How do you reckon with the feelings of hurt and anger when decisions made by the country you call home feel like such betrayal? Tara Campbell’s collection, Political AF: A Rage Collection (Unlikely Books, 2020) doesn’t provide so much of an answer as it creates a space to reckon with this grief. Campbell takes on a multitude of social issues, meditating on the spectrum of the response generated by unjust policy changes and the ramifications of the former president’s legitimizations of abject bigotry. In a combination of prose and poetry, Campbell discusses everything from identity and belonging to reproductive freedom to police brutality. She experiments with form and structure to deconstruct jargon-filled policies, distilling them down to the bare-bones horror of their realities. Campbell’s writing is acerbic and honest, tearing away the veil that separates these abstract policies from their actualization in peoples’ lives. She imagines a reality that previously only existed in dystopian young adult novels, stripped bare and laid out for the horror it will become. The reality that Campbell crafts feels relentless, issues compounding one another and illustrating the depths of despair in reconciling the atrocities that have been bolstered by the last presidency. The success of this collection comes from Campbell’s unflinching honesty. A complication of style and form fragmented across poetry and prose, Campbell reconstructs the world we live in, contextualized through the very language that has been used to shield it from full realization.
“In the New Republic” is subversive, contrasting a new reality with antiquated ideas. Campbell writes of a dystopia she terms the “New Republic”, where “we will call men “Sir” / or “Baby” or “Master”. The reality of this patriarchal society is expressed through pop culture phenomenons, such as the Puppy Bowl and The Bachelor, as innocuous isolated concepts that are recontextualized through this critical lens as a question of what value women hold in today’s society. Campbell takes the reader back hundreds of years, focusing on the Declaration of Independence: “we won’t ask for the truth / anymore / but they’ll tell it to us […] They’ll say these New Truths / are self-evident”, underscoring the invisibility of women throughout time.
In “Cauliflower”, Campbell pens a vegetable metaphor to construct a commentary on appearance and appropriation: “When cauliflower / gets curious it asks to touch / the tighter buds of broccoli’s crown”. This poem, shaped like a head of broccoli, utilizes tone and metaphor to illustrate the ease and flippancy with which Black and brown cultures are stolen from. Campbell’s choice of words such as “curious” and “restless” speak of an innocuous innocence that is jarring when contrasted with the heaviness of the message of the poem. The final few lines, “[…] who wants / to be stuck / that color / forever” sum up the consequences of such gestures by the white community, giving way to the harsh reality of the harmful practices they continue to engage in.
“my pronouns are a mess because I’m / mixed-race / and / mixed-up”, Campbell writes of the struggles of contending with multi-faceted identities and trying to understand your place amongst them. The Trouble with Pronouns is a look at privilege and the way concepts such as classism and colorism intersect with biology to complicate ideas of identity and belonging. Campbell’s writing is hesitant and anxious, “trying to untangle scholarships from reverse racism in my classmates’ comments (I did earn them—didn’t I?); that one drop coursing through my veins a too-uncomfortable thought for certain boyfriends’ mothers;” characteristic of a young person’s reconciliation with the ways they are privileged and the ways they are cast aside in contemporary society.
Finally, “Goddammit, you gotta vote because” comes as a lasting call to action. Campbell sends the reader off with a villanelle that embraces the continued fight, writing of a need for newness hinging on exercising our right to vote to “retake the ground, / rebuild, and reignite the lights”. She urges readers to be participants, not passersby, repeating the refrain “when hate comes marching into town […] incited by a raving clown”. This contrast in imagery—unity versus rage—illustrates the dichotomy between both sides: the union of people from all backgrounds coming together against a single-minded enemy.
The mastery of Campbell’s work lies in the way she experiments with style, lifting from official documents and arranging them in a way that strips them down to their actualization. She validates the feelings of confusion, distress, and horror that many have experienced over the past few years in a way that prioritizes the anger. Rage shines at the center of this collection in its catharsis. The best part is Campbell’s refusal to mince words. She gets at the reality of what they mean for those impacted and lays it out clearly and succinctly in a way that makes the “political rage” Campbell has entitled this collection active for the reader, too.
Political AF: A Rage Collection is available at Unlikely Books
Neha Peri holds a BA in English from Rutgers University. In her senior year, she was appointed Editor-in-Chief of the university’s oldest literary magazine, The Anthologist. While at Rutgers, she also tutored for the Rutgers Writing Program, completed internships with the Rutgers English Department and the University of Mississippi Press, and wrote an honors thesis. Her work has been featured in The Anthologist. Currently, she works as an intern at the Princeton University Press.
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