Stephen Kampa: One-of-a-Kind Poetry

Whenever I would encounter a poem by Stephen Kampa, it always stood out in the crowd: always a surprising take on things, a mastery of form, a way of drawing you in. Humor mixed with subtle pain. Here is a poem I especially like, for how it shows the author’s vulnerability (often this is a feature of his work) and at the same time deft and confident voice, always with the unexpected without being incomprehensible.

During the Hymn of Commitment

By
Stephen Kampa

Probably all the choirgirls should be ugly,
But this one isn’t, and it makes it hard
To concentrate. She’s not my type—too thin
Beneath her choir robe, freckled, hair too short—
But then again, she sings. This morning’s anthem
Was Dies Irae, which I love and hate.
The Latin thuds along like pickaxe blows,
Unearthing everything I’d like to hold
More closely than—or maybe just against—
The nervous God of if-thine-eye-offend-thee,
Of narrow gates and sheep and goats, God pure
And definite. The singers’ voices blend
Terror and triumph at the coming judgment,
And I could take or leave it; what I love
Is the huge minor chord that kicks it off,
As beautiful as thunder if only thunder
Could enter you and rumble through your blood.

The sermon text this morning came from Luke:
“He is not the God of the dead, but of the living.”
It should inspire me, but it makes me think
Of Tennyson’s most terrifying line:
‘Farewell! We lose ourselves in light.’ Imagine
A prism working backward, taking all
Those gorgeous, separate beams—the sweet, bold red
Of some girl’s dream bike, greens in the exact
Shades of a high school diary she lost,
The liquor-bottle blue of her favorite dress—
And crushing them together, muddling them
Until they have become the blank white light
In textbook photographs, and the result is
Tennyson’s dreaded general soul. I’m good
At fear, but that’s just masterful: to be
Afraid of darkness is a simple thing,
But to discover fearfulness in light?
A line like that one proves that if you choose
To look more carefully at what you love,
You’ll always find a little more to lose.
I’ve wondered if the obverse would obtain—
Something about observing what you hate
Until you find how much there is to gain.

I’d say that God must look at us both ways
Except I don’t believe that; only love
Could possibly explain such depths of anger,
The way that I am angry when I think
Of having to abandon certain things.
There’s nothing that I wouldn’t want to keep.
Walking one afternoon, I saw three crows
Perched on a barbecue grill like three sleek gargoyles,
Sifting through ash to feed on what was left
Of the charred chunks of meat that someone let
Drop through the grate. Devotion, of a kind.

Last night while reading, I discovered Greek
Has one more word for “love” than I had thought:
Storg?: instinctive love. It made me wonder
What other words we’re missing, whether some
Endangered language has a word that means,
“To love someone for who she’s going to be,”
Or one that means, “to love a stranger more
Than someone you have known your entire life,”
Or one that means, “to love until you’re damned.”
The one I really want would name this instant,
When everyone is singing—loudly, badly—
One of my favorite hymns, “Just As I Am,”
And I am thinking exactly what I thought
During the anthem: she is beautiful,
And I believe I somehow hear above
The myriad, blending voices just her voice.

Yale Review, 2011

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