On James L. White’s The Salt Ecstasies

David Bartone

Graywolf Press: Minneapolis, MN, 2010. 96 pages. $15.00.

James L. White’s last poems, The Salt Ecstasies, breathe so lonesome. They have the weight of elegiac gaze and the slow heat of youthful longing. “Salt me down where love was / on a blue burn to remember the pain,” he writes. “I want to be your yoke this time” (19). The luxury of these poems is not so much an abundance of self-expression or a literary heave of pathos, though these are present and ripe features, but the thought-through thought of emotional statement and—yes, alert and direct—restatement. White seems bound by the same emotional pressures over and over. The poems are emotional handcuffs, ones White has constructed his own binding with. He has made them. He submits to them with both exuberance and sadness.

Disclosure, the crown jewel of confessionalism, comes from White in the form of proclamation, as in the beginning of a poem’s section titled “Submission to Time”: “How beautiful we are when submitted fully to time, / knowing some tree from childhood crashing then to earth” (32). Submission to is a condition, not an act; it is a deliberate link to one’s inevitable past. It is less about the narrative details, more about the cry. Which tree from childhood, what it may symbolize, matters less than the emotions it has brought. Later in the book, White says, after trying to identify himself by his age, his poetry, his illness (heart disease), and his father, that “no, this isn’t who I am either; I am the result of these emotions” (53).

White died in 1981. The previously uncollected autobiographical prose that concludes the book has a scene that recalls Ishmael and Queequeg in bed—Army men on a ship crossing the Atlantic. “The troop I slept next to was losing his blanket, . . . and we woke up the next morning holding hands. . . . [T]he one connection that all men have in common, that we are afraid of the dark” (60-61). There is a thrill to reading such absoluteness in the summary of an unspoken event. Of course, the confessional mode is not a thrill to all readers; it has a propensity to overstate. For those nervous of the confessional, White’s verse will be most stylistically challenging when he, as he often does, employs no sexual or metaphoric restraint: “everything rises from my dick to my breath / saying we are here” (17), he writes, and “his open arteries discharged two white colts” (27). His best poems invoke susceptibility and despair, which stand in relief to graphic candor; they are the “transients” that “loiter in downtown parks with / the stillness of foxes” (18).

In the 1970’s, gay poets were often pegged as employing either overt homosexual content or a smart, elegant style. In the introduction to the re-release of this title—part of the Graywolf Press Re/View series, which brings out-of-print titles into another run (Salt Ecstasies has been out of print for twenty-eight years)—Mark Doty cites the influence of James Wright’s “straightforward syntax, plain diction, and emotional availability tied to a faith in the power of the image to convey feeling and meaning” for the new territory White introduced among gay poetry. Doty says, “[White’s poems] are the exhalation of a sorrow held so long it’s become as ordinary as it is sharp.” The autobiographical prose helps translate the poetry’s sharpness into ordinariness. It compliments the images of sorrow and pain by revealing new tenors of the author’s candor. It provides the reader with a more hopeful orientation to the burdensome world of Eros and loss.

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