Foothills Publishing, 2004
Copies may be ordered at www.foothillspublishing.com.
A Mixed Bag
Being in the middle can be a
risky business, especially when it comes to modern poetry
circles. That poets, critics, and other members of a largely
esoteric community will continue to debate the value of free-verse
versus formal poetry is a given, though both parties would now agree
that the argument is a tired one. Even free-verse, when practiced
by a talented wordsmith, can lead to a successful product, as evidenced
on a weekly basis in The New Yorker—well,
not exactly. But seriously, from the point of view of artistic
development, experimenting with both techniques is a healthy
idea. However, when one thinks about the added pressure of
publishing poetry, the division reappears, even wider this time.
How many journals accept (not just purport to accept in Poet's Market) both free-verse and
formal poetry on a regular basis? And how many collections over
the past twenty years would truly qualify as a mixed bag? Sure,
there are some well-known poets who write in free-verse as well as play
around with rhyme and meter, though not in a regular way; for example,
critics praise the formal aspects of Paul Muldoon's poetry, though
scanning much of his work presents some problems. And as I've
noticed lately, "blank verse" has become a blanket term that is applied
to any poetry that looks formal on the page--that is, the lines are
chopped off evenly and contain four, five, or six stresses per
line--why be too picky? But these examples aside, there is an
expectation--sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit--that poets who
wish to have their collections taken seriously by the poetry elite in
either circle must choose a side. I should amend that last
statement to usually take a side, since there are a few notable
exceptions. Dana Gioia's The
Gods of Winter is one of the few collections I've come across
that qualifies as a mixed bag--free-verse and formal poetry seamlessly
combined to form an impressive whole.
Ultimately, of course, quality is the issue, regardless of whether the
poet includes both free-verse and formal poems in his collection.
Is it an even read? Are the ideas fully developed? Applying
these questions to Joseph Saling's debut collection, A Matter of Mind, a mixed bag of
free-verse and formal work, I would answer "yes" to all. Saling
has been appeared widely in journals over the years, and it's high time
that a publisher took notice. That publisher is Foothills
Publishing, who must be commended for the volume's pleasing design,
elegant in its simplicity; the cover is cream-colored with a speckling
of blue-gray; the spine is hand-stitched with black thread; both of
these features highlight colors present in the center photo, a bonsai
tree twisting its way out of a dark pot. And here the poet must
be commended for his photo choice, a twisted beauty that becomes the
theme of the collection. The photo is small and dark; the
background behind the tree is a palette of shifting blues, grays,
purples, and oranges, which remains dark except around the canopy of
the tree, which is circled in white light.
If someone were to ask me to characterize the mood of Saling's work in
one word, it would be "bittersweet." Saling focuses on a number
of themes suited for elegy, such as aging, death, the cycle of the
seasons, and the human desire to be perfect in the face of
imperfection. Indeed, those in search of humor must look elsewhere.
Sometimes these themes lead the author to a more personal mode of
writing; other times the narrator's voice remains detached.
But above all, Saling's work is extremely approachable. Let us
begin at the beginning, the first of three sections, with a truncated
sonnet called "Morris Dancing," in which the poet uses tetrameter lines
to enhance the musical feel, the rhythm of ritual:
The morning and
the evening glimmer.
Heaven turns and
the earth's heart swells.
Dances in their
Peepers sound like
These people have
their drums and horns.
They have their
song and watcher's eyes.
Callers tell them
of their forms.
And with their
simple faith in earth and sky
The dancers' feet
repeat the sounds
Of new life
And with their
steps and song awaken
the world's forsaken.
They dance for
Demeter's cyclic plight,
And the earth
responds with green delight.
In Edward Zuk's recent EP&M Online essay "Easy Poetry," he states,
"Easy poetry is verse in which the choice of diction, themes, and
syntax proceeds without strain or distortion." This definition
may certainly be applied to "Morris Dancing," with its delightful
treatment of earthly renewal through physical movement. Sure,
formally, one could nit-pick some of the rhymes; why, for example, does
the author change to slant rhymes in the second stanza after such a
tight opening? Why does he rhyme "sounds" with "underground" in
the third stanza when a perfect rhyme is one letter away? As far
as meter goes, everything is in tip-top shape (Saling uses
substitutions nicely) except for line eight, which is five feet.
But small formal matters aside, Samuel Johnson would call it easy
poetry, a poem of celebration in which "natural thoughts are expressed
without violence to the language."
A more specific characteristic of easy poetry is the ability to allude
to high literature and art without sounding stuffy, another of Saling's
strengths. In "Perdix Tells the Tale," the apprentice retells the
story of Daedalaus, the cunning craftsman who built a maze for King
Minos's bastard child, born after the king's wife cheated on him with a
bull. We get a bird's-eye view of the whole story, as Perdix
tells the story in extremely understated, modern diction. This is
one the few pieces that made me chuckle. Consider the opening:
I'll tell you how
it all began. This man,
could build you anything
One day, the king calls up and says
His wife has slept
with a bull. He doesn't mean
A stud who's hung
just like a bull. He means
A bull. And
then this lady has a kid,
A monster kid who
looks a little like
A man but looks a
lot more like a bull.
Everything about this poem--the unforced syntax, conversational tone,
and anachronisms (Perdix describes the maze as a puzzle "worthy of The
New York Times")--works together to rejuvenate an ancient tale.
The end of the poem focuses on Perdix himself, no longer able to build
anything but stories--reduced to watcher, recorder, storyteller--but in
the end, accepting of his fate, "a tried / and worthwhile job for a
nearly flightless bird."
In "It Was Just a Silly Typo," Saling leaves the realm of myth and
takes the opportunity, as many poets do, to uncover the larger
significance of a small, everyday error. The first line of this
sort-of-sonnet begins with the aforementioned erratum: "'Time
came and went to [sic] fast.'" Saling builds the boo-boo into
three quatrains, in which time "passed up the future, ignored the
past," "came to seek a place of solitude," and "asked the Western Wind
to lie still / against the water until it calmed the prancing /
waves." Saling very effectively enjambs the twelfth line of the
poem, letting it spill into the final couplet where time finally gets
its way, in the form of a big fat period. The final couplet is
effective, though not entirely breathtaking: "And when all things
had bowed to time's will, / Time rose again and went to have its
A much finer example of a closing couplet is seen in the next poem,
another sonnet entitled "In a New York Gallery." The poem
contains two voices, first the tour guide who responds to the
dissatisfaction of the visitor with the following lines: "'Again
I can / Tell you this man does bronze as fine as Rodin / At his
best...But I understand. / You want to see him make some piece of a
man's / Soul not yet encountered. The perfect statue.'" The
rest of the poem is spoken by the art enthusiast, who dreams of a
statue of Adam and Eve before the fall of man, sculpting his words
brilliantly in the final couplet: "I want / Tremoring lips and limbs
where perfection lay. / The immortal climax of innocent play."
There are several free-verse poems in the first section that will catch
the reader's attention, especially "the master s words," in which
Saling plays around with spacing and punctuation to prove that we do
not own words after all (hence the omitted apostrophe in the
title). Words have the power to lift us up briefly, the speaker
notes, until we find ourselves:
for an updraft.
The second section contains one of Saling's finest pieces, "The Wood
Pile," an elegy for his father. The poem consists of three parts,
linked by the metaphor of splitting wood, the poem propelled by the
image of a sledge, rising and falling and hitting the wedge squarely,
then rising again. The poem opens with the poet's memories of his
father watching him work outside from the window: Saling writes, "I
felt your eyes freeze me, as they do now, / The sledge lifted over my
head, my arms / Straight, muscles pushing toward release." The
second part of the poem juxtaposes the inside of the house, where the
father watches, with the cold outdoors in more detail.
Ultimately, the distinction blurs and father and son become one:
"We leaned into the wind and built the pile, / Hearing echoes together
through the dark."
The third section rounds out A
Matter of Mind with some poems about faith, or more often than
not, broken faith. In "Jason at Sunrise Service," a
father's solitude is broken by his son, Jason, who, on the night before
Easter, cuts his hand and has to go to the hospital for stitches. The
father states, "They [children] don't care / That their lives intrude
on yours with that glaring / Arrogance of youth that can't stay
still." The speaker's sense of isolation grows as he watches
others sing Hallelujah at dawn. The distance between speaker and
subject widens, as he no longer feels able to share the group's
faith. The poem closes thus:
Goes with me down
the hill. He's just begun.
Their road is like
a ribbon with no end,
And I'm too old to
remember where it starts.
They'll sing and
share the bread. I'll set the fan
Inside the car on
high. I'll sleep at noon.
The book closes as it began, with a dance. This dance, however,
is more personal--and touching--than the first. The poem,
entitled "The Advent Dance," is a short piece that focuses on a father
and daughter, doing a jig around a Christmas tree. The father,
despite his growing sense of mortality, describes the experience in
And as I reached
up to drape the branches
in their silver
shimmer and felt the pain
make its way
across my arm and chest,
I knew the last
thing I would say would be
I'm glad we danced.
To conclude, A Matter of Mind is
a highly recommended collection of free-verse and formal work. Let us
hope that publishers continue to notice Saling's work and that another
collection appears soon. This collection by itself covers a
lifetime of searching for the perfect words and the perfect way in
which to express them—a lifetime of dancing in the