2004: Rafael Campo, “Toward a Theory of Memory”

You can never go back. Roaring past stands
of exhaust-stunted pines, we carry too much
with us, to where so many years ago
we met in each the other …

already half our lives gone by … beginning then
what has since become this long accumulation,
this effort to make knowable a history,
as if the duffle bag,

the battered journal, the sunglasses once lost
and then after a days-long search regained,
the unconsciously memorized sequence
of highway exits,

the Doberman made almost small by napping
in a knot on the back seat, as if each
were purposefully adding up
to something certain.

And there it is, exactly as we left it,
although perhaps the drive from the toll booths
to the stately red brick buildings, home
to other students now,

seems shorter, or at least less promising,
less an opening to the universe.
Here is where we learned how time changes us,
first inklings of truth’s

relentless and impossible defining,
the parsec in freshman astronomy
at once exact and stretching out a distance
I could not imagine,

as far as I could travel reading Coleridge
and Dickinson beneath the quad’s great oaks,
a place both recognizable and not.
I suppose that’s why

we want so much to return, wondering
if still that spot exists, and knowing it
cannot. You point out new construction,
a student center

sprawling out upon what was a favorite expanse
of lawn, traversed so many times each spring,
the earth’s warm breath upon our pumping legs,
rushing to get there,

down the hill, past the ugly “social dorms”
beyond which railroad tracks divided
the campus from what might best be called a meadow
dotted with birches,

some old enough to have unraveling bark,
dissolution that seemed mysterious
beneath such young green leaves that gave us shade.
We park the SUV

and from the opened back hatch out bounds Ruby;
you pull the comforter from the duffle bag,
while I collect the cooler (peanut butter
on whole wheat, carrot sticks,

two cold, clear bottles of Poland Spring) and
the books we’re working on, like coursework we assign ourselves, habit
of our education here.  I remember when

last week you flushed me out of bed to see
the first open blossom on the hyacinths
you forced, so proud of your discovery
that something new could be

coaxed up from winter’s usual nothingness,
its expected, dependable devolution,
and how in that tiny pink cup it seemed
the world might be contained,

that in it I could descend deeper and deeper
until I was able again to trust anything,
to pretend that one can yet revert to innocence.
I feel a slight pain now

as we come upon the tall, familiar grass,
insects set skittering by our footsteps
then alighting who knows where but in
a line I'll scribble down

possessing nothing of them except dust,
a rusting oil drum at one far corner red-brown
as cinnamon, the birches, perhaps more stout,
bent forward as if they’d

prepared their bower specially for us. You spread
the comforter, leave two decades … same half for me
to lay beside you. Birds sing their songs of need, communicating

hunger, alarm, sexual deeds; it is all
still here, if not exactly as it once was, then
the way we might want it, having been there
once and come, gladly, again.

About Rafael Campo

Rafael Campo was born in Dover, New Jersey, in 1964.  He is the author of several books of poetry, including The Healing Art: A Doctor's Black Bag of Poetry (W.W. Norton & Co., 2003); Diva (1999), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; What the Body Told (1996), winner of a Lambda Literary Award; and The Other Man Was Me: A Voyage to the New World (1994), winner of the National Poetry Series 1993 Open Competition.  The Poetry of Healing: A Doctor’s Education in Empathy, Identity, and Poetry (W. W. Norton, 1996), his collection of prose, also received a Lambda Literary Award for Memoir.  He is a PEN Center West Literary Award finalist and a recipient of the National Hispanic Academy of Arts and Sciences Annual Achievement Award, and recently received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the Echoing Green Foundation.  His poems, essays, and reviews have appeared in many publications, including The Best American Poetry 1995, DoubleTake, The Kenyon Review, The Nation, The New York Times Magazine, The Paris Review, Parnassus, Ploughshares, and the Washington Post Book World.  He is a practicing physician at Harvard Medical School and the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

(Source: The Academy of American Poets)

Dr. Campo read his poetry and visited classes at Ohio Wesleyan in February 2002.