Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2017. 80 pages. $19.95.
Vengeance is Macbeth’s reaction to the curse of childlessness and the wrath of the parent brigade, but what pushes one man to toxic violence may lead another to the virtues of indolence. Having settled into suburbia and his forties, New Jersey native Christopher Salerno asks whether a “fist in the air” is still a “punch / if it fails to inflect your luminous destiny.” His fourth volume Sun & Urn, which won the inaugural Georgia Poetry Prize, presents the wondrous story of a man finding his second wind after the grief of infertility, divorce, and falling out of favor with the father.
Salerno writes from the conviction that last place is a fine place to be. In mock-heroic poems, he observes with dismay how the rug rats lose their tenderness through their regimen of warlike hobbies. Harassed by skater boys or orange belts, he meets their contempt with preemptive self-deprecation, as in the poem “Foreshortening”: “behind the bakery they will fasten / to one knee tourniquets / made of limp baguettes, then ride.” Always behind the goofy details, like this Gilbert and Sullivan rhyme, is the pathos and persistence of the deflated baker man.
The elegies to the father, with his “bulletproof book / about the Four Noble Truths,” suggest the adult version of this tragedy and add up to a portrait of impenetrable game face. His eagerness to conceal his bald spot or failing heart seems to coincide with his love of money, sports, violence, and property. In the remarkable “Bray,” an outing to the racetrack unleashes the equivocal feelings aroused by the dead father who loves winning and the son he deems a stinker:
do all hearted creatures stink?
I am asked by my brother’s
youngest child, Is horse your favorite
or least favorite mammal? I say
don’t beg the Lord if the sky is
a gray roof beneath which
you have waited all day to see
gallop something graceful, swift.
Through generational contrasts in diction, heightened by comparatives, Salerno’s poems spotlight the failures of sympathy that result from men’s impulse to size each other up. Here is the nephew’s harmless awkwardness and the father’s damning folksiness; the latter slips into the son’s voice the moment the nephew’s question dredges up the memory of that uglier contest judged according to the grandkids one can send swiftly out the gates. This final home stretch of the poem counters the moral judgment attached to action through the congestion of (guttural) syllables, inverted word order, and delayed line breaks that bring the gallop clopping to a stop.
As we watch the son “lob” the ashes at the finish line or light the toupee on fire, we feel the twinge of one exhausted by his father’s horse race. For Salerno, withdrawing from the pressures of manly competition means owning the course of indolence. Indolence, for Wordsworth and the Romantics, signified the opposite of the epic and heroic mode, a hiatus from exertion that connoted in more positive cases the pursuit of leisure and in more negative ones a paralyzing torpor (a fuller treatment of this topos may be found in Willard Spiegelman’s Majestic Indolence: English Romantic Poetry and the Work of Art). Wallace Stevens’s drowsed outdoorsman and James Schuyler’s endearing cripple update the same legacy to assuage depression or effervesce illness.
So too, Salerno cherishes the low key of indolence to relieve the ongoing limbo of being a “Father Of No One,” which sessions at the sperm bank have not yet resolved. From the ache of childlessness as a drama without a dramatic arc, Salerno flattens the steepness of the passions and de-escalates action or adventure through his circular movement or languorous rhythm (“a canoe / packed with snow, / a thing you only row / with your eyes”), all the while quipping that “Sedentary Is Tiring Too,” that his favorite “Plot” is a parking lot.
Even exoticism can seem like too much work in Salerno’s signature mode: “No hollow / bamboo noise or subtitles / . . . to memorize.” Where Stevens throws the celestial fiesta, Salerno unveils the offish and marvelous in the local and near-at-hand. “The Evening Report,” a forecast of divorce, illustrates his indolent and hyperrealist approach to romance:
I wake up remembering that words are tries.
You want me to check your head for ticks.
There are multiple crickets in the laundry room.
I have a new plan to rid the moisture from my watch.
We are matter-of-factly not pregnant.
The neighbor’s having trouble with his Chevy
Silverado. I am falling in love with the material world.
I tried to crush a tick with two Bayer aspirins.
The desire to demonstrate care and commitment in the absence of consummation animates many of these lyrics. Salerno breaks the pattern of the unenjambed list poem to introduce that hardly exotic “Chevy / Silverado.” Yet the vehicle lights up like a silver moon that makes lovable all the other stubborn machinery that has trouble starting up. With no kids in the picture, the icky act of picking ticks speaks beyond the crickets of the sexless night: these excessive and effete admissions estrange intimacy in terms of how we clear each other’s brains of irritation.
The flaw Salerno perceives in his own body makes him receptive not to the sublime aspects of Nature, but to the casualties of the natural and social jungle, “half a songbird” or the “knocked down nest[s]” who are “unassailable only insofar as we produce / . . . something beautiful.” In his poems, the chip on one’s shoulder and the desired freedom from judgment condition the production of light and relief in the absence of combustion.
Shunned by the reproductive country club, Salerno goofs up gender roles à la Will and Grace. He and his post-divorce playmate live on “with the absence of strong male metaphor,” salvaging scraps from the construction zone to make each other gifts or mocking the jockstraps over cocktails, as in these saucy penta-syllabics: “forty turns mother- / hood off,” “I flex to make my / fake tattoo move. You / spit-take your daiquiri.” Follow the menopausal automobile and faux-machismo f/k-ing to the fake finish line, and you can see how Salerno garnishes his bitters with zest.
By the same token, he depressurizes the grave situation, as in “Plot,” which describes the commiserating embrace between divorcé and widow, daughterless man and the mother who has survived her son:
as the high pressure sodium
lights burn above like two TVs.
I am held together by wire
my grandmother confides in me
as we slow dance on
a roadside full of edible flowers—
You can infer the bloody cause and place of death from the lighting alone. Yet beneath the “high pressure” lamps, we find delicious indolence and the electricity of mutual relief. Even in his dazed moods, Salerno writes with more spunk than the dutiful elegist. His poems explore how the playbook of game face destroys the fathers and how going off-script may save the sons. Bittersweet and radiant, Sun & Urn shows how to fall out of a horse race and into the arms of a slow dance. You don’t need a plot to fall in love with this story.