What’s Going On Here?: David James on Liana Quill and Christopher Salerno

Fifty Poems, Liana Quill, Mississippi Review Press, 2010

Minimum Heroic, Christopher Salerno, Mississippi Review Press, 2010

Two books crossed my desk this week, award winners in the Mississippi Review Poetry Series: Fifty Poems by Liana Quill and Minimum Heroic by Christopher Salerno. Attractive, appealing, well-designed, these books called out to me to read them. When I began to read, I was dumbfounded. Okay, I’m old. I’m at a point in my writing/teaching career (code words for “I’ve been around and don’t give a damn”) where I can write negative reviews. Nobody really knows me and I’ve always been on the outskirts of the poetry scene. However, I’m widely read and I’ve cultivated my own particular aesthetic values, influenced heavily by James Wright, Anne Sexton, Richard Hugo, Galway Kinnell, Stephen Dunn, Sharon Olds, Ron Koertge, James Tate, and, of course, many others. This may explain my confusion as I read these new books.

First, let’s review Fifty Poems. Quill gives us fifty very short poems, haiku-like, in fifty pages. The longest poem is ten words. Other than providing some interesting examples of assonance, alliteration and consonance, the poems carry little to no meaning, power, emotional impact or insight. Here are six examples:

Nevada              brother’s keeper

camel-glow           over             circle
towhee-ed pieces:             lesser-linen
in a box.             nested.

iris whole             repentance:
gap packed—twig and soil

change for

1615 Cortland Road                       bent,

pigeon-eaves,           and candle
call a name.           lit
absolution parted

She ends, with:

wire-tap feet
cut blue.

woodscott, and
hooked chance

Perhaps my desire to be moved in some elemental human way by poetry is my downfall, but these brief snippets leave me cold and flat. I am certainly not biased against short work, like haikus. A good haiku can shed light on the world and be full of tension. But Fifty Poems, read as a whole group, one through fifty, bewilders me. How did this manuscript win a national book award from an esteemed academic press?

The other book, Minimum Heroic, by Christopher Salerno, is baffling in other ways. The poems look like typical poems until I read them. Again, let me curse my archaic indulgence in wanting poetry to enlighten and/or order the world for me. I want the poem to “touch” me through sound and meaning, not confuse and irritate me. Here is one of many examples, “Parks, Recreation”:

Except for clearing the land by fire,
not much is legal.

To create tension, debris lay
on one third of an acre.

I’m wrong. This bottle was left here
by kids. They are more

afraid of you than you are of them,
and lay flat as a banner

for soldiers flying over.
We put our blanket down in the fog.

Our kite holds a mirror to nature.
We’re dead. Our days are

pressed into slides. I must be coming
down with something—

you are standing right there
in the clearing:

tight white headband, racket
between your thighs.

When I’m wrong, a blush
awakens in the sky.

It seems as if words are placed together precisely because they combine to mean nothing coherent. It’s as if the poet said, “Let’s place these uncommon images with these uncommon words and hope someone or something will create meaning out of them.” Maybe some readers can, but I can’t. No matter how many times I read these poems, I come away lost. Here’s another Salerno poem:

receive the jolt
of roosting.

The rent was good.
They said it on the radio.
We watched the TV.

Capillaries of the pink cheek.
Flowers in gun barrels.

The rent was good? Whose rent? What did they say on the radio? Every line in this poem confuses me more than the previous one.

There are at least three possible explanations for my disconnect with Fifty Poems and Minimum Heroic. The first focuses on aesthetics. I have a different value system for poetry; my assumptions about what a good poem should do vary dramatically from the ideas of these poets (and judges). This is a legitimate difference of opinion and neither of us is wrong or right (actually, time will determine the truth). Secondly, I am not hip or young enough to understand the quality work in these books. In other words, I’m blind and over-the-hill, which may be true. And lastly, the poems in these award-winning books might just be mediocre poetry, mistakenly selected for publication. This option presumes that errors were made by many in the process of reading and selecting. In my heart of hearts, I pray for the first explanation.

David James teaches at Oakland Community College. His most recent book, She Dances Like Mussolini, was published by March Street Press in 2009. His one-act plays have been produced California, Massachusetts, Michigan and New York.

12 responses to “What’s Going On Here?: David James on Liana Quill and Christopher Salerno

  1. Thanks, Bill, for understanding. I’ll keep writing my way and we can let others write their way. As I said, only time will tell–it’s the only true judge of quality and substance.

  2. I agree with Mr. James on almost all points in the review (although I found Salerno’s collection infinitely better than Quill’s), but thought the writers posting here would like a little more inanity, more “scripture” if I may steal Bill Pruitt’s allusion to “the priests of the the cognoscenti.” Everyone simply MUST go to blackbird.com to see the actual “ABC’s of Reading Liana Quill!” I about shit my pants laughing/trembling in fear, especially when I realized that these are the people choosing what gets published…

  3. Interesting discussion. As poets, any response is a good response, eh?

    I fall back to Wallace Stevens’ comment that “poetry is the daily necessity of getting the world right.” I prefer poems that struggle to make sense of the world–if only temporarily.

  4. previous should read …”subjectivity that nullifies [evaluative process]. Can there be evaluatie process without [subjectivity]?

  5. Hi, Justin. Why do you say “only” an I? What is “I?” Is it the self? Is it limited in any way? Is there any real distinction to be made between “I” and the soul? What is my apparent world-view? Is there something about subjectivity that nullifies subjectivity? Can therc be any evaluative process WITHOUT subjecticity?
    And I don’t think there is such a thing as “good art.”

  6. Hi Bill,

    I’m confused by your response. If the world isn’t for anyone other than “I,” how can you make the claim that a good work of art fills the soul? If there is only an “I” how can you claim that there even is a soul?

    If the world is totally subjective, how can you make any evaluative claims about anything? All you really can say is either you like or dislike something.

    If you don’t like these books, that’s fine, but, based on your apparent world-view, you can’t turn around and say that you don’t like them because they fail to “fill anything.” Neither can you make claims about what is a true work of art.

  7. Hi Jon. Everything is “for me” because everything is subjective. We know there are others in the world besides us, yet when we experience a work of art, if it’s not “for” us, then for whom? I counter your notion of irresponsibility: I say it’s irresponsible to assume the world is for anyone other than “I.” Do you mean by “ultimately,” outside the work of art? There’s nothing outside a true work of art; it fills the heart, the soul. (The mind.) I mean that. It fills it. Except this stuff doesn’t fill anything. That’s the problem. My point about inevitable obliteration is that it is just that, inevitable, for everything, and need not be reflected in form and content; that in fact, the form and content can suggest great order/organization even with awareness of imminent disorder.

  8. Bill, hi! To follow up on your thought about the sand painting, my impression is that the fragility of the sand painting, and its inherent impermanence, are part of the meaning, not “after” the meaning. The inevitable obliteration exists in tension with, and destabilizes, the order so painstakingly created. This doesn’t order the world, ultimately, but it is surely about the world, and a part of it. The notion that the world could be ordered “for me” is maybe an irresponsible one to insist on — it maybe steers us away from the truth, or away from “the world,” rather than toward it.

  9. To Jon Woodward:
    Does anything “stay?” Does that mean we don’t do it? The Tibetans’ sand paintings are no less meaningful, intricate and ordered because the artist obliterates them afterward. “Order” in no way implies permanence.

  10. “Again, let me curse my archaic indulgence in wanting poetry to enlighten and/or order the world for me. ”

    When you read poetry that orders the world for you, does the world stay ordered for you?

    When you read poetry that orders the world for you, is that poetry part of the world, or separate from it?

  11. Reading this, I feel like there is at least one other person in the Invasion of the Body Snatchers who has not had the back of his head drilled. Thank you, David James. Now the more crucial questions: who are these people giving awards and what is their motivation? Perhaps to valorize poetry that only they, the high priests of the cognoscenti, can interpret? This really isn’t a “legitimate difference of opinion.” It’s a naked power grab. They don’t need “ordinary readers” except to help keep the funding going.