If hope is the thing with feathers that perches on the soul, what entity—avian or not—is grief? In Christopher Salerno’s fourth book, Sun & Urn, an exemplar of late-late romantic poetry with a madcap and melancholic bent, the answer is sometimes human, sometimes animal, sometimes another object entirely, such as wild lemons. This collection’s central subject is the death of the speaker’s father, and its thematic currents include the grieving and celebrating of mortality, sickness and health, loss and resurrection. Amnesia is placed in opposition to grief, as is the conviction that “We are unassailable only insofar as we produce / in the end something beautiful.”
The author of three previous full-length collections and two chapbooks, Salerno is no stranger to vivid world-making or the elegiac form, joining an honored lineage that includes Rainer Maria Rilke, Emily Dickinson, Larry Levis, Marie Howe, Robert Lowell, and Mark Doty. Yet this book’s juxtaposition of the mourned and the celebrated, the perceived and the real, becomes an occasion for poetry of a singular epistemology:
is not a MILF. But climb
the man and you
will find Romanticism—
climb higher and you
will reach a word cloud
that reads: I am very sick
but don’t yet know it
If truth is not a postulate or axiom, but rather movement, music, love, and meaning, each poem in this collection becomes an act of translation—and interpretation—between natural and created worlds. The human body becomes a perceptible, perceiving instrument with “eight or more openings,” a body on which the laws of nature may be writ but not the future.
Salerno thinks of mortality the way Heidegger thought of event or Bergson of time—as a form of world-making.
Salerno’s speaker thinks of mortality the way Martin Heidegger thought of event or Henri Bergson of time—as a world or a form of world-making. Heidegger’s being-in-the-world becomes a further cause for grief, as it becomes apparent in these poems that the facticity of death is as real as—or at times more real than—the facticity of being. In “Real or in Effigy,” the speaker observes:
My brother discovered
the body at dawn. TV bolted
above. Case of Bud
Light making metaphors
Equal parts creation song and elegy, Sun & Urn makes music out of the husk of the body once it has become object again. The spirit lives on in language and memory in poems such as “Pressed for Details,” which positions the “person one is meant to become” as funereal poplar trees “old enough to offer one’s physical self / as proof of life.”
The title poem, “Sun & Urn,” is a lyric meditation on absolute difference—death is the country from which no traveler returns, but it occurs in a world where perceptions of scale are constantly in flux and expectations subverted. The jagged poem’s form matches its content:
My brother over
the phone asks me if
I’m sitting down. I stand . . .
I sit back down. I am a flag
with two heights.
Do you think it (death) is supposed to come as a surprise?
Like the moon claiming you?
These questions provide the book with its figurative spine—far from reconciled, the speaker’s arguments rival the urgency and lyric beauty of John Donne’s meditations on death. Of equal note are the quieter statements: “It is easier to love / those who are gone.” The public and private functions of the lyric are also carefully attenuated: “I thought dying was like a privacy.”
'I thought dying was like a privacy.'
Formally speaking, death is the mother of abundant beauty in this collection, and yet its argument seems to be for death’s impermanence and beauty’s lastingness, not the other way around. “Formation always comes before form,” says the speaker of “Cohabiting.” Elsewhere, “You can wait your / whole life, skinny limbs reaching / over a body of water, and misunderstand / the way beauty persuades you.” Here formation includes the establishment of a linear narrative or path forward toward the latter half of the book, toward a “new anthem” and “new work,” and out of the process of grieving. However, the sequencing of the father’s death and the speaker’s relationship to what remains is nonlinear, moving from death to imminent death, from different stages of acceptance back to the discovery of the body. Like grief, the process is circular, not straightforward; the logic of this collection rests not in static truths but in love letters and ghost messages, in death and rebirth. The epigraph from Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida speaks to the afterlife of the beloved that continues, whether in memory or photograph: “From a real body, which was there, proceed radiations which ultimately touch me, who am here; the duration of the transmission is insignificant; the photograph of the missing being will touch me like the delayed rays of a star.”
Divided into four sections and largely composed of poems in block stanzas or couplets, this collection again and again reenacts its ars poetica of “formation before form,” addressing its subject matter in fraught poems while transcending it elsewhere with wit and gravitas. “Some poems are / remembrances. Some / do voodoo,” the poem “Helium” explains. Day turns into night, winter into spring, the imagined into the real, and nostalgia into a fierce embrace of the present in poems such as “The Evening Report,” which begins “I wake up remembering that words are tries.” Once the distance between desire and actuality, sign and signifier has been established, the poem speaks of the personal—struggles surrounding conception, the end of a marriage—not through metaphoric flight but through “no ideas but in things,” and the thing being faced is loss. The poems are not merely reporting that loss but using it as a spur for intensified perception.
The rhythmic pulse of the book is tensile, fraught, and electric.
Elsewhere, Salerno reflects on loss from a more philosophical and dispassionate perspective. “Plot,” whose title suggests both blank pasture and “reading into” movement, is a witty homage to the late James Wright: “I have not wasted my life / if the moon has risen / over my Toyota.” Here and elsewhere Salerno strikes a perfect chord between dictions: traditional poetic language joins demotic rhythms, and a love of the “material world” gives way to an awareness of absence (“To say someone is missing is / to measure the unoccupied space”). While the dominant tone in this collection is elegiac, the poems are alive with barbed wit and attention to nuance and paradox, and they move gradually from death to life—the “long crawl back / to health”—and absence to presence—“[t]he moment you realize / you are not present / you are present.” The reader flows along with the speaker to the rhythms of postlapsarian disquiet and transcendental impulse. Self is both constructed and undone in layers, until the integuments of the human are revealed. Eventually the tectonic layers of time shift, and the capacity for statement reasserts itself: “We scrub / ourselves until we have / no smell, like clover flower,” says the speaker of “Helium.”
The rhythmic pulse in the book’s third section, like a body coming back to life, is tensile, fraught, and electric. “September” is the book’s volta: “What all poems reenact: / electricity brings the monster to life— // a jagged scar across every joint.” Salerno extends this Frankensteinian paradox—the power and danger invested in the creator—in the antepenultimate poem, “Sorrow, Architecture,” inspired by and dedicated to Salerno’s late teacher and mentor Liam Rector, who wrote The Sorrow of Architecture. Here Salerno makes visible the contours of the seen world, the trajectory of our emotional life, and our woeful “lack of blueprints.” The speaker is direct:
Last month my father’s heart
attack ended our very long talk
about sports, a career in divorce,
of making one’s way to the coast
where all the best buildings
edge into nature. How a house,
a property, is a horror.
Always roving, whether into the future or downriver into the past, all givens in this collection—including houses and bodies—give way to an embrace of the unknown and the life instinct, however ironically. The final poem, “The Byronic Method,” is the perfect coda to a book on a subject that has no real terminus or closure, not even with the death of the body: “Outside, the leaves / of poplars, large pulmonary leaves / lie on the ground. The end.” It is “the end” of cycles of birth and death, loss and reconstitution, as well as the end of the ligatures, in the lyric, of form. This elegiac book confronts loss on its own terms and in so doing pushes the lyric’s relationship to time and space to the edges of perception. Space—sonic and conceptual—is at its heart, particularly the space that death engenders between people and the distances between dream and mind, survivor and ghost. By measuring these distances, this collection makes its argument against forgetting and oblivion and marks, as is appropriate to elegy, the boundary between life and death, the mundane and the sublime. “[A]we,” says the speaker, “is always a question of scale.” One of the most telling characteristics of grieving (and madness), according to Dickinson, is its endlessness, its improbable scale. The advent of new life allows us to recognize the weight of what we have carried, however boundless and measureless: “Until a daffodil / blooms just below / the scalp— / we put our grief, its infinity / down.”