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Volume 44, Number 2 (Winter 2006)

Looking Behind the Mask

Masquerade
by Joseph S. Salemi.
Pivot Press (Expansive Poetry Online Bookstore), 84 pp., $12.00 paper, 2005.

Sally Cook

It is an act of courage to publish such a collection as Masquerade in the face of today’s feckless critics and the mindless gruel that most call poetry. Masquerade is a testament to the tremendous amount of knowledge, ancient and modern, required to achieve the perspective the author enjoys. Joseph Salemi’s poems have many levels, and those questions addressed in them are always worth the asking. Probably most important, Masquerade is a reaching out to those poets who are unaware that such poetry can be written! The poetry establishment is consumed with trendiness, political correctness, and plain bad writing. Salemi, a widely published poet and translator who teaches at New York University and Hunter College, reminds us that poetry, at its best, is imbued with historical consciousness and is engaged with the eternal verities of life.

There is something of the ancient Roman about Salemi; one can see him up close to the assassin, taking notes on where the dagger was concealed and how it found its home. He has learned the lessons of history well. Joseph Salemi is a poet who abhors the sloppiness of our age. Greatly to their credit, his poems resist being placed within the usual hierarchy of the presently acceptable. His larger vision shows us how we live in a giant fog of self concern and self approval, and he wants to shake us out of it; to make readers think, as Horace and Catullus did. He desires that poets be better poets.

Salemi is skilled in discerning the difference between putting one’s individual imprint on a well-made poetic work and the mindless expression of personal feelings. His scholarly knowledge and interest in the ancient world come together to produce sensitive and oblique comments on the Worlds That Were and The World That Is, and the satiric observations he makes cast a cold light on obscurantism and prissiness of all kinds.

In direct contradiction to the meat of Salemi’s work, much of what passes for poetry today ends up going down like a fizzy soft drink. Even the humor of his short poem “Oneiromancy” (quoted here in its entirety) has both classical reference and the bite of an Ogden Nash poem.

Oneiromancy

“Dreams are sent by God our maker,”
Joseph told he Pharaoh’s baker.
“Pretty soon you’ll be garrotted—
Birds will peck your flesh when rotted.”
Such answers plain and without fretwork
You won’t hear on the Psychic Network.

The observations on godly pomposity of those who think they are above us, contained in his subtle analysis in “Jove’s Apologia to Juno For His Infidelity” illuminate today’s world and make the ancients come alive. He has salient things to say which are expressed as he takes off from subjects such as Icarus’ flight, the arrival of Columbus in a New World, the lives of Villon and Donne; even Benvenuto Cellini’s salt-cellar. In these poems, this poet seems to be telling us “Poets, show some interest in the past, or suffer the consequences!”

Some, assuming that Salemi is combative, unsubtle and too much concerned with uncomfortable subjects, are moved to attack his form, content, and style. Sometimes they sign their names, sometimes they do not. Why do they react so strongly to him? Perhaps it’s because he is not really talking about the Rome of 2,000 years ago, or seventeenth century London or any other time in the past. Those of his poems which refer to the past are inevitably applicable to the present.

Joseph S. Salemi is generous with his knowledge. He only asks that you think on it. His detractors should read his poem “The Yellow Leaf.” This poem of many levels speaks of the eternal order of things, rising far above our civilization of cigarette butts and coffee-lids. It is a particularly lovely and profound poem, and I quote in part:

…(It)…Looks on a flowing gutter with its freight
Of sodden cigarette butts, paper scraps,
Dissolving newsprint, gasoline, a spate
Of broken sticks and coffee lids. Perhaps
Its eight rhumbs, like a compass rose, reach out
To mark direction in this tangled flux
With lodestar fixity, resolving doubt
By true convergence at a common crux.

Such is a yellow leaf. At least it seems
To function so above the gutter’s streams.

This book Masquerade, in sum a stinging indictment of the way we live now, is that yellow leaf.

Salemi’s scope is wide, and can be both light and serious. One of Salemi’s best poems is “Corporate Opportunity,” which examines the way in which so many of us must live. Other poems shine their light on what might be significant moments in anyone’s life. We are treated to his observations on such diverse themes as snobbery, fashion, class differences, a blind date, and even the burden of listening to Wagner. The poem “The Diver’s Dirge,” dun-colored and doleful, paints a canvas full of the joys of isolation and the price paid for its renunciation. “What Price Wisdom” is a marvelously wise comment on age and its lessons. Poetry workshops, academics, degree-driven suckups; all catch a bit of the sharp lash of Joseph S. Salemi’s tongue.

The variety of subject and poetic expression continues in Masquerade. One of the loveliest of Salemi’s works, “An Academy Painter Judges The Impressionists,” delineates the limits of conventional aesthetic judgment, and shows his far-reaching range. In the cluster of poems jump-started by quotes from or about other writers, Salemi gets inside their heads; he might be continuing a conversation with a writer from another age. I’m thinking particularly of “In One Ear” (about Boswell), and the poem titled “Rimbaud’s Apologia,” though there are others.

On occasion, Salemi even turns a cold eye on himself. Here is a poet who thinks deeply and communicates well in so many ways. From reading his poems I learn of his delight in art and calligraphy, his love of wine, and of his remarkably unsentimental attitude toward status, power, sex and other personal experience. In fact, unsentimentality is his forte ‘, and it is a quality we desperately need in an age of cant. Both of Salemi’s war poems, “Shell Shock” and “The Price of Flowers,” are dense, reserved and heavy, as monuments to the past should be; yet the kernel of meaning in each is as clear as crystal.

I quote from “The Price of Flowers”:

…The world’s still rife
With mayhem, spite, stupidity’s dull spell,
And savagery enough to rival hell.
The ground we harrowed with our slaughtered sons
Sprouts the same weeds, and gives off the old smell.

Perhaps the most difficult thing for any poet to do is to meld his knowledge of his art with what life has taught him. Somewhat like imprinting a footprint on wet sand, the process which produces such works can never be totally directed, but occurs as one walks along through life, succeeding in putting one foot ahead of the other. Salemi’s footprints are strong and sure; they lead to a place worth going.

I would hate for such a worthy book as Masquerade to lie gathering dust on the shelf, while all the hypocrisy and effusiveness of the age is enjoying a spotlight of attention. There are many things contained in and concerning this book that call for contemplation of the most serious kind.

As this collection demonstrates, Salemi is a complex, often profound poet who knows how to make everything work in order to reach his goal. He is a poet who has found entrance to the narrow way which connects technique and form, issues, personal preference, and commentary. His poems are sharp, direct, even at times acidic, and he is not afraid to put a seldom-used word to work. Here, in Masquerade, we are treated to a banquet of form, fantasy and a love of words and how they work. Salemi’s language is anything but politically correct, and I love it.

Salemi can be playful, cynical, oblique and deeply serious. If these poems shock you, it is to get your attention. Once he has it, there are lessons there for anyone to learn. Just read the book. You’ll see.

Sally Cook is both artist and poet. As a painter, she was a participant in the historic Tenth Street Galleries, where she was a member of both the Phoenix and Camino galleries and the Artist’s Club. Her many paintings of Emily Dickinson have been discussed in scholarly journals and her poetry has been widely published. Presently, an E-book of her poetry can be seen on the website of The New Formalist.

Posted: March 21, 2007

Mere unthinking negative opposition to the current of events, clutching in despair at what we still retain, will not suffice in this age. A conservatism of instinct must be reinforced by a conservatism of thought and imagination.

Russell Kirk

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