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Justin Marks on Christopher Salerno

Christopher Salerno. Whirligig. Spuyten Duyvil: 2006. $10.00

If there is a criticism to level at Christopher Salerno’s Whirligig, it is that the poems are too tight, that the poet is asserting too much control over them. Once or twice while reading, I would have liked to feel as if a poem might spin a little out of control, or feel some unevenness in the book, some bumps in the road. That those qualities are absent, however, doesn’t really diminish Salerno’s high accomplishment with this first book of bizarrely human voices and rich, nuanced tones.

I’m not exaggerating when I say Whirligig is one of the five best new books of poetry I’ve read this year [1] . It is dense, driven by associative leaps and juxtaposition, but at the same time (once you are immersed in its world) is remarkably accessible. It has a seductive “best of both worlds” quality. Whirligig clearly occupies post-avant realms but does not give itself over to pure experimentation. These poems are complex, insightful, perplexing, humorous, sincere and ironic, often simultaneously.

“Little good, the profundity of flying over iris fields / when we land ululating,” Salerno writes in “A County,” the opening lines of the collection’s first poem.

Wheel sparks

jump to a thin riot’s tune. Not the usual blues

I write in my daybook, with its rubbings

of a disproportionate world

whose constellations throb and that is what aches.

Profundity, the kind often put on pedestals in mainstream poetry, is of little good in this world. Things are too mixed up and unstable. Even sadness (the usual blues) is different than we’re used to. Still, there are the ever-present, ancient constellations, the ache of simply being a human in a disproportionate world that defines life and drives the act of writing. That sadness pervades Whirligig.

Salerno presents varieties of sadness, all done with a light (but never nonchalant) touch, which makes his poems all the more arresting. “Try Loving Someone Who Doesn’t Love You,” for example, explores the sadness that comes from spiritual exasperation:

Try approaching the light so sloshed all you do

is rise in the wafting breeze


tuck your two

immense wings in,

click your thorax and go


It’s true that “We’re alone in our best visions,” as Salerno says in the book’s title poem. But it’s equally true that we are simply alone, regardless of what may or may not exist beyond this world.

Terrestrial romantic love might be a salve, but is not curative, as evidenced in “Octopus”:

I’m wanting

to recover the legs of you


wrap them over my arms

like devices new


swimmers use

to ignore drowning.

Love, if it survives (and these lines suggest it won’t, or hasn’t), can help one ignore the emotional weight of mortality, but it ultimately does nothing to save one from the lonely fact of dying.

Salerno’s poems also have a sophisticated and subtle sense of humor, which is sadness inverted. Some of them go so far as to wear a bit of the “man-walks-into-a-bar” rhetorical guise of jokes, as in these lines from “Single Family Home Detached”: “Seller says: ‘Home includes sound of slight pounding.’” Of course, seller also says, “O landscape! O field! Field has potential mountain inside,” which retains some of the feel of a joke (like the idea that a real estate agent would speak like this, which is the poem’s main source of humor), but ultimately is not. When Salerno employs humor, the poems succeed by being jokes, and not, which is impressive and speaks to the breadth and buoyancy of the book as a whole. [2]

Some poems in Whirligig are certainly stronger than others. Despite that, I am tempted to say there are no real missteps in the collection, which, as I say, is part of its strength and weakness. What I see as Salerno’s major accomplishment, though, is his ability to make a book of poems that occupy their own idiosyncratic world, one animated by the feeling that “We do not know what will happen. / We know what will happen. It is easier / than it has ever been” (“Not Dying”).

Remarkable, truly.

[1] The other four being Jen Tynes’ The End of Rude Handles, Allyssa Wolf’s Vaudeville, Lara Glenum’s The Hounds of No and Brent Cunningham’s Bird & Forest. There are certainly others, but these are the ones that have left the most lasting impressions.

[2] Another example of joke rhetoric is in these lines from “Australopithecus Interruptus”: “Five ex-courtesans lie around a hotspring,” and “—a year nearly sexless if / you don’t count beating on my own cave.” In “Closing the Book of Nursery Rhymes” humor takes the shape, perhaps, of a reference to John Turturro’s character in The Big Lebowski: “It’s this going that’s the Jesus.”

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