I said in my last post I could accept Tomaz Salamun's work in a way I could not Ashberry's, though it is no less accessible or easy. I could be talking about my preference for Dostoevsky over Tolstoy.
Salamun is a kind of demon, and he calls upon passions in a manner to which Ashberry remains analytical and ultimately, as Vendler pointed out, comedic. This is really saying that Ashberry opens up moments of philosophical sadness that are redeemed by pleasures of critical and/or colloquial speech on the same plane. The effect can be deeply contemplative, if jarring. I'd argue that Ashberry is in this way more accessible than Salamun, who looks to history as if to flesh.
Stylistically, he's not as diverse as Ashberry, writing in successive short declarations that burst like fearsome fat berries. Sometimes they have that lyric intensity of a clean aphorism: "Heaven was conceived with a knife." "The grass is authentic." "Beauty of man is the furthest history." "Poetry is a martyr's hatchery." Sometimes their intensity feels symbolic, though their meaning remains oblique: "The foot is in the warmish place, secure." "Feathers in my mouth grow." "A bull's berry walks on a wire." "The crocodile stuffs my body into its tongue."
I think Vendler's assessment of Ashberry's writing--that it works on a horizontal level, equalizing different kinds of speech toward a surrealistic effect--is true of some of Salamun's poetry as well, though Salamun is a trickster of sorts and is not really funny at all. His vision is darker, and beautifully nihilistic. He reminds me of Breton's The Absence of Myth, in which he argues that a godless existence is the only one capable of miracles of attention. Here is the very center of Salamun's book There's the Hand and There's the Arid Chair:
cruel and crystal.
It replaces people and
loves and does not
the well. With your hand
you dust a glass
you do not
break it. Let every
a man does. Death
Here Salamun is working in a way much opposed to Ashberry, but it requires our attention to the relationship between the hand and the glass as elements: flesh and crystal. The domestic act of dusting a glass becomes a challenge: whether or not flesh is capable of "breaking" crystal. In the end, it is the cut that becomes mortal for Salamun, and what he wants to preserve is the possibility of the wound. Death is that barrier we cannot know beyond. We must care for it. There's also a finality to the end of the poem because Salamun has symbolic purpose, and I'd argue that unlike Ashberry, he doesn't believe that language is ultimately a joke of meaning. In this way, he's not nihilistic at all. He believes in a poem the way he believes in hot flesh. His is a reassignment of those religious doctrines that posit the body against the spirit--for Salamun the temporary blood is more valuable than eternity.
This allows his poetry to have an apocalyptic playfulness about it that invites both elegance and accident, and so leaps between them in an almost associative directness:
These are the islands of Vis and Hvar!
Two lullabies above the complexion of black golden
Saturns. Hills, charred long ago during
the bleating of sheep and lambs,
during the elliptical carriers of fire,
and rain forcing its way between
branches, without noticing the leaves, without
For years I felt that orange shovel.
I say "almost" associative, because though the locomotion of his brief sentences propels us into huge leaps, they are not exactly pulled from the unconscious the way lines from Breton's Soluble Fish might have been, leapt down, caught for their very strange, dreamlike elusivity. I saw Salamun read at AWP last year and I was struck by what I saw:
a boy. Reading to a tree. And in the tree a bird and a fox. The storm cloud was small. A head drawn inside a head. A black hairy raindrop on his cheek.
Strange, but that's what I saw. The outsider as a child. And I realized that what happens in Salamun's poems is what happens when children are serious, when serious children play. Things are said, described, in the simplest, most direct ways, but ways that are poetry, because they haven't yet learned the rules. When adults speak to animals, trees and storms, we call it witchcraft. We call it melodrama. We call it weird. But if my niece before bedtime says she wants ice cream, ("shoeberry ice cream" is her favorite) and we tell her it's too late she replies, "I'll brush my teeth with it." If you tell her no, she frowns and darkens and says loudly: "You make me sad--forever." Salamun too works in short sentences fraught with symbolic play, accidental intensity, but articulate with certitude and feeling. Though readers may find him difficult, inaccessible, even ridiculous, I'd argue there is an often overlooked relentless childlike simplicity to Salamun's work that affords him philosophical insight and descriptive prowess:
Nice Hat, Thanks.
Little burnt villages. Heavy drinkers.
Incredible! Such is my influence:
I took the distribution and the title from Joshua.
Arms are a genuine feeling.
These are our mouths and palms.
Frogs are resoled.
O God, how near we are to each other.
I lick God's mind and roll over like a turtle.
The swallow's dome has pity and destroys.
Heaps of sand. Mothers, mothers.
The enemy is tortured and juts out.
Mommy carries the chapter.
. . . . . . .
Friends and Strangers, steal him if you can!
. . . . . . .