In his fifth collection of poetry, the physician and award-winning writer Rafael Campo considers what it means to be the enemy in America today. Using the empathetic medium of a poetry grounded in the sentient physical body we all share, he writes of a country endlessly at war—not only against the presumed enemy abroad but also with its own troubled conscience. Yet whether he is addressing the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the battle against the AIDS pandemic, or the culture wars surrounding the issues of feminism and gay marriage, Campo’s compelling poems affirm the notion that hope arises from even the most bitter of conflicts. That hope—manifest here in the Cuban exile’s dream of returning to his homeland, in a dying IV drug user’s wish for humane medical treatment, in a downcast housewife’s desire to express herself meaningfully through art—is that somehow we can be better than ourselves. Through a kaleidoscopic lens of poetic forms, Campo soulfully reveals this greatest of human aspirations as the one sustaining us all.
Campo's substantial following comes in part from his background and his achievements: the Cuban-American doctor, now teaching at Harvard Medical School, has written fluently and movingly, in four previous books of verse and two of prose, about his heritage, his work of healing, and his love life as a gay man in the age of HIV/AIDS. The unusual audience Campo (What the Body Told) has built comes at least as much from his deft handling of rhyme and meter, and those skills are on evidence here more than ever. Rhyming pentameters, sestinas, villanelles, pantouns, rhymed haiku and monorhyme apply the tools of premodern verse to the trials and joys of contemporary life. "A Simple Cuban Meal" reflects, over "roast pork,/ black beans and rice," "how little pleasure teaches us in life"; several vivid pages translate poems on erotic and political themes by Neruda. In the titular villanelle one of several lyric works related to September 11 "We fear the enemy is all of us." Toward the collection's more optimistic close, a long-term lover, a rainstorm, crocuses and a New England beach become the poet's allies, and readers are privileged to watch him "realize/ it's in another person's heart, his eyes/ that the story of us achieves completion."