Monday, June 20, 2011

Phil Campbell was his Town (for Phil Campbell, Alabama)


 for the real Phil Campbell

There’s a guy called Phil Campbell who lives in a town in Alabama called Phil Campbell. It was exhausting: the questions, the confusion, the wise cracks:
“So you’re Phil Campbell and you live in Phil Campbell…?”
Phil Campbell thought about moving, thought about changing his name, but he never did. Phil Campbell was his home. It was his name. He was Phil Campbell and Phil Campbell was his town.
But Phil Campbell wasn’t named after Phil Campbell, the town. He was named after his father, Phil Campbell. And this Phil Campbell had been named after his own father, Phil Campbell, who had been named after his father, a stocky and redoubtable man named Phil Campbell  But that’s as far as it went for that Phil Campbell was the progeny of George Campbell, a migrant who had moved to Phil Campbell from somewhere up north, no one was sure where. On the other hand, Phil Campbell, the town, was named in the 1880s after a railroad man named Phil Campbell who came from England and set up a work camp. The town was incorporated in 1911 and remains the only place in Alabama to have both a first and a last name.
“Hey, Phil Campbell, you come from Phil Campbell?”
“That’s Mr. Campbell to you.”
It was a good life in Phil Campbell. Safe streets, good jobs, a good digestion and a smooth complexion. A happy life.
But something bad happened this past April.
A tornado ripped through Phil Campbell and messed things up. Here’s what happened.
Bricks, windows, record collections, lungs, felt cut-outs from the day care, intestines, burgers, fridges, bank deposits, Phil Campbells’ pants, cows: all tossed into the air and then scattered about the hot Alabama ground. A toupée was blown, forlorn and alone down Main street, a baleful tumbleweed, inventory spat from the twisting chaos of the air. There were tears flying horizontally like rain. There was worry. There were small bursts of hope, but there was little to hope for.
Phil Campbell would never be the same.
He’d been working in his basement for days and hadn’t got the tornado warnings. He’d come up into the kitchen to get himself a glass of orange juice when he heard strange sounds outside and so he opened the door to see what was going on. The tornado burst right through the door. And when Phil Campbell opened his mouth to say, “Hey, what do you think you’re…?” the tornado jumped in and dived down his throat. Phil Campbell’s insides became as messed up as the streets of the town, and he fell down and lay on the clammy linoleum beside the stove and passed out.
            That’s where the other Phil Campbells enter the story. One thousand one hundred and fifty Phil Campbells. Phil Campbells from all around the world.
These Phil Campbells found each other on Facebook, through Twitter, and through regular email. They gathered in the town of Phil Campbell. They came to see what they could do.
They came to help.

It was mostly guys named Philip and a few Phyllises, though there were Phillipas and Filipes, too. They all wore name tags. Identical nametags, photocopied by Phil Campbell of Phil Campbell Real Estate (Boston, Mass.)
“Phil Campbell,” the nametags said, both with irony and without.
It was a serious thing, this meeting of Phil Campbells, but it was delightful pandemonium when they registered at the hotels.
 “I’ve a reservation under the name Phil Campbell,” a Phil Campbell would say at the Phil Campbell Motor Inn and the other Phil Campbells in the line behind him laughed good-naturedly at the confusion of the girl at the desk.
And there were the many Phil jokes.
 “Hey Phil,” a Phil would call into the whole group of Phils just to see who would turn around.
Or the ever popular, “Philately will get you nowhere.”
“I’ve had my Phil,” a Phil Campbell father would quip about his son, another Phil Campbell.
And there were murmurs of assent as a Phil Campbell patted his handsome round Campbell-belly and ordered a Philly Cheese Steak sandwich at the Phil Campbell Steakhouse with the words, “I need a Phil-up, please.”
            But no matter how you looked at it—joyfully, wryly, bizarrely, wonderfully—there were a lot of Phils.
 “Hey Phil, where are you from?” one Phil would ask another.
“Brooklyn. Where you from?”
“Toronto, Canada,” the first Phil would reply.
            Groups of Phil Campbells sat together and talked. There wasn’t anything special about being Phil Campbell if you lived outside of Phil Campbell, for instance, in Seattle or Liverpool or Prague. There weren’t special Phil Campbell stories, the way someone who shared a name with a famous celebrity had stories.
            “You’re Tom Green?”
            “Not that Tom Green.”
            “Oh, but please, have a seat in First Class and may I have your autograph? For my kids.”
            But being Phil Campbell became remarkable when you were in a group of over a thousand other Phil Campbells.
            “One can of beans isn’t special, but if you see a thousand cans of beans lined up in a row, then that’s something,” a Phil Campbell from Hoboken, New Jersey explained to a Phil Campbell from Tucson, Arizona.
And being with one thousand one hundred and forty-nine other Phil Campbells in the Phil Campbell Catering and Banquet Center in Phil Campbell, Alabama was not just unusual enough to make a good story. It was sublime.
An alignment of electrons. A ringing harmony, a magnetic charge.
What was the same? What was different? What’s it like where you come from? How did you hear about the town of Phil Campbell?
            But then the Phil Campbells turned to the more serious matter at hand. “How can all of us Phil Campbells help the people of Phil Campbell?” The tornado had been bad. People had been killed. Many were missing. Phil Campbell was filled with debris. There were emergency rescue crews, but they were overwhelmed.
The Phil Campbells made plans. They would tend to the sick and traumatized, search for the missing. They would clean up, help rebuild, and assist people in finding new homes. Each Phil Campbell according to his or her own skills, profession, and nature, and resources. There were Officer Phils, Nurse Phils, Construction-worker Phils, and, of course, several Dr. Phils.
They set to work.
With spades and wheelbarrows, pick-up trucks and bandages.
With kindness, determination, and goofy grins.
Army cots were set up in the high school gym. Enormous pots of soup were set to boil in the kitchens of churches. An infirmary ran out of the flagship Phil Campbell Pizza Emporium. A team of Phils began going door-to-door—or property-to-property when the doors or the houses had been knocked down—searching for those in need. Old men and women were helped outside, blinking in the bright light, as if emerging from a cave, and then driven to the gym. Mothers and their small children were lifted off their broken porches and taken for food at Phil Campbell Baptist Church.
“How you doing, Phil Campbell?” one Phil would ask another.
“Doing fine, thank-you, Phil Campbell,” the other would reply and they’d both smile. Two Phil Campbells out in the world, doing good.
“OK,” one of them said into the crackling walkie-talkie. “Just going to check one more street before heading back for more supplies.”
Phil Campbell’s street hadn’t been hit hard. Really it looked almost untouched. The lawns, neatly manicured, the shingles in place on the roofs, only garbage pails and flowerpots tossed about the sidewalks. Still, the team of Phil Campbells went up and down the street, checking each house just to make sure.
Phil Campbell’s door was open.
“Hello, anyone here?” they called.
No answer.
Phil Campbell was still unconscious on the floor, a pool of almost evaporated orange juice sticky between the shards of broken glass scattered over the linoleum. The Phil Campbells moved quickly. One checked for a pulse. The other brushed the glass out of the way to make a clear workspace and then prepared the medical kit and held up the walkie-talkie, ready to call for outside help.
“He’s alive,” the first Phil Campbell said. He took a small flashlight from his pocket, pulled up Phil Campbell’s eyelid, and shone the light at his pupil. “Responsive,” he said. 
“Sir?” he called to Phil Campbell. “Can you hear me?” He leaned in close to listen to Phil Campbell’s breathing. “Help me,” he said to the other Phil Campbell. “Let’s sit him up.” With an one arm around his neck and by holding him under the arms, they pulled Phil Campbell up and rested him against the cabinet doors below the sink.
Phil Campbell began to breath heavily and his eyes fluttered.
“What your name, sir?”  the second Phil Campbell asked. “Do you know your name?”
“Ph…Ph…Phil Campbell,” Phil Campbell said weakly.
“That’s my name,” the Phil Campbell who had an arm around his neck said. “It’s all of our names.”
“Phil Campbell,” Phil Campbell repeated. “I am Phil Campbell.”
“Yes, sir, “ Phil Campbell said. “Your name is Phil Campbell. It’s our name, too.”
Phil Campbell opened his mouth to say something more, but he could not contain the tornado any longer and it turned violently inside him and shot from the cave of his throat. It knocked both Phil Campbells down as it twisted about the kitchen and then burst out of the house with an ear-splitting howl.
It beat against the houses and trees of Phil Campbell’s street, this time, smashing and scattering everything in its seemingly erratic path toward the centre of town.. It destroyed the elementary school and knocked down the library. It raged along the side streets and ripped through the mall.
One of the Phil Campbells, rolled over on his belly and reached for the walkie-talkie. He must alert the other Phil Campbells.
Later that afternoon, there were one thousand one hundred and fifty one Phil Campbells gathered together on Main St.. They stood in a line on the other side of the street from the tornado.
Phil Campbell, the only Phil Campbell from Phil Campbell, Alabama walked forward.
“My name is Phil Campbell and this is my town, “ he said to the tornado. “You are powerful and you have ravaged my insides and you have ravaged my town. You have killed many of our people, but I am not afraid. I stand here with all of these other Phil Campbells. Phil Campbells who have come here from all over the world. We Phil Campbells are not afraid.”
The tornado turned and twisted and darkened the sky but did not move.
Phil Campbell bent down and picked up the lost toupée from the middle of the street. Though it was dusty and misshapen, he put it on his bald head.
“Leave this town,” he said to the tornado, “Leave this town and I will come with you.”

The last time, anyone saw Phil Campbell of Phil Campbell, Alabama, he was high in the air, holding onto the toupée and waving back at them.
If the people of Phil Campbell could have named their town after Phil Campbell, they would have, but  more than a hundred years before, they already had.

There is a real town in Alabama called Phil Campbell and there was a tragic tornado which ravaged their town. Likewise, there is a group of Phil Campbells who travelled there to help. Here's a link to an article about these great people

Thursday, June 16, 2011


sunshine coming in low 
and steady over the mail box
the radical gloss of toes 
made wet by dog’s tongue
my daughter is coming home by bus tonight
laminar and turbulent  
Newtonian and non-Newtonian 
we’ve texted
cooking on the BBQ
flows in arbitrary geometries with both fixed and moving boundaries   
my son marinates with glee
a crushing thrill or else weariness of living
capabilities for the prediction of combustion 
a girlfriend’s rattle of car keys
particle transport, propagation and flows in porous elements
there’s supper to be made
a fly buzzing behind photographs
the universe is not only centerless but edgeless
a surface roughness or general body force 
an image of snow, blue sky, the spine of a cactus, a comic book
terms regarding gravitational and electromagnetic forces can be defined
the wavy green and red lines of the word processor
an ontological no parking zone
the signs say not until the fifteenth of the month except before June

Monday, June 13, 2011

Talking about John Wieners's Poems on PoemTalk.

Allen Ginsberg with John Wieners in 1972

This past fall, I was delighted to travel to the Kelly Writers House at UPenn to participate in Al Filreis's fantastic podcast series PoemTalk. I joined Al and Ammiel Alcalay and Danny Snelson to discuss John Wieners's poem "Acts of Youth" in a performance recorded in 1990. 

Here is a discussion of our discussion with links.

If you're so impatient that you want to jump right to the episode, then here is a direct link. Go now! There's not a moment to lose. 

If you don't know it, PoemTalk is great series of discussions of specific poems from the ever expanding PennSound collection of modern and contemporary poetry and poetry-related recordings. The project is directed byAl Filreis and Charles Bernstein at UPenn.