The Last Book I Loved: Took House
Took House was one of the first books of poems I’d read since the start of the pandemic. One of the first and only poetry books I could read, for months. In the middle of the night, anxious and insomniac, I read one poem, read it again, read another. The poems knew something about me, something I myself didn’t know, or couldn’t articulate. The poems did the saying, the impossible saying, for me.
That fall I walked the dirt road between the house in upstate New York where we were staying and the larger, paved road that led to the post office and to an old cemetery. Evenings, we often heard coyotes call from the narrow valley between two mountains, as clear and close as I had ever heard them before. I read that coyotes call to their packs after hunting alone. I felt the poems in Took House calling me. There, in the words and the silence surrounding them, a kindred wildness. The way they said, You do not have to be alone.
I’d never met these particular poems before but immediately felt, Oh, I’ve missed you.
“Set the dark to hushing,” the poem “A Brief History of Coyotes” begins. This oddness of diction—strange but somehow familiar, startling, touching a truth that feels unsayable otherwise—is a hallmark of Camp’s poems, one of the first things I loved about her work. “Set the dark to hushing”: in my mind, a dial, tuning the night to a frequency only just audible to humans, turning our ears toward the mysterious beings near and within us. In conversation with Camp, she said, “It’s where I want to live in a poem, where the language makes sense but isn’t predictable.”
The poem “Beyond our house, their muzzles” contains the gather and surround of wildness, the way the humans, “listening through the wall” to the coyotes’ howls, feel both protected and not by those walls, and seem to long for the world outside, even with its violence, as inside they have “knuckled back to silence.”
I wanted to read the poems in Took House in two opposing ways. I wanted to read and keep reading, to read the book like a novel, turning page after page in the small light of my lamp in the middle of the night. And I wanted to read slowly, to read each poem over and over, to take into my lungs the richness of their language and imagery, their capacious selves.
Among the many things I love about this book: its focus on a heart in extremity, and the way—though the circumstances are different—the poems bring me closer to my own interior life, show me something necessary and hidden about myself in their startling language.
Took House is composed of three braided strands: poems centered on a relationship, compelling and un-refusable and doomed; poems speaking with and to pieces of visual art (in a former career, Lauren Camp worked as an artist, and her knowledge of visual art is wide and deep); and poems responding to the more-than-human world of the southwestern U.S., raptors in particular. The poems comprising the different strands stand next to each other without overt explanation of their relationships, allowing those relationships to be intuited.
Another of the many things I love about this book: the way the poems question the relationship of art to suffering help me to ask that question myself in a new and urgent way. A question without an answer, or maybe as many answers as there are poems. “Find the Color of Survival” begins
I want to talk about what I believe
is beautiful, and this is complicated by all the oil
of that year.
What is, or can be, beautiful in the midst of anguish? How does art help us to hold our brokenness, the brokenness of the world? The poems of Took House use art—making it, being with it—to think and feel toward a way to contain, absorb, and make meaning of the overwhelming feelings the speaker’s relationship calls up in her. From “Find the Color of Survival”:
… at home I lifted a broad brush to each sorrow.
One day soon every form will be transparent—
but first, with you I’m looking
at even what I cannot stand to see.
Another of the many things I love about this book: the wild beings that inhabit it. Of course the humans, who bring their own wildness, but also the birds and trees and huge sky of the desert Southwest. The raptors of the poems, like the pieces of visual art the speaker loves, are real and true, dimensional, alive. And, too, they hold up the speaker’s inner being, her wildness, to herself. The raptor poems seem to ask, how do we understand desire, the sometimes-violence of it? What is “natural” to us, in terms of want, and how can it be honored? Where are its limits? In “Golden Eagle,” the bird’s
narrow awful face
quickens on perishable landscape,
everything in the open—
In the very next lines, the poem swerves, much like an eagle tilting suddenly toward prey:
At the table, was I greedy?
I hardly ate. Only what I needed.
This vertiginous shifting, present in so many poems, also feels wild to me, and thrilling, and disconcerting, and real. The elements of Took House’s world—sky, wine, paint, desert, desire—exist in such proximity, sometimes colliding, their connections inexplicable but revealed in the way Camp places them as they are: side by side, appearing and disappearing and returning.
From the restraint—conscious, willed—of “I hardly ate,” to the next poem, “Flavor,” which begins “I’d been careful all my life” and then shows us what happens when care and restraint can no longer be maintained:
as strong and sweet as pardon.
Wildness both compels and repels. The speaker doesn’t always want to look but can’t help seeing. She wants and doesn’t want the wildness that overtakes her.
One last thing, for now, that I love about this book: its willingness to dwell, despite everything, in beauty. And beauty in the widest, deepest sense: beauty that encompasses desperation and need as well as “the bones of roses” and the desert sky. Perhaps this is joy rather than beauty, a desire to open to all of life. Or not a desire: the speaker cannot help herself. She can’t not look, can’t refuse immersion. But the wild world, the capaciousness of art, the poems themselves—all these help in their ways. From “Perennials”:
Because I was opened
by another, I will always carry these remnants of pouring light
in my body.
The first time I read this poem, I read “another” as the lover, but now I read it as all the beings that inhabit this pulsing, expansive, and wildly alive book: the lover, the coyotes, the hawks and eagles, the paintings and sculptures, the mountains, and the moon and sun.