Both of the above were at the reading I did recently at the Writers center in Bethesda Maryland. David I hadn’t seen since our days as students at the University of Iowa in the late 1960s, but I would have recognized him anywhere. In the ‘60s, he always came across as a calm and humble observer of what the rest of us were so excitable and crazed about, like which political point of view was correct, which political party (and I don’t mean the Democrats or Republicans, but Progressive Labor or Peace and Freedom for example) and which approach to the poem (imagist, confessional, Beat, neo-surrealist, New Criticism, etc.).
Salner kept it simple in ways I always admired and even envied. He wrote direct and accessible and even useful poetry. His politics were socialist and his intention was to work in whatever capacity he could to further the betterment of “the people” as we used to say, or “the working class” as the class analysis had it.
While I ran for sheriff of Johnson County, Iowa, on the Peace and Freedom ticket in 1968, David just went to work at the kind of labor that defines “working class” (e.g. iron ore miner, garment worker, etc.) and tried to better the lives of people with no other options but manual labor. And he’s still doing that, after all these decades, with so many having given up on those ideals or turned greedy or disillusioned.
We didn’t have too much time to talk in Bethesda, but on my return I received a chapbook of “A Poem Sequence” he wrote called JOHN HENRY’S PARTNER SPEAKS (Pudding House Publications, 81 Shadymere Lane, Columbus, Ohio 43213) which came out last year.
It’s terrific. Here’s two stanzas from:
“6. THE DEATH OF RUSSELL MATHENY
Russell was one of a few white men
who worked with us at the face.
The rock floor we worked on
was full of lard-oil and black strap
from the machines and the lamps.
One night he slipped at the wrong time.
When the water-boy came by, we’d take a break.
After Russell died, they gave us a liquor break.
You think I’m joking but it happened
after a good fellow died at the face.
Here’s a little drop to keep your minds
on the job, the boss might say. We knew
what that meant. Drink and forget.
Feel that liquor burn and forget.
We felt that liquor burn but we didn’t forget.”
Back in the 1960s when we first met, there were only a handful of little magazines and presses that published poetry, and only hundreds of poets, it seemed. Now there are thousands of mags and presses and hundreds of thousands of poets.
But there’s still that thrill of reading a poem or a small chapbook of poems, like JOHN HENRY’S PARTNER SPEAKS, that reminds me of what seemed so promising about poetry and how it could interpret the world for, and to, me.
I’m so grateful that that thrill is still possible, for me, and was delightfully surprised a few days after receiving Salner’s book, to receive another one, a longer poem sequence, from another person I hadn’t seen in decades who was at the reading in Bethesda, Patricia Garfinkel.
We weren’t close friends, and didn’t spend time together, as David and I had. But she reminded me that she had attended some of the sessions of a reading series I started in DC in the early 1970s, Mass Transit. She also shared how she too had an interesting family history (in response to some poems I read about mine).
MAKING THE SKELETON DANCE, the book she sent me, published in 2000 by Braziller, is a unique sequence of poems and dialogues exposing family secrets, some of which have become common in tell-all memoirs, and some of which I’ve never read about before, and certainly not with such an original variety of techniques to create not just a “memoir” but a great cycle of poetic expression.
I guarantee you’ve never read a poem sequence quite like this one. Not because it’s revolutionary in its approach to language, but in its approach to revelation. Anyway, don’t take my word for it, check it out for yourself. Meanwhile, here’s a sample, nothing like the other verses in the book, but telling:
MY MOTHER’S VOICE 11
The police officers were telling
me how wonderful I was
on the witness stand
and that night Gabriel Heatter,
he was on every night I think,
six o’clock, one of the big stations,
he really made it
sound as if I was just the last word.”
The best thing about both these books and poets, is the way they have distilled entire histories and characters lives into a handful of brief poems, sometimes lyrically imaginative in an old imagist way, sometimes prosaically conversational (as in the above excerpts), but always humble and honest. Two traits I’ve been working to secure for myself and my work for decades. These two poets exemplify those traits, and I am moved and humbled by the results.