One Hundred Hungers, Lauren Camp’s third book of poems, won the 2015 Dorset Prize, selected by David Wojahn. In this lush collection, Camp evokes her father’s family history in Baghdad and her relationship to Jewish-Arabic culture, particularly its language and food, and the ways in which identity shifts with immigration. She integrates memories of the family’s life in the Middle East alongside the displacement and new beginnings that came with her father’s arrival in the United States in the early 1940s. Into this tapestry of family history that incorporates the ways in which culture is both preserved and mourned, Camp weaves her own coming of age in New York, identifying herself, throughout, as very much her father’s daughter. One of the central poems of “Each Strand Alters,” the first of the collection’s five sections, is “Foreign.” In long, exploratory lines, Camp focuses on an early childhood trip into New York City with her father, recreating the connection she felt to him, and the ways in which he protected her body and mind, as they navigate the vast urban landscape:
The soft petals of her hand folded to the slope of his palm, and flattened
in his singular grip. She belonged to him.
He shielded her contours of thought....
Louise Glück famously said, “We look at the world, once, in childhood. The rest is memory.” I thought of Glück’s words as I read many of Camp’s poems, but especially “Foreign.” The poem is a tribute to this father, and though her love for him does not diminish over time, she does complicate her understanding of him, and especially of his foreignness, as she grows into womanhood. In “Scraps,” a prose poem from Section Two, Camp returns to one of the collection’s central themes: the way one’s native tongue is changed and often broken in the aftermath of leaving one’s homeland:
My father shoves his words into pockets and pulls them from his wallet.
When his new name smeared on the old, he was left with pieces of
syllables that no longer answered....
Though One Hundred Hungers includes many poems written in traditional lineation, the strongest poems unfold in longer, looser lines and especially in prose poems, in large part because Camp is returning to fraught moments or chapters from her family history. She is in essence a storyteller, the keeper of her family’s memories, and so her poems have a storylike feel, albeit fractured. Camp’s father is often the central figure, and she lingers over the ways in which language and sensory experience sensitize him and his daughter to the world’s beauty. In the brief prose poem, “Butter and Prayer,” they taste a pomegranate together, and he becomes:
...the divinity of a pomegranate, a pith capping the slow mantra of
seeds and the rich sweat of juice.... His love can be tasted. She
doubts nothing, eats everything with a rigor of claiming her parent…
One of Camp’s gifts is her ability to conjure both the historical and the mythic past and the joint terrain they inhabit, with a vividness that, at its best, captures moments infused with both sorrow and joy, as in the prose poem, “Velvet,” which immediately follows “If He Missed His Country,” a significant pairing:
In synagogue in the suburbs, we fill with song in book after book
and the Tigris rises up and makes a blessing. We are in our seats,
running our hands on the velvet beside us. Our mouths are moving.
Our eyes are down.
There is one story and one story, and we repeat it each week.
This story is true and foolish. Words huddle, back to front,
with occasional laments and long echo. We are waiting to learn
about today, tomorrow, why we must suffer. I am wearing a white dress,
my father a tie.
Even at this moment, the river insists on flowing....
“Velvet” is a fabric that invites touch, and it is to velvet that Camp likens the biblical words about the exile of the Jews and their search for a homeland. By virtue of her Jewishness, she belongs to this story, but her belonging is made more essential because of her father’s history. The story, but also the lived experience, enables the child she was to understand that each human being is inevitably broken at some point. Her father’s breaking comes with the loss of his homeland, a loss that makes what remains that much more precious. And what remains are his memories, the foods of his homeland, and snatches of language, all of which he shares with his daughter, so that she embraces the remnants as her inheritance, transforming them into poetry.