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Book Review: The History of Steel

The History of Steel: A Selected Works by Rick Campbell

A Book Review by Drew Myron


From the start, The History of Steel roots us to place:

This is who I am; this is where I come from—my river,

my barges, my mill, my smokestack, my town full of soot.

Setting a tone of pride and declaration, this themed collection is both a love song to Pittsburgh and a striking personal history. Though he’s previously published four solid poetry collections, this is Rick Campbell’s most intimate and inviting work.

The pages ooze with slag and smog, in poems vivid with memory and mood. “No one danced in our soot-gray streets,” he remembers in “Drinking Rum and Coca-Cola.”

In a manner similar to friend and mentor Philip Levine, Campbell shares poems from his working class roots. He sinks back into the city’s mills to create a poetic reflection of get-by and grit.

The language here is distinct to the region— slag, smog, smoke — and the imagery is vivid enough to pull us with him to the river’s foul banks in “The Poem in the River”:

our world began here and it’s come to this—

the mill burning the black sky, cranking, screeching,

hissing through the night. The beauty

of the fire and light dancing on slick water.

These are poems strong and sure, thick with muscle and ache, but it’s the essays — just two, I wish there were more — that set this book apart. In these straightforward mini-memoirs, we get ballast for the poems.

“We lived in a steel town in a steel valley,” he writes in “The New World.” “Everything we had and most of the things we wanted or hated came from the mill across the river or mills up river.”

When his mother attempts suicide, it’s Campbell and his brother who must save her, and then carry of mix of anger and guilt when she is committed to a mental hospital. The childhood hauntings pore from Campbell in a grainy but fevered film, and as readers we feel the heft of these confessions. They both give weight to Campbell’s more opaque poems and provide pause for compassion — his and ours — to rise and hold.

In another essay, “Last Parade,” he offers a candid accounting of his father’s life and death: “I never liked my father,” he admits. “He made me nervous.”

Primarily a showcase for previously published poems, these selected works — not to be confused with a collected works — provide a curated Rick Campbell retrospective.

At 63, Campbell is too young for a swan song collection, but with poems divided into Discovery, Exploration, Settlement, and Redemption Songs the book carries a distinct sense of looking back.

And it’s only natural that Campbell, an accomplished poet, professor and publisher, would take stock. He served as director of Anhinga Press for 20 years, and has taught at Florida A&M University for nearly 30 years.

The History of Steel gives us two histories really, that of poet and place. This collection is a mix of heartache and pride calling from miles and years away. You can’t shake your history. Campbell says so himself in the sobering villanelle “Elegy”:

We live here, where we were always bound.

Steel towns have ways of calling home their own.

Too many of us come back to this town.



This book review appears in Kestrel, Issue 34, Spring-Fall 2015


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