John Campbell is another in Wisconsin’s long line of quiet writers. Writers who don’t chase small press ink credits, don’t do many or any public readings and aren’t seeking a whole lot more out of their writing then just the love it returns to them. But in his quiet way, he’s kept very busy. In 1998 he edited and published a collection of his short stories and poems titled, It’s Hell To Be Average and again in 2000 edited and published The Wisconsin Writers Jade Ring Anthology, a compilation of essays, non-fiction articles, adult and juvenile fiction and poetry drawn from the fifty years period during which the Wisconsin Regional Writers Association has conducted the Jade Ring Writing Competition.
All his life Campbell felt the urge to write creatively, but didn’t begin to actively write fiction and poetry until nine years ago when, after retiring from a long career, he took his first writing course from the well known Wisconsin writer, Mariann Rizter. John credits whatever success he’s had in creative writing to Mariann. He loves her classes — and hasn’t missed one since 1995. Just Cruising Through is John Campbell’s second book of poetry.
I found it interesting that John quotes Mark Twain in the introduction to his book of short stories, for John certainly seems to have Twain’s gift for telling a wry, sweet narrative story. Like Twain, the protagonists, heroes and themes that populate his poems are all drawn from his immediate world.
His gift for language shows itself well in “Two Buds And A Fuzzy Navel” : “I can’t remember the name of the waltz / while dancing with my darling that night, / strides matched, shuffling thru saw dust, / her, clinging to me like a wet swamp leech.” And concluding with, “I remember the night of that Tennessee waltz, / when my tears wet a fuzzy-navel and two Buds, / crying to recall the lyrics to that sorry-ass song.” And again, in “A Sinister Sisterhood” : “So beware of foreign words wearing long / dresses of more than three syllables, words like / parthenogenesis, a sinister-sister conspiracy / to avoid the messy ritual of sexual intercourse, / while hefty dildos dot the landscape, hung / out to dry like yesterday’s pink panty hose.”
John’s reflections often focus on the feminine mystique. His desire for it, and his puzzlement’s about it. In “Woman On The Rocks” he observes from afar a young woman as she fishes off a rocky outcropping on a beach in Puerto Rico. “From my perch on the isle of Fieques I sip hot coffee and watch / a woman fish from a rock the size and shape of Moby Dick. / She’s lean, muscular and wiry like a sprinter, a soccer player, a tall, willowy Olympian in short shorts, long legs and naked feet. // A tattoo of a purple-blue dragon peeks from her undershirt, / white against her tan skin shimmering as she twirls / a fishing line like a lasso glistening in the sun, a cowgirl, / arms akimbo, trying to cut the lead stallion form the herd.”
Another topic of reflection is his view of a life long lived. I enjoyed his short poem “Renewal” : “A snake’s molt blows across my shoe, / tumbling like a long opaque sausage. / I stoop, pick it up, smell it, wondering / what freedom that animal must feel, / asking how I could shed my cares / renew my growth and feel reborn, / living my life inside a new skin?” I also enjoyed, “If I Should Die…” : “On her 75th birthday we celebrate along, / drinking to fifty-two years of marriage, // I float upward on a an honest, maudlin high / after two gin martinis and four olives. // “Don’t die before me”, I mumble to her. / “When I do, don’t marry some young chick!” // I reply with an open kiss to her hard line lips, / “Don’t you want me to be happy?” I ask, // She flashes a sober glare, another kiss, / and I know not to pursue the answer.”
Like many of us, John is the family writer philosopher. The active observer, sometimes viewed as the eccentric entertainer. This sigma, well worn in John’s writing, is communicated in “Grandpa Writes” : “They laugh, then hasten to leave, / having met the crazy grandpa, who / vents opinions using flinty words / hammered to shower sparks / across the gap between generations.”
In reading Campbell’s poetry, I could not help but feel that here was a writer just getting warmed up and strapping on his writer’s gloves. I believe that writers with John’s gift of describing the world through gentle humor are also equipped to lead the reader into darker, more emotionally charged geographies. In reading Campbell’s work, I see a writer walking this razors edge and making the editorial choice to resolve story conflicts with humor. I would invite him to, from time to time, take us down and deeper. His talent to do just this is wonderfully revealed in the short story he includes in this book of poetry titled, “The World’s Greatest Lover.” This is a splendid piece of prose writing that moves the reader forward through warm engaging dialogue and deposits him or her, unexpectedly, in a moment of thought provoking sadness.
I look forward to reading more of Campbell’s poetry with his signature of humor, warmth and insight. But would also invite his writing to take me deeper.
About the author:
Charles P. Ries lives and writes in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He has completed a novel based on memory titled, THE FATHERS WE FIND: The Making of a Humble, Pleasant Boy, from which When Memories Begin is taken. His second book of poetry titled Monje Malo Speaks English was published in January 2003 by Foursep Publications. He is on the board of the Woodland Pattern Book Center in Milwaukee. His work was nominated for a 2003 Pushcart Prize by Anthology. His poems, poetry reviews and short stories have appeared in over sixty print and electronic publications, some of these being: FREE VERSE, ICONOCLAST, STAPLEGUN PRESS, POESY, CIRCLE MAGAZINE, PEARL, PIDJIN, THUNDER SANDWICH, WISCONSIN REVIEW and HALFDRUNK MUSE.