reviewed by Maya Phillips
In Comfort Measures Only: New and Selected Poems, 1994–2016, physician-cum-poet Rafael Campo presents a career in medicine through poems that recount nights spent in the hospital (“A quiet hospital is infinite, / The polished, ice-white floors, the darkened halls / That lead to almost anywhere, to death / Or ghostly, lighted Coke machines”) and the patients he has seen. In poems such as “Tuesday Morning,” Campo reflects on the limits of medicine and the doctor’s role as healer: “What need is there for pleasure, when today // I’ll diagnose a man with cancer, not / know what to say.” Campo adheres ardently to the villanelle, pantoum, and sonnet forms throughout the book, relishing in rhyme and repetition even outside of these forms. Many of these poems are portraits, at times only snapshots, of patients, within the context of their afflictions. Though various illnesses make appearances in the collection, HIV/AIDS is the main specter throughout, appearing in myriad bodies in poems across the collection, or simply present as an idea, a constant threat, one the speaker, a queer doctor, is especially attuned to. The speaker has many occasions to interrogate his own prejudices and fears regarding HIV/AIDS, as in “Recent Past Events,” which is tinted with shame: “We were ashamed of our good appetites,” the speaker admits. “We touched each other carefully at night.” “Illness may be a muse, but it is a particularly vexing one,” writes Campo in his introduction. It’s true: There’s a complexity to the language of hospitals and doctors’ offices, to the ways people speak about illness, health, and the body at risk, as when the speaker encounters a man with AIDS who comes to refinish his floors, declaring in the last line of the poem, “I felt so clean I cried, and couldn’t stop.”
This review originally appeared in American Poets, Fall-Winter 2018.