Lauren Camp’s new ONE HUNDRED HUNGERS (Tupelo Press) is her third book of poetry, one which represents a leap into difficult if intriguing subject matter, with a corresponding expansion of style. The central focus is on the poet’s Jewish-Iraqi father, and narrative of immigration and identity. In the poem “Seder’ the question “Where shall we go?” is called out in a seemingly casual manner, but it is one of the central questions of the book.
Camp gives an overview: “The book is written in three different ways: the “boy” poems tell the story of my father’s childhood in Iraq; in the “girl” poems I write my life as a myth; and the Variations or “what if” poems consider other ways things might have gone. “
The first place these poems go is back into an imagined past:
Born in the palms
in a time ripe with witness
in a brick house in the narrow city in the tender grass.
His life was fixed with silver cups
with eastern walls with silk with wool and flourish.
Throughout the collection, there is some distancing in the work, switching between first and third person, which serves as an aesthetic response to shifting cultural expectations, and the experiences of dislocation.
It is as if Camp has been waiting for her father to reveal himself. In “Variation: Let’s Pretend” she writes: “Let’s pretend you tell me what happened/ How you lived in the city two streets from the river/Let’s suppose you begin speaking…” But really it is the poet who has to speak, even invent. The core of these poems feels true in a literal sense, like memoir. The back material describes ONE HUNDRED HUNGERS as being about “a first generation Arab-American girl and her Jewish-Iraqi parent.” But to call these poems autobiographical is an oversimplification. Instead, they are a lyric painting of the intersection of lives, places, languages, memories, and questions. One section, titled “An Elaborate Matrix” points to the merging of many streams: “The boy listened to Arabs to Muslims and Jews to voices cascading through anise and ginger.”
Camp says of the book: “The core is true, though I had very minimal input from my father. So, more than anything, I researched the culture and imagined his early life.” In response to both knowing and imagining, Camp has written a lyric collection of poems that not only take the reader on a journey—they are a journey. Her words speak of the essential mystery of human experience, but also reconciliation of seeming opposites. The poet tells us “listen. Yes, listen” Strong advice in today’s world, torn as it is by dissension.
This is a beautiful volume of poetry, well worth reading.