El Dorado by Peter Campion

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“Night unnerves us and surprises us with its strangeness” said the photographer poet Brassai on taking pictures of demimonde Paris in the 1930’s. The people populating Peter Campion’s El Dorado are broken, their voices and thoughts are not exploited but heard by him. He, like Brassai, shows us if there is someone to listen that “there is no such thing as complete darkness.” Campion’s poems are portraits. He seems to have lived many times, been born in any city. He is an eye as Brassai was. He impregnates himself with his vision. There is an anonymity and also an intimacy in these poems. What we receive is what he has taken in.

Campion’s El Dorado is unnerving. We are brought back and forth through different time zones. We are pulled from state to state. We observe ghosts. America is a haunted land. El Dorado is a hallucination. America is a place of great wealth and opportunity for some, Campion seems to be saying, but not for those in his poems. In the poem “Danielle” we hear what Campion hears in a circle loosened by alcohol.

Her voice around our clutch
of friends half lacquered on lawn chairs.
“From when I was eight I had to suck it up.
When Mom was sick I cooked our meals

We listen to the voices in El Dorado because of the language. This is their strength. In turn the voices in El Dorado are what give authenticity to Peter Campion’s vision. He is not a poet alone uncorrupted by the world, rather he is distracted by the lives and fate of many. From the poem After Baudelaire

I have not forgotten, at the town
limits, that quiet house we used to own.

These are honest poems. They are surreal because of their normalcy. Brassai says “The surreal exists within us, in the things which have become so banal that we no longer notice them, and in the normality of normal.”

America shows up in every poem of El Dorado . The hands, the lips, the thighs of America. The American mouth taking an American drag off an American cigarette. The importance of this is that this is where we are right now. In the poem “Salt Water” we hear

And the world comes all at once . Me sitting here
pinching your picture

Peter CampionCampion is pinching the picture of America, is pinching America where it’s bittersweet and hurts. He is saying while fireflies and cars and maple branches spill to the water’s cycle of smash and pull. And still stand still. There is the picture of El Dorado and then there is the place El Dorado. Except there isn’t. But there is always America.

Confessor. Mother. Father. Ghost. The who
you talk to when you are talking to yourself.
The ocean is one version. Gray green in
sawtooth pearls
all it meets it swallows.

America as many versions/visions of one ocean. America as a swallower.
It feels good to read a book of poems that feels American, that transcends and bends and makes the feel of being an American feel surreal. “The surrealism of my picture was only reality made more eerie by my way of seeing.” Brassai said on his photo taking.

If El Dorado is an imaginary place of wealth and opportunity, the El Dorado of Peter Campion’s pen is one on the verge of beginning and destructing. We are at the end of something because we have reached a beginning. The end of what we already can’t remember. El Dorado is a book grounded in the very earth its title separates itself from. Its champions like the unknowns made known by Brassai are the ones we will continue to look at.


Tova Gannana is the poetry editor of The Arava Review. She writes film essays for berBICE{MRKT}.com. Finishing Line Press published her first book of poems, Human Dust, in 2012. She is the recipient of three Artist Grants from the Vermont Studio Center. More from this author →