EP&M Online Review

A Matter of Mind
Joseph Saling
Foothills Publishing, 2004
ISBN: 0-941053-28-8
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 ribbons shimmer.
    Peepers sound like Morris bells.

    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 stirrings underground
    And with their steps and song awaken
    Ancient legends 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,
    Named Daedalaus, could build you anything
    You asked.  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 fill." 

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: 
            past birds
                 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:

                    Their antiphon
    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 this way:

    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 middle.   

                                              Austin MacRae