The Salt Ecstasies is really just a beautiful book of poetry, filled with blindingly fierce imagery and destructively skillful writing, but it’s most importantly an honest book, its poems written straight from White’s heart and from his gut, teaching the reader a whole lot about the experience of living in this world.
“Old woman, my mother / let’s do the world again you and me” (from “Naming”)
After reading The Salt Ecstasies by James L. White, I felt like I knew the author intimately, like a favorite professor or an older collaborator on an art installation, and that I had spent an afternoon, evening, and long, clear night discussing his life and what he had learned as an artist, lover, and boy growing up through constant tangles of sadness and beauty and doggedly scoring and molding the pieces and scraps of romantic/aesthetic clay that made up both of our lives, his coming to an end and mine to continue on into the nights to come, but now with the knowledge and love from our friendship and conversation. The Salt Ecstasies is really just a beautiful book of poetry, filled with blindingly fierce imagery and destructively skillful writing, but it’s most importantly an honest book, its poems written straight from White’s heart and from his gut, teaching the reader a whole lot about the experience of living in this world.
The collection is comprised of twenty-three poems and a few pages of autobiographical prose, and reads like a transcription of James White’s daydreams and thoughts as he neared the end of his life, made quickly more poignant by White’s death at age 45, just before the book was actually published. The writer of these poems and prose is old, he’s a romantic and he’s alone, and he’s searching through his memories like old photo albums, considering and laughing and crying weakly onto the faded images, and struggling hard to decide whether his life, in the final romantic and artistic reckoning, has meant anything at all, struggling to decide whether or not the few moments of delirious pleasure and all-destructive love and flooring beauty in his past are enough to overcome the aches of regret, loneliness, and unquenchable desire to return to the past and his past friends and lovers that he currently feels as he writes and remembers.
In the first poem in the collection, “An Ordinary Composure,” White searches not for images to translate from his mind to the paper but for a few words to approximate or vaguely outline what he’s done and accomplished in his life and writing, for a few lines to figure out whether writing the poem at all is worthwhile. He and everyone he knows has already watched the sun slowly set on their collective youth and vigor, relationships come and gone, decay, but White desperately writes to focus on the image of a “White Horse” carved from marble, something pure and fierce and ageless, he seeks to be enveloped in the idea of it, burned up in it, left to disappear in the white marble horse of Art and Beauty instead of lying around decaying in his “shabby” apartments, his old body, his tired and worn out mind.
The narratives of the poems span White’s entire life, starting in childhood and exploring his youth through his middle age. He begins life as a sad child, facing the truth that he and his family “were dying” as a very young boy on vacation in “Gatherings,” and it seems that his life only grew darker and greyer in a direct linear progression, everything from relationships to his body to his things growing worn out and old and “shabby.” He “grows up” into sadness, grows up into lovers he knows don’t need him the way he needs them (“Making Love to Myself”), and grows up into listlessness, overeating, aimlessness and then sadness upon looking back on his life.
The poems themselves vibrate with living images and the writing is incredibly deft and evocative. The poems often progress through ghostly landscapes – “Do you like the lice-ridden pigeons / cooing their terrible vision of the wino’s city?” (The Clay Dancer”), vividly evoking White’s memories. “Vinegar” has a particularly beautiful snippet of pure image, reading so true that it’s like hearing White describe something from the reader’s own past.
A car sounds somewhere and he wakes
nearly dreaming of a Black neighborhood
where a barber chair sits in a front yard,
and a train almost runs through someone’s house
by Estelle’s Café and Beauty Parlor.
In addition to descriptions of place, some of White’s sentences are simply so beautiful that they stun the reader, and I read many lines five or six times in a row before I could catch my breath and move on from their blinding glare or deafening music or tear-inducing sadness. In “Lying in Sadness” White describes a dinner with a man that, like many in his poems, he was deeply in love with long ago.
You exhale a fist of memory.
I love you like weathering wood
in a room of empty pianos.
When you return to something you love,
it’s already beyond repair.
You wear it broken.
But the skillful writing is almost beside the point. In some way, the point is the author’s life, period. It’s a life riddled and spasming with furious longing and regret, sadness and loneliness, and each poem echoes the sentiment proclaimed in first few pages that the author “grew up” into sadness: “we’d grow right on up into wars and trains and deaths and loving people and leaving them and being left and being alone” (“An Ordinary Composure”) but, at the end of this poem, as at the end of the author’s life in the full reckoning of meaning and beauty, the decision is made, the most important thing is beauty, is his art, it is “these prayers at the waves, the white horse shimmering, bringing it toward us out of the coldest marble.” It’s impossible to read these lines without thinking of exactly this collection, The Salt Ecstasies, White’s truest poetical testament and ultimate art piece, that he knew would be soon published even as he died, and that he hoped and knew would burn flashing and shimmering throughout the long dark of history after his own life spark soon winked out.