The Poetry of Benjamin Saltman
M. A. Roberts
Reading Benjamin Saltman's The Sun Takes Us Away: New and Selected Poems is like putting on your favorite winter coat; it's snug, even though it's old and ripped and drafts seep through, chilling you, making you feel alive. These poems do just that. They're warm but not comfortable enough to let you forget that reality is harsh.
There are a variety of themes running throughout this collection—poems about childhood, family, injustice, materialism—but the majority of the poems focus on the domestic life of a father, teacher, and practiced observer of the world. Saltman's eye is alert and his poems are made lucid by their vivid images and made meaningful by their keen insights into the commonness of the human experience. As I flip through the pages, I can stop on almost any page and find where I've underlined a revealing, quotable line: "we live our past like a disease. / We move in an eternal stumble" ("Hippocrene"); "we lie in arbors of our making" ("Arbor"); "We have gone crazy with belief" ("Myself as a House"); "Light slices the sky, you are less and less / able to stifle a cry for someone to save you." ("Cascades: the Arrival").
One stylistic aspect that runs throughout Saltman's work is his use of personification. From his earliest to his latest work, inanimate objects defy stasis, take on human desires. "Myself as a House" is a good example, as we are given the surreal equation: the house and man are one. In Saltman's world, the house "breath[s] rich fumes," has a "wife and three children," and inspects itself for the "termites' cursives" who "build the house in reverse." Other personifications abound in this volume: "food will set out for mouths"; the "city slips onto sand"; "smoke questions"; the "sun" sews; "guilt crawls on all fours"; cut trees "finger" themselves; knives "dream"; maple trees "ring bells." Such striking images create a sense of one being dug-in, sealed into position—the middle-class life? I think so. In a late poem, "The Committee," Saltman writes "Flowers, crisp and / dead though the petals remained, / lined the driveway / and said that what was allotted / to middle-class life / would be revealed to me." Several stanzas later the secret unfolds as he ponders the items of his home: "It was clear that what I had had me." He is bound, dug-in, but not stifled. I imagine Saltman in a swivel chair constantly observing and writing about the middle-class world that is so blunt and apparent but ironically invisible to those who live it.
On the back cover of The Sun Takes Us Away, W.S. Merwin says that Saltman's poems possess a "lovely plainness." I cannot agree more with his estimation. Saltman's style is clean like Sunday-dinner glasses that have been carefully washed and dried. He's also direct, unhindered by any pretentiousness. The voice is humble; even when he criticizes American culture (as in "The Purchase," a poem that attacks the American drive to consume), I sense that he is chastising himself as much as he is the average citizen.
While The Sun Takes Us Away represents Saltman's work over the past 30 years, his newest publication, Sleep and Death the Dream, gives us the poet's final work, written while Saltman knew he was dying. This thin volume is powerful. Perhaps I am being propelled into emotion because I know that a real man lived, got a disease, wrote these poems and died. But I don't think that the story behind the book is all that is at work here. These poems are good because they move me and make my sympathies resonate.
In this work, the human is celebrated. Consider "All the Parts," where Saltman brings to the fore the mangled human yet calls it beautiful, calls it complete:
The man with a dent in his head,
the woman with half a jaw,
these are more complete than flowers
with all their petals.
This fine book is full of these rare, surprising lines.
The poems in The Sun Takes Us Away and Sleep and Death the Dream are clear, bold, and humane. More importantly they express what it means to be human. And that's a grand accomplishment. Near the end of the book, Saltman writes "Every one who leaves intensifies what's here." Evidence to that truth is in Saltman's poems, which, I am certain, will deepen and intensify with every reading and the persistence of time.