reviewed by Steven Karl
The Mississippi Review Poetry Series, 2010
Minimum Heroic, Christopher Salerno’s second book, is an exquisitely slim volume of poetry which captures everyday life and transforms it into paintings for the brain. A majority of the poems in this collection seem to fit into the left-margin “conventional” appearance of a poem. So, at first glance, Minimum Heroic may not flash, yet this is exactly where the strength of Salerno’s writing lies. You are seduced by their simple appearance, yet what lies within this volume are tightly crafted miniature worlds where Salerno’s use of enjambment turns the poem into something surprising and complex, such as in “No, Ruin”:
We eat our weight until excess reveals itself. That part of no we don’t understand: wanting to see what we don’t want to see. I think I remember ruin: nothing green. Ruin let me discover it when I couldn’t wait:
Salerno breaks the line at “weight” forcing us to wonder whether he means weight as in pounds or if weight becomes symbolic of physic pressure— that inner turmoil we carry within ourselves. Four lines later “weight” has been transformed into “wait.” Minimum Heroic is filled with subtleties like these, where words are forced to bear the weight as end words in a line and then reappear respelled and redefined. Salerno achieves this also with the word “no”. “No” ends the line as a negation or refusal but the next line informs us that to not “understand” is not to know. Through word play Salerno is able to manipulate and create multiple logics resulting in tightly crafted poems which read like open fields of the imagination.
There are many instances where an impatient reader may feel a sense of disorientation and bemusement similar to reading John Ashbery, or to a lesser degree, Joseph Ceravolo.
Salerno constructs his own world within his poems, and the reader must be willing to enter and accept this world. “Other People’s Lives,” begins, “Breathingly, thirty six clouds cross/ the hot field. The sky crawls/ towards lots.” To love this poem, one may need to imagine thirty-six clouds breathing. What do thirty-six clouds look like? How does a sky crawl? This is the magic of Minimum Heroic. These are simple images, clouds, sky, lots, yet Salerno makes them come alive, and we picture them not as ordinary but extraordinary. It’s a lot like a boxer (the book begins with an epigraph from Marvelous Marvin Hagler), we can diagram the footwork, watch the knees and shoulders, and yet the left jab still seems to explode from nowhere. Salerno’s poems are like this. Skilled, well-trained, and full of unexpected explosions. Another example is in “In The Golden Age of Counterfeiting,” which begins, “The beach full of puddles makes the ocean look bigger./ A fish u-turns, wriggles free, or is that/ its final display of emphasis?/” A beach, a puddle, a fish. Yet to imagine the sea in comparison to the puddle’s perspective and to wonder if a fish is attempting to free itself--that is, fighting for life--or a “final emphasis” which is to accept death and in the face of death go out in a final flash of defiance changes the complexion of the poem entirely. The poem continues, “One could search/ the beach in vain for signs of finality:” These signs of finality (or lack thereof) are really the undercurrent of the book.
Throughout Minimum Heroic we get a sense of exhaustion and disappointment in life. Yet life continues, and in the continuation we see the constant colliding of the natural and the man-made world. Salerno’s book appears to occupy the landscapes of North Carolina and New Jersey. In John Gallaher’s blurb he writes that Salerno “finally bring(s) the idea of the heroic back to a South Jersey town…” The idea of New Jersey and how it fits into the poet’s imagination and ambitions made me think of William Carlos Williams’s book Paterson, in which Williams attempts to capture and celebrate a New Jersey city. While Salerno does not necessary work in the same poetic mold as Williams, both books are ambitious in their idea of New Jersey. Whereas Williams attempts to give the reader a direct correspondence to Paterson, Salerno gives us snap-shots like stolen or pilfered images and then carefully constructs a poem around them, so that we are left with a sense of the place as opposed to a knowing of the place. With Williams, it is important for us to hear the people and to feel the bustle yet Salerno’s sense of place is not rooted so much in direct action, instead it relies on intrinsic interpretations and the emotions that are the result of being in New Jersey.
The tradition within Romantic poetry is to leave the urban behind and escape into nature where one has time to think and reflect. What I like about Salerno’s book is he does not choose between the urban and natural. For Salerno the world--constructed, lived, imagined, or dreamt--exists in the tension between the natural world (birds, flowers, insects, trees) and the man-made world (mannequins, glass, bubble wrap, Weehawkin).
The poem “Whirl,” gives us a perfect example of nature and the man-made colliding,
I fall asleep to the sound of birds bumping glass. I go to bed full of blackberries and wake as a bride… Winningly, winter locks itself in a carriage of ice. Outdoors, zero down. A catalogue trapped in winter branches.
The speaker makes this dance between the constructed and evolved (or created, depending on your philosophy) clear earlier in the poem where he writes,
I am embarrassed, not for us, but for our building’s inability to translate from its stoop the letters I drop from the window chased by metallic bugs blinking prototypes from the countryside. Clean lines hurry wind. All day my window hoards its crust of snow. A hawk moth on the Coffee-mate folds asleep and out of the cat’s dream.
Minimum Heroic is a book about the world we walk in every day--where nature coexists and survives in the mess of our manufactured things--and the world we construct or deconstruct when we close our eyes.