At one point in Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Road, the main character laments how he’s forgetting things’ names: “Colors. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true.” The work in this issue of Salamander reacts against this amnesia, knowing that loss in specifics results in loss of meaning. As Jennifer Barber, the editor, says, “[These pieces] restore the essential questions about what we live through, what we imagine, and what we tell, answering Rilke’s call to ‘Speak and bear witness.’” Through Salamander’s focus on life’s details, it does just that.
For example, in “Sin Verguenza,” C.D. Collins gives excellent descriptions of a canning plant, the workplace of the narrator. How many people have actually been inside the place much of our food comes from? Not many, but passages like the following make the reader feel like he’s at least visited: “We screw earplugs in against the noise of cans clattering their wire chutes, the huff of seamers, the rumble of the graders shaking the fruit forward into the flumes, the hum of the belts, and people trying to yell over top of all that. Some people wear whistles.” Or take Michelle Gillett’s “Persephone at Home” which humorously relates Persephone’s return home after her time in Hades: “Demeter on the verge of tears / stirs the copper pot of polenta. / Zeus numb with daughters, / snips the end of cigars, / places them in the humidor.” Besides the vivid details, this poem proves that, yes, more legitimate pieces actually can be written based on Persephone. Poetry continues to make the old new.
My favorite poems in this issue were two from the early 1940s by William Stafford: “Stranger” and “Like Whitman,” the former which wonderfully captures a misplaced person’s thoughts in its conclusion: “Strangers walked; / My hat felt alone; / everyone stood; / No one was to blame. / And only the wind ever said my name. / And the town I felt to be stone.”
A couple critical essays conclude the issue, one – Emily Taylor Merriman’s “Mind the Gap” – which made me aware of a few important poets as well as differences between modern and postmodern British and American poetry. All in all, this issue of Salamander fulfills its mission, and I am glad, for to “speak and bear witness” is as necessary as breathing, though more artful and not quite as automatic.