A Review of Rick Campbell’s Sometimes the Light
July 1, 2022 § 3 Comments
By Stephen Corey
Having to admit to myself that I’m not the world’s most perspicacious reader, I was about halfway through my second reading of Sometimes the Light before suddenly answering my own persisting question about Rick Campbell’s choice of title for this striking first essay collection (after seven poetry books): “Oh,” sez I to myself, “and sometimes the dark, dummy.”
And now I have to admit to you, my reader, that the term through in my first sentence is a bit misleading and should probably be replaced by finished with, since my reading was on the unconventional side. I did begin at the beginning with Campbell’s “My People, My People: Riding the Rails in Coach,” a reminder of the far-too-often lost values (and difficulties) in that mode of travel. Then—I think some other obligation was pressing me for time—I turned ahead a bit to the two-page “Stinky Money,” which was hilarious (and ultimately proved itself to be the funniest thing in the book). And then I made a larger forward jump to the three-page “RIP BB,” whose five titular letters proved to be an encomium for the late jazz master B. B. King based on the essayist’s viewing on Roku, years after the fact, President Barack Obama’s special White House event “Red, White, and Blues,” which concluded with an impromptu vocal duet by the President and King—with Mick Jagger dancing in the background.
These two brief pieces hooked me into looking next at most of the other five-pages-or-fewer essays, a choice which took me to (respectively) just-hatched sea turtles; failures with teenage romance; a bizarre summer job that included tossing babies into a still-segregated city pool in Florida; and the author’s ending up, by impure chance, in a Pittsburgh airport restroom taking a whiz next to one of his all-time baseball heroes.
Trust me: we’re going someplace here.
Overall, the collection’s nearly two dozen works are pretty much balanced lengthwise in the page ranges of under-5, 5-10, 11-15, and 16-20. More meaningfully, there is a similar balance of essays focusing on Campbell’s most recurring subjects: family (more often than not its difficulties), sports (particularly baseball), writing (especially poetry), and travel (whether by hitchhiking, train, or car). Most meaningfully, everything about Sometimes the Light sneaks up on the reader because Campbell’s attractive voice—informal but organized, questioning but assertive, folksy but educated—draws us toward all of his topics whether we thought we’d be caught up or not.
Let’s say you have no interest in baseball and have never heard of Harvey Haddix. Nonetheless, when “Perfection and Hard Luck Harvey” reexamines the 1959 Major League contest that many sportswriters and fans say “is still the greatest game ever pitched—twelve perfect innings,” and is “certainly the greatest game a pitcher ever threw and lost,” the essayist takes us not only into the complexities behind that specific game, but into consideration of the nuances and niceties that can factor into all that we do or don’t achieve.
Or let’s say you’ve never thought much about the state of Florida, except that it contains Disney World along with a whole bunch of beaches, and (maybe) that once upon a time some Spaniard thought it held the Fountain of Youth. Campbell, whose first two decades of life in the Pittsburgh area gave way to more than four all over the Sunshine State, gives us a handful of essays that deepen our awareness of a much more varied and complicated region—and remind us not to look too simplistically at our own: “You must pay attention in a way that the attention-grabbing landscapes of the Rockies or the Sierra Nevada do not demand.” Especially noteworthy are the rural and decidedly un-touristy western stretches of the Panhandle, where Campbell has now lived for many years and whose placement in the famous Rand McNally road maps, he tells us, consists of an italicized note saying “See Insert at Bottom.”
Rick Campbell’s major life steps—from factory-town boy, to beach-and-highway-and-train vagabond, to English professor and professional writer—were neither quick nor easy. Sometimes the Light descends into its darkest moments in long essays about his openly and unapologetically philandering father, his long-suffering but finally defeated (physically as well as emotionally) mother, and—in some ways saddest of all—his younger brother, whose entire too-brief life was an unrelenting string of disappointments and failures in spite of Campbell’s many years of endeavoring to give him more guidance than came from anyone else.
Still, this book is not dark overall. “Appaloosas in the Vineyard” gives us a finely detailed experience of the author’s discovering what revealed itself to him as being the rural place where he ought to be living. “A Homecoming: Walking in the Snow,” showing us in two-and-a-half pages one way to set loss into perspective, concludes with this huge small epiphany: “As my walk ended, I didn’t know where I was anymore. For a while, walking on the Little League field had felt like home. Now, it was a place where I once lived.”
From Campbell’s long life as a writer come “Worthy to Receive: Philip Levine and Me” and “What Thou Lovest Well,” which offer original, spot-on looks at two of the most important American poets from the past half-century and more—Levine and Richard Hugo. And in yet another upbeat key, “The Blender: A Road Trip” memorably recounts a warm, unique, late-adolescence 700-mile odyssey to deliver the titular kitchen appliance to a never-met young woman on behalf of her mother.
But wait . . . there’s that two-page “Stinky Money” I mentioned in paragraph two. Long ago, the hitchhiking author and a like-hiking buddy entered the Bank of Harvard—yes that Harvard—and
walked over to two red velvet chairs, unshouldered our packs and sat down. Scott unlaced his right boot, and I set to work on my left. Now we had the guard’s full attention and a couple of sleepy tellers were watching too. I pulled off my boot and took out $300, mostly in twenties. Scott had $200 in his. Soon the stink of dirty socks that had not been aired out for three days, and had hitched from around Erie, PA, to Cambridge, began to fill my nostrils. It rose like a plague from my feet. The money was clammy and hopelessly stuck together like a clump of wilted spinach.
The balance of this taut essay—just a single page more—is given over to Campbell’s hilarious exchange with a teller’s “puzzled and betrayed” expression while trying to determine how to handle a tellering situation her Ivy League bank training had surely not covered. Placed third in the lineup of Sometimes the Light, “Stinky Feet” weirdly preps us for the wide range of subjects and girds us, somewhat, for the distinctly unfunny but very memorable circumstances confronted in much of what is to follow.
Stephen Corey‘s As My Age Then Was, So I Understood Them: New and Selected Poems, 1980-2020, came out from White Pine Press in the spring of 2022. and in 2017 Mercer University Press published his Startled at the Big Sound: Essays Personal. Literary, and Cultural. In 2019 he retired after thirty-six years of editorial work with The Georgia Review.