friend notes this when Oregon is rearranged to spell O Negro: “that’s word lynching” (20). Campbell exhibits true aplomb when inquiring into how a word could be victimized, torn apart, viciously maneuvered to suit symbolic aims, and how “word lynching” could be done while vividly recalling the horrific lynching of men and women, particularly in the case of Alonzo Tucker, named and remembered within the poem. (Tucker was shot and hung from the Fourth Street Bridge in Coos Bay, Oregon after being accused of raping a white woman, escaping from jail—there is still confusion as to whether he was released by the sheriff or escaped while in transfer from jail—and being caught by a mob. His is the only lynching on record for the state of Oregon, having happened in 1906.) While the poem rides similar currents present throughout the collection—reverence towards ancestors and the risks of exploring the line and intersections between familiar and strange—the poem lacks a personal investment. The speaker is never realized as a true stakeholder within this poem but, rather, as an observer, philosopher and questioner.

From this shift in thematic focus, Campbell offers post-postcolonial poems to the service of the section and the book. Consider “Ballad of Oxfraud,” where Campbell explores the practice of travelling from a formerly colonized space, such as a Caribbean nation, to England for an education. Most striking within this poem is the trickster sentiment—the use of the system to question the system—which we learn of through the early struggles of writer and dub poet Benjamin Zephaniah and his efforts to defy the academy as a student:

[. . .] T.S. Eliot
was who this rockfoot man wish to be
and since he could not, why not beat Oxford
dons at they own game? Why not flam the spires
and go back home to a country that reward
the best flam, the best sham?
(24-25)

Campbell continues invoking the trickster by conceiving a question about Sidney Poitier for Ordinary Level Studies on the University of Cambridge exams, and then again in the invoking of the trickster Legba in a poem titled after the loa. He circles round and continues later in the poem “At Buckingham Palace” which details Zephaniah’s rejection of an invitation to accept the Officer of the Order of the British Empire distinction. This runs parallel with the narrative of a visit to a palace that is set out to be observed for all its contradictions and the story of the speaker’s grandfather recounting with pomp and circumstance receiving the Member of the Order of the British Empire honor from the queen.

In the second half of the book, “Masquerade,” Campbell delves into the hidden and exposed layers of the self. In the first poem, “Lightskinned Id,” Campbell employs Sigmund Freud’s theories of the superego, the ego and the id as related to color and contradicting traits:

Still not freed from Freud, I’m fried
on the outside. What a brown on me!
Since the color beneath my colour
is curried. It wants to come out,
my high yellow id. Always on the verge
of beige. It wants me to Ambi my skin,
to blossom peach all over. My id has such
a need. Here it goes with its libido of gold,
clashing with the ego, my I, a browner negro,
and the superego, who’s a radiant absence
of white. He thinks he’s in charge.
(43-44)

Within the self, the many pieces struggle for power. In the end, they must strike an accord. Campbell’s speaker achieves this reconciliation through praise, through invoking the pieces individually—recognizing the desires of each—and drawing them all into one. It’s a sharp poem that manages psychoanalysis of the self within the confines of its lines.

“Masquerade, the title poem of this section, is one of the collection’s jewels. Campbell uses the poetic form of the imperial colonizer—a sequence of Elizabethan sonnets—to explore the ascent of a Barbadian actress putting on British airs and thought to be only a “Good Brit actress in American films” (45). The masquerade unravels when the actress’ homeland is revealed during an interview. The speaker uses the moment of vulnerability to expose the trope of passing to be the other:

Is true, is there you born, from where my great-
grandfather come. You could be a cousin.
You, too, from limestone, from cane, your first fate
in faithful sea, under unyielding sun.

But the past is more than passing fancy,
so worry, cousin, you’re secret’s scathed with me.
(46)

In that last couplet, the poet does not console; he prods, noting that the secret is branded. It can never be erased. It is a visceral transference and a powerful exclamation.

From start to finish, the poems in Running the Dusk build one upon the next and, by the end, Campbell draws the reader into devouring the book over and over again (which may be part of the reason why it has been shortlisted for the Forward Poetry Prize for the Best First Book in the UK). The poems transport the reader within and between worlds, some mystical and others ever personal and grounded. They demonstrate a precise control that is remarkable.  Ultimately, the precision and control in Campbell’s writing echoes his reverent and attentive invocation of his ancestors and his earnest tracing of their legacies across oceans and time.

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DR. RAINA J. LEÓN is a Cave Canem graduate fellow (2006) and member of the Carolina African American Writers Collective. Her first collection of poetry, Canticle of Idols, was a finalist for both the 2005 Cave Canem First Book Poetry Prize and the 2006 Andres Montoya Poetry Prize. Her second manuscript, Boogeyman Dawn, was a finalist for the 2010 Naomi Long Madgett Prize. Her work has been published in numerous venues, including Mandala, Connotation Press, Contrary Press, Bosphorus Art Project Quarterly, The Osprey Journal (Scotland), Natural Bridge, African American Review, OCHOBlack Arts Quarterly, Poem.Memoir.Story, Salt Hill JournalMiPoesias,and Gathering Ground: A Reader Celebrating Cave Canem’s First Decade.  León has received numerous fellowships and residencies, and currently teaches Journalism and Spanish at an American high school in Germany.