Death Song for Africa by Victor Camillo

Death Song for Africa is the third short book in the second volume of the Lost Horse Press New Poets Series. Connecticut-born Camillo’s poems are set in the landscape of the American Midwest, with reference to many countries, cultures, and religions.

The opening poem, “Bar Mitzvah for Seth,” reminds me of the celebrated Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai in its ability to confront the weight of history through striking imagery:

My son does not know
That he is the oak outside the window
Whose leaves are blowing away,
That he is a raindrop,
A word someone might say,
That his name is not written
In any of the prayer books that his visitors
Pick up in the outside hall,
That the Jewish dead,
Lost on their way to Israel,
Are burrowing into the Synagogue walls.

Many of the poems in this collection are haunted by the past. The dead, skulls, and the skeletal recur, as does blood. In “The Monster of the Dead,” the speaker tells us, “At night the water in the tire tracks beside my house / Becomes my blood.” And in “The Disappeared,” the speaker admonishes himself, “I should remember that the pencil I put on an empty page / Is a thin finger of some anonymous starvation.”

Other poems are haunted by the present. “The Newspaper” series captures the anxiety of bearing witness, through the news, to global atrocities and the “anonymous dead” that “nobody grieves.” The experience of ingesting remote suffering continues through other poems, including the title poem, as well as “The News Tiger,” where “black throats cough up bullets when they scream,” while the speaker lives in “the place where murder is done only in newspapers.”

In the final poem, “Today is Easter,” the language of religion and news interweaves. Referring to “the bible of the newspaper” and “the mosque that is the radio,” the speaker tells us, “I know about a death that cannot be held in a communion wafer,” contrasting the tragedy that “Indians in Guatemala are being ripped inside out” with the banal annoyance that “the weather here has become unkind.”

The poems in this collection are poems of conscience, set in the comfort of the modern first world, looking guiltily but unflinchingly at the terrors of the third world, and of the past. Through striking imagery, and carefully-controlled religious and political references, Camillo embraces love, marriage, and fatherhood against the backdrop of an at-once beautiful and terrible world.

Death Song for Africa is available in New Poets | Short Books Volume II from Lost Horse Press. Read more reviews from the Lost Horse Press New Poets series.