Extracting the Human out of Humane: J. Michael Wahlgren on Carey Salerno’s Shelter


Shelter, Carey Salerno, Alice James Books

With Carey Salerno’s Shelter, we are introduced to new vocabularies and a new world; an e-room or euthanasia is introduced early in the book and the very elegant titles and wordplay juxtapose with an unfamiliar world for some: the world of animals. The blood and urine oozes as Salerno places elegant words next to the dry words of species and breeds.

There is more than a boring “on all fours” approach to Salerno’s Shelter: a concept of becoming one with the animals and interlocking into their world, their existence, is introduced. Attributing human qualities to animals is one approach that can be used, but the reverse is something rarely touched upon. As Salerno ends her poem “Euthanasia (e-room)” she writes, “We speak with eyes” and when “The sun rides her black back” in the poem “Beach Masque with Dog” there is an interaction between the world of dogs and our world, signified too by the title of this poem.

Salerno uses the couplet the majority of the book to signify togetherness: the world of dogs and other animals and our own world, and their interaction in a shelter. In these pages, the human experience is important, for example, in the poem “Shelter” the protagonist crawls out of the snow and seeks the same shelter.

In the snow, I crawl out

Claw charred earth

—like tundra—

But can’t get at the heart
Before it vanishes

The dogs seek comfort as they “sniff and howl /for shelter / all night.” There is mystery in the world of Salerno. When she uses the term “charred” it’s as if the dogs have pawed away at the earth before “it” eventually disappears. The “it” referring to the impact an animal makes on its keeper’s life or even the shelter itself.

There is a blurred interaction between these “keepers” of the shelter or “keepers of the keys.” For example, Salerno discusses “locking and unlocking the open door” in the poem “Afterlife” wondering in these lines who left these dogs here at the shelter: Who cared for them? Or in the poem “Instead of a Shotgun” an “unaddressed note threading the lock latch Please find home.”

What happens outside of the shelter is also of interest: a missed wedding, getting high outside and becoming paranoid and irresponsible. These ideas introduce a disjointedness which come together in principle with being young and being a teen. There is a need to grow, a need to change. It is the turning of the key that Salerno calls favorable: “Yes, we’re still waiting / to revisit, at night, the immutable scrolls we inked,/ stacked neatly on shelves, each name locked, a chain/ link door.” (“The Unlit Seam”)

These lines are symbolic of change: moving from one home to another home, or moving from irresponsibility to responsibility. The speaking with eyes, takes another form, as Salerno uses words which create new worlds, to introduce the death of animals and the seeking of a painless death.

As the blood oozes, Salerno paints a brief picture of returning to the place where we leave our mark. We also leave our scent (to use the dog analogy). But the most powerful image is “each name locked”; the idea of minimizing someone or some “thing” down to just a name. This can be interpreted to intend some positive or negative. It could be the power of words or even extracting the human out of humane that Salerno is referring to. This caring for animals and the shelter we seek becomes a universal. It becomes a lasting image of this book which makes Salerno’s Shelter, written in a poised and humane manner, a keeper.

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