Book Review of Diva by Rafael Campo
Divided into five sections, or chapters, Diva represents Rafael Campo’s experiences, as a practicing physician, poet, and gay man, as well as the stories of his patients. Campo’s patients are mostly Latinos, gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgendered people, and people infected with HIV and these are the issues he writes about.
The book’s title, Diva, is also the title of one of his poems. There are many definitions of the word diva: a goddess, a famous opera singer, a modern day pop-singer (like Madonna), or even a flamboyantly gay man. On the surface, this title appears to reflect how Campo writes about homosexuality, particularly about gay men. But, his poetry also gives voice to the stories of others who aren’t generally heard: reminiscent of a diva’s storytelling.
Books by Rafael Campo
The Five Chapters of Diva
The first section, entitled “In the Cuban Way,” deals with Campo’s feelings for his father’s homeland.
The second section, “Baby Pictures,” begins with “Madonna and Child” where he writes about a mother who cannot accept her son’s homosexuality. “By menopause, it’s not just estrogen/ my mother lacks. She’s lost her eldest son—/that’s me, the one who’s queer—the doctor who/ once made her very proud . . .” This section of poems deals with relationships with women, gender issues, and birth.
“The Gift of Aids” is the third, and most powerful, section. Not only do these poems describe Campo’s feelings as a gay man, but also how he treats patients with AIDS. Campo also describes how AIDS is spread and treated (or not treated) in “The Changing Face of AIDS." “Aisha got it from her husband Dex. Who’d shoot up with his friends when she was gone./ For Gloria, the unprotected sex/ she traded for some crack was how. The guilt/ of being negative brought Timothy.”
Wrapping up his poems is “The X Files”—a section full of love, pain, and being different. “. . . All of us are aliens/ no other understands. The world is full/ of stars like me, each one no universe/ can hid. Once I was abducted. My sin/ were all erased, but they were clinical/ in their precision when they stole my voice.”
The last, and fifth, section is entitled “Lorca”—these are poems by Federico García Lorca that Campo has translated from Spanish. Campo chose to translate these poems because they are about Lorca’s experiences with living as a homosexual man.
Touching on Campo's Form & Style
Campo consistently writes his poetry in iambic pentameter unless he is writing prose poetry. He generally incorporates some kind of rhyme scheme into his poems. Campo has a down-to-earth, straightforward writing style, but he also uses natural images to illustrate his ideas. In a poem about marrying his partner are the lines “. . . Pathogens, my needs,/ the sunset’s wounds—your love is why I’m saved.” This is an excellent example of how Campo subtly incorporates metaphors and similes of nature into his poetry. Occasionally, he uses swear words, but so rarely that when he does, it makes his point more powerful. The following lines, about how a man got AIDS, incorporates symbolism of nature and the powerful use of a swear word. “to that same place where on his knees he first/ sucked Larry’s cock—the blowing reeds like stilts. The high clouds teetered on above the Fens—/ as if the nameless men who fucked his mouth/ might help him speak to Larry once again.” Campo’s honesty is what makes these poems so moving.
To Buy, or Not to Buy?
I recommend Campo’s book because I feel the poetry in Diva humanizes the experiences of people often considered “other” in society. What works the most, for me, is Campo’s honesty, like how he writes about AIDS in “V. Elegy for the AIDS Virus”: “How difficult it is to claim one’s right/ to living honestly. The honesty/ you taught was nothing quite as true/ as death, but neither was it final. . . .” The only thing that doesn’t fit are the translations at the end. While they are beautiful poems, it is disappointing to end the voyage through Campo’s poetry with someone else’s voice. No matter how much Campo’s voice came through in his translations, these poems still contrast too much with the rest of the book
What are you waiting for? Grab a copy. Read.