The World, the Flesh, and Angels (Magill's Literary Annual 1990)
The World, The Flesh, and Angels was winner of the 1988 Barnard New Women Poets Prize, a well-earned recognition. The poems are vivid, imaginative, stimulating. They deal with love, freedom, desire, fear, life, and death from a fresh perspective. Reading them is an experience of delight and surprise.
The title offers a reversal of the expected that sets the stage for the distinctive perspective revealed in the poems. One expects “the world, the flesh, and the devil.” Mary Campbell’s title reverses the implication that the world and the flesh are evil by substituting angels, messengers of good, for the devil, the personification of evil. The World, The Flesh, and Angels offers more than an unexpected turn of phrase. Implicit in the title and in many of the poems is the view that life and human feeling are to be celebrated, not rejected.
Angels are a recurring motif in the poems. Children often sense angels or other presences, but as they grow up, this sense of angels hovering nearby fades. Angels become merely intellectual abstractions. Mary Campbell brings them back to vivid reality in poems that are childlike in the immediacy of their images. These are poems that express complex attitudes and emotions in a deceptively simple way.
The motif of angels takes interesting, imaginative turns. “Scientific Explanations” presents the secret truth that the blind are the angels. The poem provides a close, moving look at the blind. The physical descriptions evoke clear images of them in various settings. They are shown as uncomplaining, cheerful, and kind. Thus, it seems entirely reasonable when they are revealed as angels. For those who cannot see the speaker’s view, however, the poem suggests other possible explanations for blindness: “Maybe the world is intolerably bright/ And the blind, like baby kittens, can’t take it yet.”
The motif of angels appears in a strikingly different way in “A Case of Mistaken Identity.” This poem presents a woman preparing food at midnight as her lover watches, but the details of the mundane activity are charged with the woman’s awareness of angels. During each task, from chopping seaweed to sorting rice in preparation for tomorrow’s meals, she hears the angels coming nearer. She is glad that the excited anticipation she feels, combined with a fear of annihilation, remains secret. The power of the moment is accentuated by her quiet use of kitchen tasks as a shield against the fire of the host of shining angels. Her lover is oblivious to the intensity of her feeling and to the fact that she is responding to a presence other than his. He sees her preparing the food for him and knows nothing of the drama taking place. The simplicity of the scene, the juxtaposition of external and internal events, and the lover’s unawareness of what is transpiring make the poem especially evocative. When she places a stone on pickles,
He could not see the burning foot of RaphaelLight on it, nor hear the explosionOf the rock in my heart
“Stripping: A Romance” reveals the motif from yet another point of view. The speaker wants to take off everything—apartments, clothes, even the flesh. In removing all covering, the speaker and her companion reach impersonal reality. They become angels and discover that “Angels are really naked” and without souls to cover them.
Campbell’s poems bring fresh insight to love themes. They reveal a delicate balance in love between possession and freedom. “The Perfect Gaze: An Admonition” cautions against being too possessive of one’s beloved or too...
(The entire section is 1522 words.)
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