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Medicine men

Two Boston poets use their art for the good of the tribe
By JAMES PARKER  |  November 28, 2008

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What if a poem were a social force? Forget for a moment everything you know about poetry: forget the marooned beatnik at the open mic, and the tiny thoughts tattooed on white space in the New Yorker, and the voice reading something nice about apples on NPR. What if a poem had the power to heal loneliness — to leap between people in a kind of curative, relational flash? Imagine. Your average Red Line car at 4 pm is a laboratory of human estrangement: what if poetry could do something about that?

Boston poets Rafael Campo and Franz Wright are divergent, even contrasting, poetic animals. One is a doctor; the other has been, for significant stretches of his life, a patient. One writes metrically, with an appetite for form; the other brings up chunks of almost-unphraseable psychic experience. One is a lapsed Catholic; the other is a Catholic convert.

But both of them, through their work and their relation to the world, have laid bare a live wire between poetry and isolation — physical isolation, social isolation, spiritual isolation. Campo practices general internal medicine at Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, specializing in HIV-related conditions. As a gay man, he has trodden the stations of suffering from fearfulness to compassion, right through "the body's caves and slums."

"The AIDS ward where I worked was like a shipwreck," runs his poem "Night Has Fallen," "on some lost, quarantined island . . ."

Wright, a veteran of mental illness, delivered himself in part by mounting his own low-key ministry among the saddened and the lost. Who are, lest we forget, everywhere: "Someone in Hell is sitting beside you on the train./Somebody burning unnoticed walks past in the street" ("The Choice").

Tonally distinct, their poems are united in a common attempt to abolish separateness, to identify wholly and indivisibly with the other — be that other Jesus Christ, a homeless man with AIDS, or both. Campo, the physician, does it with expertise and quiet self-revelation; Wright, the patient, does it via a sort of reckless, illuminated hazarding of the ego. The un-heroic designation "local poet" is appropriate to neither of them — in our city, these two are a couple of medicine men.

The patient
Franz Wright buzzes me out to the Lincoln woods in his jaunty black Honda Civic Si, the car he bought with the Pulitzer money he won in 2004 for his collection Walking to Martha's Vineyard. "I don't do interviews anymore," he says. "Things always get distorted. But I like the Phoenix. I've always liked the Phoenix."

We park, take a path through tall pines, and find ourselves a couple of friendly boulders overlooking Flint's Pond. The water trembles with afternoon brightness. A rich silence settles around us, nature's old tick-tock, and Wright — thick-jawed, heavy-browed — attains immediately the force of a philosophical emblem. Here he is on his rock, il penseroso: "the only animal" (as one of his poems has it) "that commits suicide."

Wright has poetry in the DNA — not necessarily a good thing. His dad, James Wright, was a copper-bottomed mid-century maniac of an American poet, a prodigious talker, reciter, gasser, up-all-nighter (and fellow Pulitzer winner), companion to the great and doomed of his day — Berryman, Roethke, Lowell. They came thrashing at intervals through Wright's childhood, these mad old eminences. What was it like to be around them? Does he remember? "Well everyone was so drunk all the time. I just thought all adults were fuckin' nuts."

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