Once in a Lifetime by Chris Campanioni — Jonathan Marcantoni


In one’s own
Spit, breath, to dwell
There & never
Return, to dance
There until the spot
Light dims & the film
Unfurls, & the eyes
Squint & turn
To retreat
Go home
– From Intermission

Chris Campanioni’s 2014 poetry collection, Once in a Lifetime (Berkeley Press), is a day-in-the-life narrative in poetic form. We have the immigrant parents, the lost son, the doomed romance, the painful realizations that accompany maturity, and the reinvention of self, played out over the course of 24 hours (and possibly including dreams as well). In narrative form, the American dream plotline would have seemed cliché or at the very least, common, but by putting this story in poetic form Campanioni has revitalized the genre by unearthing the universal yearning for home and the melancholy that informs such a desire.

The story Campanioni is telling is his own, or better put, a variation on his perception of the world as he has lived it. In his other works, Campanioni’s characters share a remoteness from the societies they live in. The gap between perception and reality, between public and private masks, between intention and outcome are obsessions of his art, and here he turns his focus on his parents, who really are immigrants: a Cuban father and a Polish mother, both of whom fled to the U.S. to escape Communist governments. There is a sharp contrast throughout the book that portrays the roots of suffering his parents share and the mundanity of his own. While suffering brought his parents together and allowed them to forge a lasting partnership and strong family, Campanioni (or his character) can only share the small, seemingly insignificant details of life with another person. His acute awareness of the subtlest beauty and humor of the world, however, proves to be a barrier to intimacy. Without a grand narrative of his own, the Campanioni of the book must find another way to connect, and as mentioned in the above poem, that means going “home”, which is to say, it means finding a new way of connecting his parent’s narrative with his own.

The story of Once in a Lifetime is not confined to the internal desire for home, but also to the physical surroundings that make that home. The morning and evening sections of the work are deliberately urban and tied to technology. The first poems are all ruminations on the vast cityscape and the sense of isolation one feels in the middle of a crowd.

“Impossible to draw to scale
Conversions or conversations
Overhead musings, overheard
Talk from the countertop
Of a café you’ve never been to
Before, or any place with people”
– From Cold Open

“Facing the empty
And ornate room
A chandelier
A polished bar
Two paintings
Faces to freeze like that
Remembering the whole time
Something as soft
As the quiche
On my plate”
– From Motionless at a red booth

At all times, Campanioni is one step removed from these places and things, which inform where he is but not who he is. One of the most compelling aspects of the book, especially in comparison to Campanioni’s previous poetry collection, In Conversation, is that the first mention of technology is not as a barrier, not a continuation of the common social criticism that people nowadays would rather stare at their phones than have a conversation, but rather as a bonding experience between Campanioni and his parents:

“My father learned English
On the radio—
Sing-song Santiago Spanish
“Rocks Off,”
The Rolling Stones
Your mouth don’t move
But I can hear you speak
So many questions
People want to know
What makes me what I am
I tell them way I was raised
I tell them
Music everywhere in the house”
– From Talk Talk

Technology is a unifier, a source of joy and nostalgia, and perhaps it is significant the tech being referred to is in the past. As though somewhere between childhood and adulthood, something has been lost, or perverted, to make this generation feel isolated by the very things that should have made connection easier than at any time in human history.

What is largely absent in the beginning and ending sections is nature. The descriptions are focused on the man-made, whether they be buildings or other humans, it is only when the narrator sets off with a lover on a road trip down south, in the afternoon section, that the natural world encroaches on us. Urban life can be so all-encompassing as to make the world itself surreal. In Juan José Saer’s masterpiece El entenado, the book begins with the main character expressing his preference for the city over the countryside, “Más de una vez me sentí diminuto bajo ese azul dilatado: en la playa amarilla, éramos como hormigas en el centro de un desierto. Y si ahora que soy un viejo paso mis días en las ciudades, es porque en ellas la vida es horizontal, porque las ciudades disimulan el cielo” (More than once I felt diminutive beneath that expansive blue sky: on the yellow beaches, we were like ants in the middle of the desert. And now that I am an old man, if I spend my days in cities, it is because here life is horizontal, it is because cities shrink the sky).


Campanioni’s narrator does seem to shrink in this section, the elements engulfing him, especially water. As he yearns for his lover’s embrace and the warmth he felt as a child, the waters rise, the waters reflect, the waters consume, but he is never able to give himself over. The relationship strains, his sense of space and time strain, and the woods and lakes of the Deep South grow in prominence until he drowns in his uncertainty.

At this point, the book looks inward, and this brings us back to the narrator making his final journey home. To learn about life, not as he believed it should be, but as it is, a series of struggle and sacrifice, of remorse and forgiveness, of lacking and overflowing: of food, of material items, of options, of money, of love.

Life is an ever-emptying shell, that is, like a hollow object at sea it is constantly filling with water, the bringer of life, and then emptying it out. In between is hollowness, which some may see as death; the shell remains, its existence continues as it awaits the next wave of activity. Every wave, in entering the shell, is informed by what came before, particulates of past surges, scars as well as smoothing of the frame, and as the water leaves it carries those experiences as it breathes new life to the shoreline, only to retreat. Life and death are always present simultaneously, triumph becomes suffering which becomes triumph once again. To place importance only on the suffering is to ignore the great beauty of success, and to only focus on success blinds one to the lessons of tragedy. This exchange occurs again and again, and this is the legacy of generations, the traces of our daily life. So we close with this mediation on time and what our perception of it says about us:

“Time stretches like a rubber band
It stops, it starts, it lengthens
Each time a voice
Track clicks in
Hours pass
A minute or two
Goes by, unless I am
Sitting here
Surrounded and alone
Making time
Stop myself
Making it assume
An untangled ribbon
Of hair, glancing
At my phone, too
Wondering when
The moment will arrive
A slight pause, not a full stop
Not even
A semicolon, more like
An interruption or interference
To consumers
This image is enlarged
To show detail
Another unsuspecting death
Under red light
In the dark room
Now the city moves
Like a map you are drawing
A sinking feeling (I’ve been here before)
Faulty reception, static
Other people’s memories
Images I only recognize
On TV, old films, faces I’ve never seen
A quick shift in the hips
And you’re looking out
Through someone else’s eyes
It’s such a bore
To be one person
All the time”
– From Fashion of the Seasons

Campanioni’s Once in a Lifetime is a mirror that moves closer and closer to us, making us dissect the tiniest detail of ourselves through the author’s journey. In the end it asks, now that you know who you are, will you stare it in the face fearlessly, or will you blink?

Chris Campanioni is a first-generation Cuban- and Polish-American. He has worked as a journalist, model, and actor, and he teaches literature and creative writing at Baruch College and new form journalism at John Jay. He was awarded the Academy of American Poets Prize in 2013 for his collection, In Conversation, and his novel, Going Down, was selected as Best First Book for the 2014 International Latino Book Awards. Find him in space at http://www.chriscampanioni.com and @chriscampanioni or in person, somewhere between Brooklyn Bridge Park and Barclays Center.

Jonathan Marcantoni is the author of three novels and a regular contributor for Latino Rebels and Across the Margin. He is a professor of writing and rhetoric at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs. For more of his work, visit jonathanmarcantoni.com. @Marcantoni1984

Image: Conch Shell, © My Sideways World, Creative Commons