Summer Words: New and Selected Poems
David Salner, Broadstone Books, $20 (118 pp) ISBN 978-1-956782-32-5
What most attracts me to this wonderful collection is the narrative logic that threads the different sections together. From section I “Mugshots” to section III “The Seventy Ninth Miner,” Salner takes us through the underbelly of American history. The collection’s opening poem, “The New World,” is a salvo of sorts, firing a shot over the bow of that most popular trope of the United States, the American Dream. A first generation speaker looks back on his Hungarian grandmother, who fled violence and oppression in Hungary by immigrating to the United States:
I have been imagining how my grandmother
would have left Hungary, with only a sweater
to cover her bones, squinting at the sun
in the haze of the ocean, as her new husband
plays something like a guitar, but smaller
She joins him in a chorus about a horse
who responds to the touch of a Gypsy trainer
but not the whip of the Hungarian master.
These newlyweds left in a hurry, carrying only
the little guitar and the old gray sweater.” (3)
The poem is a snapshot of the plight of so many refugees past and present, who left their countries in a hurry to find a safe haven. For these immigrants, and many others like them, America offers a life of freedom and opportunity, which is at the heart of the American mythos. The singing and joy of the refugees in the poem attests to this. However, Salner complicates this mythos, as he often does, by ending with ambiguity rather than certainty. The speaker here is not among the immigrants on the ship. They are looking back with a present knowledge that the refugees of the poem couldn’t possibly have. For this reason, the speaker has a very different perspective than his grandmother, “The wind whips over the great steel decks / as she tells a joke about the subtle difference / between luck and fortune. They squint at a spot / suspended over the ocean. Even I see it— / that opal haze, brilliant with vagueness” (3).Through this vagueness, the present day speaker both recognizes that the United States saved these refugees when staying in Hungary meant certain death but also recognizes that this is not the case for all who come to or live within its bounds. One person’s American Dream can be another person’s American nightmare.
This is the case with “A Short Poem On the Shooting By Police of Charquisa Johnson, April 27, 2003, In Washington, DC.” There is no escape or singing here. In fact, a moment of joy is abruptly ended by the murder of a young African American mother. “The police said she held a gun in the air / and refused to drop it. Her friend / said her hands were empty / except for the kiss she was blowing / her two children” (9).
For Charquisa, America offered a similar danger as Hungary did for specific racial groups in the 1930s and 1940s.Salner is at his best in Summer Words when making subtle historical comparisons. If the immigrants of “The New World” are escaping racial violence, this poem makes the point that for many in the United States, this brutal reality exists and has existed for a long time.
It seems one of Salner’s main projects in this book is to build bridges between those in the underclass, which is why the many poems about dangerous work are so important to understanding the collection’s macro-approach to history. These poems never fall into the trap of trying to equate experience. Instead, they seek to create common ground, which harkens back to the class consciousness that spurred labor activists of an earlier age. “Frank Little in the Big Sky State,” tells the story of a union organizer for the Western Federation of Minors and the Industrial Workers of the World. In 1917, while attempting to lead a strike of copper miners in Butte, Montana,he was abducted and lynched by six masked men. They beat him and then tied him to the bumper of a car, dragging him to Milwaukee Bridge where they would lynch him. Salner captures the violence with brutal simplicity:
They beat him because it was clear
as moonlight to them that their fists
had the right to break a man’s jaw
and muddy his flesh and blood
with their blows; then they tied him
to the bumper and dragged him
out of town …” (43)
Just as with many instances of violence depicted throughout this collection, Frank Little represents the rot beneath the veneer of American idealism. These ideals champion democracy, equality, and humanity, but many who have attempted to use these ideals to fight for the rights of the underclass often find themselves the victims of ant-democratic violence. When Little is found the next day, there is a sign with his body, saying “First and Last Warning.” The poem moves into a bit of irony here because the sign doesn’t stoke fear in the miners. Instead, they throw it away and bury Little with honor,“The next morning, we found him / cinched to the sky / and cut him down and claimed him / because it was our right / and buried him beneath red roses / and threw away the sign” (43).
Ultimately, the murder and sign have the opposite effect. It galvanizes the miners to continue a fight that will result in the rights most American workers still enjoy. Salner’s poems manage to acknowledge these victories without falling into patriotic solipsism. To recognize them is to argue that change is possible.
Considering the attack on many of these gains for workers in the United States today, it makes sense that Salner chooses to end the book with poems that pull us back into the factories and mills of a not too long ago past. One of the most powerful is “Furnace:”
I think of it as a lake of yellow steel
breaking through the darkness, almost spectral,
sizzling with waves that bake my skin.
I toss in fist-sized rocks of iron, manganese, and chrome. (73)
Much of the steel industry has left the United States, so most will not have experience with its many dangers. One lapse in attention could lead to death or mutilation, so workers had to be on guard at all times. The speaker’s partner in “Furnace,” who “left the Pima reservation when the mines shut down,” makes this perfectly clear by telling the story of two brothers who were mutilated in an industrial accident:
they were pouring steel when one guy
spills a ladle on the floor below, passes out
from lungfuls of the overflowing heat
and falls into the ankle deep puddle.
His brother leaps in for the rescue, goes down …(73)
Since the speaker did not witness this event himself, he must imagine it. Yet, the picture in his mind is inadequate to the horror, “I see them, two boys / splashing in a pond of yellow steel …” (73).Obviously, molten steel is nothing like a pond, which is a thing of nature that offers possibilities for pleasure. Furthermore, the closest the speaker can get to the grisly harm done to these brothers’ bodies is splashing in water, another image that can also mean something pleasurable in a different context. The space of the steel mill and the resulting accident is as far away from the pleasures of nature as one can get. The speaker’s inability to truly comprehend the accident places them in the same position as the reader, contemporary Americans who have little experience with the space of the factories and mills that made modern life possible. In other words, these “stories” fall into the realm of the unthinkable, which removes them from common knowledge. They are part of the many realities past and present that no one talks about, which Salner’s collection argues are the true foundations of the society we all now find ourselves in.
Brian Patrick Heston grew up in a lower working class section of Philadelphia. His chapbook, Latchkey Kids, is available from Finishing Line Press, and his full-length collection, If You Find Yourself, won the Main Street Rag Poetry Book Prize. His poems have won awards from the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Foundation, the Robinson Jeffers Tor House Foundation, and have appeared in such publications as the Southern Review, Green Hills Literary Lantern, Prairie Schooner, North American Review, Missouri Review, Hotel Amerika, Poet Lore, and Ghost Fishing, an anthology of eco-poetry published by the University of Georgia Press. Currently, he teaches literature and creative writing at Truman State University.