Purposefully Prosaic: Kampa’s Most Recent Collection

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World Too Loud to Hear
by Stephen Kampa
(Able Muse Press, 2023, 116 pp. $21.94)

He imitates the world he drove away  So well for a minute, in the moonlight,  Which one’s the mockingbird? which one’s the world? —Randall Jarrell, “The Mockingbird”

Confronted with remorseless slabs of text bearing catchphrases, brand-names, and newspaper headlines—never mind how wittily these données have been scrambled or inverted—the reviewer scans Stephen Kampa’s latest with the trepidation of an overworked paralegal checking her morning email without being fully caffeinated. World Too Loud to Hear mimics the sprawl and blare of contemporary social discourse, most of it conducted online; but the job is too skillfully done. One almost fails to register the deliberate stanza-shapes, the rhyme-schemes or syllabics, the quieter puns that insist: Kampa is in control.

For several poems at a stretch, verisimilitude is the norm. Jarrell’s question haunts the reader: “Which one’s the mockingbird? which one’s the world?” Here are the first two stanzas of “Thirteen Nearly Identical Dr. Seuss T-Shirts,” done in syllabics:

Somewhere in the distant, indifferent future, once we have rectified probabilistic and deterministic models through the use of some presently unimaginable equation—a dazzling combination of biochemical micromodeling coupled with advanced neuroplasticity– ….media interaction studies, …… ounce- ……..for-instance ….of how many sour-cream- and-onion Pringles against how many hours of Criminal Minds—someone will be able

to explain why I can’t see a microvan, regular van, sports van, box van, minibus, or even a brand-new Mercedes-Benz Sprinter shined to a high polish, the windows tintless, without a brain-marquee displaying MOBILE KILL STATION. Oldsmobile Silhouette, stoplight, left turn lane: mobile kill station. Ford Windstar, lit Walmart parking lot: mobile kill ……..station. ……..Chevy van, ……..HEAVEN ….AND EARTH PLUMBERS stenciled on both sides, clear view of all tools and total lack of victims within: mobile kill station.

If you had to assign an adjective to the first eight lines of this extract, you could do worse than ugly. Larded with Latinate adjectives and repeated suffixes (“-ic,” “-ing,” and “-tion”), the stanza narrows into an indented pair of half-rhymes—allowing it to breathe, briefly, before engulfing Pringles and Criminal Minds.

The second stanza differs from the first in approach. No longer aggressively polysyllabic in diction, it serves up some good old Anglo-Saxon nouns. This time, moreover, the repetitions (“van” and “mobile kill station”) are conscious, even obsessive. In contrast, note how in Stanza One the root word “model” reappears, to no apparent benefit, in the space of two lines. Yet both stanzas are marked by clutter. In the first, abstract and technical expressions weigh us down. In the second, the speaker insists we view his “brain-marquee” (the only inventive phrase in two large stanzas), and, with it, the trailer of his privately screened horror-show.

The van phobia belies, in the third stanza, a fear of “all those middle-class psychopaths / across America […] traipsing around / with chainsaws and tarps and box cutters and dead / bodies [.]” We soon realize that the inelegant turns of phrase in Stanza One are nothing beside the extreme ugliness of the poem’s subject: the “Turpin 13” children, who were horrifically maltreated by their parents, as finally reported in 2018.

Several poems in World Too Loud to Hear meditate on the senseless acts of violence, often gun violence, that have filled our most recent slate of national tragedies. School shootings (“Pearl, Springfield, Red Lake, Blacksburg, / Jonesboro, Santa Fe, Parkland, Newton, Columbine—” are named in the opening poem: a list which, as of October 2023, sadly needs updating) and the 2017 Las Vegas sniper emerge in the book’s first few pages. Soon enough, we are treated to a short angry lyric addressed to the NRA.

More about anger later. As the collection runs on, senseless violence is displaced by the numb sort of half-life lived through computers and technology. Yet even here Kampa’s technique is mimetic, with passages that can be achingly dull:

Nowadays we imagine cracked Despots punching in codes, flanked by their renegade Science-goons who’ve designed a germ, Gene, or cyborg with dream circuits to sort us out.

Worse yet, knowing the odds, we’re still Synthesizing the best hormones to boost troops’ bone Strength, still titrating acids most Useful for the prolonged eating away of hope—

It would be uncharitable to assume that the absence of a working ear in poems such as these (here we have another specimen of syllabics: “Long after Horace”—observe the riff on the epigraph that often accompanies poetic translations) is without guile. I like to think he is voluntarily sacrificing the rhythm and memorability of individual lines the better to make his point about the tuneless, prosaic world he wishes to evoke. The poem, far from his best, includes a clever variant of a motto from Sophocles: “Best of all fates not to be bored.” The line gives us a clue that Kampa knows he is courting tedium with flat diction in service of his dystopias.

The poem “Gridlock (You Aren’t Going Anywhere)” is somewhat more successful. For one thing, the lines are uniformly shorter than either of the other two syllabic poems just quoted. By ranging from only seven to nine syllables per line, in eight 13-line stanzas, “Gridlock” invites more attention to the line-unit and accumulating syntax. Because of the shorter line lengths, also, Kampa is less tempted than he otherwise might be to choose long jargony words (even if in an ironic mode) to meet his syllable count per line. Another favorable factor is the unimpeded flow of movement in the poem: the second-person protagonist engages in a sequence of activities without pause until a period at the end of Stanza Six. There are, accordingly, fewer openings for editorial interruption.

“Gridlock” tours a wasteland of 24/7 digital surveillance and screen time, as experienced in the office, car, gym, and home. Bits of Kampa’s inventory recall late George Carlin and one of his fast-talking, quasi-rap routines:

……………………[…] you double-click on your social life (okay, ……social media life) and update …………your latest uploadable …..moods, memes, and matters of importance, …………then send to sleep your high-speed ….firewalled connection to the real world ….and beeline for the elevator— …………which records you going down— …………and hoof it out of the building

past the six discrete discreet ….security cams glaring at you) ….and into the parking garage where …………two drivers both on smart phones ….back out of their reserved company …………spots and into each other, […]

Even when, near the end of the poem, the ostensible “you” has made the abrupt decision to disconnect—“You open your front / door and chuck? your cell phone out / into the shrubs? (good shot, good riddance)”—an unmediated account of the environment proves elusive:

The woods sizzle with silence, shiver, crackle twiggily. ……Somewhere a bird chirps much like your phone ……receiving a text or your coffee pot when it’s hot. Then it’s there, ……a bird—what, a mockingbird? magpie?— the likes of which you’ve never ……seen (but could you name half a dozen?), ….beautiful, to be honest, ……and when it lands on a branch near you ……and opens wide for song, you see in …..its mouth the momentary glare of a camera lens.

Which one’s the mockingbird? which one’s the world?” As a matter of perspective, the poem tracks a single character moving across a series of disjointed, but ultimately kindred, landscapes. Indeed, Kampa is at his most readable when he gives a sustained look at a theme, action, or conceit throughout the course of the poem. Examples include “The Magician Contemplates Certain Mysteries,” flawlessly executed in eight stanzas of three heroic couplets each, itself a kind of sorcery; and the outrageous “Why We Remember the Martyrs,” which, again in syllabics, reimagines venerable figures from Sts. Stephen and Sebastian to MLK, Jr. as suicide killers who end up on “cheap keychains, on T-shirts / […] their carefully airbrushed / faces, bellicose though embellished” or “on the patterned pillowcases, sheets / and synthetic comforters / we cover our children with.”

As if in defense of his more discursive efforts, where a public poetry is hazarded at the expense of windy generalizations, Kampa acknowledges in, “The Night I Finished Auden,” an unorthodox taste:

I like the later poems, ..Mannered and talkative With doctrinaire digressions, ..For posing how to live Gracefully with the knowledge ..That even the most wry, Intelligent, and gentle ..Among us, too, must die.

Never mind that the final line alludes to an early-to-mid-period Auden classic (“September 1939”). The Kampa poem is a key to understanding his aspirations with his own social commentary, how he seeks aesthetic distance, as late Auden did, through lexical oddities, a flippancy alternating with Horatian wit, and, yes, syllabic verse patterns.

The best two poems in the book, meanwhile, share none of those traits. One employs a title in the tradition of innumerable lesser poems styled after Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” Yet the model (like “The Night I Finished Auden”) grants Kampa what he most needs: a single subject or phenomenon he can survey from multiple angles, rather than the opportunity for a syntactical pile-up of proper nouns and the dilations they provoke.[1] “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Anger” consists of as many sections, mostly in couplets of one to four words per line, occasionally with suspended rhymes. Only Section 12 arrives in quatrains:

anger the hit single stuck wormlike somewhere undislodgeable

the mollifying little melody I whistle on my walk to work

the beat I pound on my steering wheel while bellowing at lights

the misheard lyrics I mouth without pretending to understand […]

Elsewhere (Section 9), a rare and welcome terseness is reminiscent of Samuel Menashe or Kay Ryan:

anger the odd reflection in

the mirror the moment some glint some all-

sufficient flash blinds me into being

a man who can only see the thing he saw

the moment he stopped seeing

The final two stanzas of this section, which I’ve quoted in entirety, mirror the concern at the end of “Gridlock”: how, in a “world too loud to hear,” does one retain space and dignity for unselfconsciousness? The distractions we permit ourselves to endure, the trivial acts of self-deceit, resound in “Adult Party-Goers: August 15, 1929,” the final poem in the book.

Mere months before the stock market will crash completely— ..When, legend says, men sailed like balsa wood Airplanes from windows of the buildings where they’d made ..And lost their fortunes trading futures—

And what most draws the eye among these adults dressed ..As children is the woman in the center Who contemplates her doll, a woman who’s pretending ..She’s still a child pretending she’s a woman Who’ll one day want a child, convinced she could be someone ..Who wants to have what she already has.

In an endnote, Kampa says the poem began with an old photograph of grown-ups masquerading as if in a children’s party. The occasion for ecphrasis, like the alternating line-pattern of hexameters and pentameters in imitation of the Classical elegiac couplet—within four irregular stanzas—imposes the discipline and restraint one finds in Kampa whenever his poems seem least proximal to the confusion and cacophony they seek to expose. The steady gaze does not preclude a revery about the stock-market crash victims of the future, but the “balsa wood / Airplanes” metaphor is the only such tangent. Juxtaposed with the stanza about the purposely childlike woman, it magnifies the fragility of her self-deception, even as the poem, coming at the end of a volume steeped in awareness of collective chaos, hints at an all-too-personal malaise or grievance. By closing on this note, with the successive changes in verb tense (“still…pretending,” “who’ll one day want,” “she could be,” “Who wants to have,” “what she already has”), Kampa all but attributes the world’s disquiet to the ever-shifting, insatiable demands of its occupants.


[1] For examples of the latter, see Kampa’s “Well, at Least They Got One Thing Right (Including 5.8% David Kirby, 3.1% William James, 2.4% Bad Ninja, 1.8% Andrew Marvell, .6% Lee Van Cleef, .6% Jocular Lexicographer, and .1% Shakespeare).”