A Tour de Force of Grief: Sun & Urn by Christopher Salerno

Reviewed By

“I am no // surrealist but every memory / to me has a dial,” writes Christopher Salerno in his currency-worried, fetishistic gem, ATM (2014). In his follow-up and latest collection, Sun & Urn (University of Georgia Press), Salerno cranks this dial of memory a few notches higher, for the poet now finds himself grappling with a matter more serious than money: his father’s untimely death. The final moments of “Furnace,” one of Sun & Urn’s sharpest pieces, exemplify the tour de force of grief toward which this collection pushes:

We live
with the absence of strong male metaphor,
the empty bed
of a white pickup truck.
All winter
it was so wintery
I was lost
in the driveway. My dad that December
would be dead very soon.
A woodpecker hammered at the boxwood.
The woodpecker’s song
was about us
nailing something in.

The winner of the 2016 inaugural Georgia Poetry Prize, Sun & Urn is gloomy and luminous, nostalgic and hopeful, moribund yet brimming with life. Distinct from contemporary documents of grief, which function chiefly as extended elegies (think Matt Rasmussen’s Black Aperture), Sun & Urn dissects mortality at manifold moments, most notably when the poet invites us to meet his recently deceased father, who “left behind marijuana / a small gray suit / of smoke” and whose garage is home to “bags of concrete dust. / Spiders living in his bicycle frame / setting sail in their webs.” Salerno, who is flirting with middle age himself, devotes a number of poems to his own fears of the reaper, usually through darker, more mordant tones. In this portion of “If You Must Hide Yourself From Love,” the poet examines and deconstructs his milieu, aware that even on social media, life and death remain inextricably linked:

I spot in someone’s Face-
book sonogram a tiny dictum

full of syllogisms. One says: all kisses come
down to a hole in the skull,

toothpaste and gin; therefore your eyes
are bull—your mouth is a goal.

Dialing in on his roots as an imagist with a penchant for soft surrealism, Salerno soaks the bulk of his poems with playfulness, punchy line breaks, and, as previously seen, a fascination with the marriage between the natural and the mechanized world. Take the titular “Sun & Urn,” where, in the poet’s eyes, no animal exists independent of industrial efforts:

With some, near the end, there is a farewell
act of awareness—a smile, a robin’s egg

returned gently to its nest
in the satellite dish.

Again, entrance and departure are juxtaposed with an eerie proximity, proof that one cannot exist without the other. This becomes a recurring theme throughout the book—how death permeates life, remains its inevitable tether. As Graham Foust, one of the poet’s influences, once wrote, “We complete the process / of growing up / and begin the process of dying. / Which is much the same thing.”

Playing second fiddle, but not by much, to Salerno’s unflinching content are his line breaks; they are swift, adroit, and lead the reader careening down the page, unaware of what’s still to come. In “Plot,” Salerno wields enjambment like a knife, slicing his stanzas with precision, extending a cheeky nod to James Wright along the way:

I have not wasted my life
if the moon has risen

over my Toyota. A moon
spectral in its rising

above the municipal pond
parking lot where a turtle

on its back grapples
with the pavement, or torpor,

as the high-pressure sodium
lights burn above like two TVs.

Salerno’s tender sense of humor and knack for lush imagery is so arresting at times that it is easy to forget that this book, at its core, is a document of grief. To maintain the elegiac arc, however, the poet ensures we receive a healthy dose of loss-addled poems to complement the lighter ones. “Furnace,” “Bray,” and “What I Screamed Into” reflect this sensibility, are crafted with equal parts ache and wit. Yet it is when Salerno embraces total darkness that the world, according to his memory’s dial, shines through in stygian hues. Consider this portion of “Late Style:”

From the roof of my dead father’s home
I see with my Pre-Raphaelite eye,

through the anatomical stillness of pine trees,
the blue water towers of the next

three towns along the shore. The outcropping
of gray rocks facedown in the surf.

I see something flit between
two perfect waves. In here, his window drapes

darken the entire room until my
movements cue a sleeping computer

from its sleep—my father’s final
Google search: ‘pain down middle of chest.’

Dolorous and dreary, this poem illustrates Salerno’s mission for his book: he wants to invite you into his world, but he doesn’t want you to take your shoes off. Worthy of additional mention are several “In Vitro” poems, in which the poet dedicates three quasi-elegies to “the daughter I thought / I would have had.” The tightness and candor of these pieces, reminiscent of an early James Tate, accentuates the sad fact of mortality: not only must we accept the gradual aging of our parents, but we need to confront the irrevocable decision of whether or not to leave progeny. Now in his forties, Salerno queries the necessity of test tube fertilization, recognizing that however absurd it is to “sit in the room full of porn,” he is not above it, for these poems are indeed written “to the beat of a lullaby / titled Father of No One.”

In present-day America, where a volatile political landscape and a questionable tomorrow loom with insistence, it feels almost selfish to lament anything except the shortcomings of our beleaguered nation, democracy, and collective sense of identity. How, then, to address a personal loss, especially that of the gravest nature? Perhaps Christopher Salerno is best equipped to provide that answer, for Sun & Urn is not only a beautiful field guide to the grieving self, but a model for how best to navigate one’s life, and thus one’s poetry, at the hands of the world’s indifference.

Scott Wordsman's poems and criticism appear in Colorado Review, Coldfront, THRUSH, Forklift/Ohio, and elsewhere. He teaches English at William Paterson University and LIM College. Follow him on Twitter @scottywords. More from this author →