Review by Teresa Mei Chuc
A LARGE DENT IN THE MOON
by Monty Campbell, Jr.
The first time I read poems from A Large Dent in the Moon, I was in a hotel room in Boston. I was staying with the poet and editor, Susan Deer Cloud during AWP, and the next day, before my return to Los Angeles, Susan gifted me I Was Indian, an Anthology of Native Literature Volume I (Foothills Publishing, 2009), which she edited. There, standing by the bed, yellow-orange rays of the sunrise through the windows, I read five poems by Monty Campbell, Jr., and was completely blown away.
Marina Tsvetaeva, a Russian poet, wrote: “I can eat-with dirty hands, sleep-with dirty hands, write with dirty hands I cannot.” This is how I feel about Campbell’s poetry collection, A Large Dent in the Moon. Campbell writes with an unflinching honesty and integrity about the Native experience, the urban experience, the human experience, and the experience of life on Earth. Campbell writes of profound sorrow and suffering, yet continues his hold on beauty in a voice that is haunting, piercing and full of love and compassion; it is a sound as from the poem “Sound” in the collection:
Sound is a blade
cutting through human forest
sharpen the blade
in kitchen sink.
Sound as in the sound of the poem, “On Ancient Land,” in which I feel the presence of “Cayuga ghost warriors,” “the sky world,” “Mohawk corn,” and “rusted out cars.”
Campbell’s words have the power to move. They come from the depths of the universe and grow from deep within the earth. They make you feel; they sing off the page like the violin in the lines that brought tears to my eyes and haunt me: “in the distance there is a violin singing to us/ singing songs unknown to bullets,/ notes unsung since baked from mud” with such pain and beauty and love. Coming from a place of war and violence myself, born after the fall of Saigon, Vietnam, and fleeing the country after the war, I know this violin and these bullets. These poems radiate light and love; they penetrate and warm my heart.
In the poem “Organic Turmoil,” I was moved by the “plump little birds,” the “humble grass,” the “violin singing to us.” The poem ends with the lines:
they must have been happy once,
before they wanted more,
before they made weapons
from the bones of each other.
These words carry so much sorrow in their arms, and I relate it to my own life—how things would have been if the Vietnam War didn’t happen. It is also in this recognition that I later realized, and others in the war realized, that we did “make weapons/ from the bones of each other.” It is in these lines, cut so smoothly like the side of a diamond, that this clarity, this horror, is expressed.
It is difficult to write about violence, including the violence felt by Campbell’s own Native American Cayuga tribe, but to be able to sing it in a way that makes the silence open like a flower is a feat that Monty Campbell has mastered, and he has drenched that flower in the nourishment of moonlight and starlight. It is in this opening that violence can be transformed into compassion. The blossoming of a flower can’t be rushed; the opening of petals takes its own time as silence does to open. We are blessed to witness and read words that will transform us.
A Large Dent in the Moon is a gift and food for me because the poems make me feel human. And to feel human is a blessing. Campbell writes, “I’ve opened the skin of our alphabet,/ I’ve stripped the earth of pavement,” and in reading his poems, I felt my heart open much like a flower’s and I felt that I could feel the earth in my toes and the moonlight on my petals.
Tsvetaeva wrote, “for the path of comets/ is the path of poets … They are: an explosion, a breaking in—” The poems in A Large Dent in the Moon is a comet’s path, made of ice, dust, and small, rocky particles of the sun, vaporizing, streaming out of the nucleus of human experience, from “a sweet song/ melting in the/ dog piss snow” to “a lake rising in our/ own reflection.” Perhaps this explosion is an explosion of the heart into the world, an outward breaking in.
“Death of a Bird” is filled with such magnificent lines:
this bridge has let men
jump from its ledge …
if only they had your wings,
if only someone was really
trying to look inside of them,
a smile could change the lives of millions, fuck it, billions.
We are reminded of the power of a simple, kind human gesture and that:
we are all just the same animal,
it could make us realize that
our feathers could also, someday,
be lying on this bridge.
This poem weaves words that are a breath that brings us closer to each other and to mother nature. With this metaphor of a bird we can feel our potential for life and death … so birdlike.
These lines from “On the Cliffs” are some of the most beautiful lines that I have ever read about listening, celebrating, being:
I hear the crack of
glacier sculpted walls,
scented of ceremony,
a whispering river
into the ears,
to the broken heart …
can’t evade this moment,
blinking messages back
and forth to New York,
back to birth and before,
into any soul
who would listen,
I understand now, why
so many songs have
It is that moment of listening to the stars with Campbell in his poem that, I too, understand “why so many songs have been written.”
dives like an
the train yard.
And as Campbell’s heart dives, we dive with him into the train yard. In this place, in this beating heart of complex tracks, there is no holding back what we will witness there; as in life, there is no holding back. And where will we go from here? This review is a small shimmer of the path of this diving, the vanishing traces of a train. Here in the train yard, I can feel that “outside the moon is glimmering blue,/ we are the same as the moon.”
Teresa Mei Chuc was born in Saigon, Vietnam, and immigrated to the U.S. under political asylum with her mother and brother shortly after the Vietnam War. Teresa, a fellow and teacher consultant of the Los Angeles Writing Project (a chapter of the National Writing Project), teaches literature and writing at a public inner-city middle school. She has a bachelors degree in philosophy, professional teaching credentials in primary and secondary education, and a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Goddard College. Her first book, Red Thread, was featured in Rattle’s book interview series. (www.tue-wai.com)