Light from a Bullet Hole: Poems New and Selected, 1950–2008 by Ralph Salisbury
(Silverfish Review Press, Eugene, OR, 2009)
[First published in Cloudbank 2, 2010, Eds. Peter Sears Michael Malan)
Ralph Salisbury is a prolific poet, releasing a new book or chapbook of poems every few years. Light from a Bullet Hole spans six decades, and includes poems from eight collections, plus more than a dozen new poems. I noticed a long gap of time in the table of contents in which Salisbury released no book from 1985 to 2000. After having released the preceding four books within a year or two of each other, this long dry spell seemed curious to me. I wondered if his poetry would offer any clues to explain the gap.
Salisbury's poetry incorporates his experiences as a World War II Army airman. His Cherokee heritage is also a major theme. As Arnold Krupat writes in the introduction, Salisbury “continues to model the traditional and modern (postmodern, if you will) roles of the poet as Cherokee humanist and indigenous cosmopolitan.” These New and Selected poems chart Salisbury’s course as he balances these roles. Is the fulcrum in the middle of that fifteen-year gap in time?
In “With the Wind and the Sun,” from his book Going to Water: Poems of Cherokee Heritage (1983), Salisbury reveals how difficult it is to find that balance. His unsympathetic squadron laughed about an accidental bombing that killed a Navajo hogan. Salisbury’s confession left a hole in my heart:
hidden under a quite light complexion,
with the wind and the sun waging Indian war
to reconquer my skin
with a weak grin.
In “A White Rainbow,” the title piece from the collection released in 1985, Salisbury finds hope for the future in the arc of “the weight-sustaining spine” of his daughter, despite the tremendous hardship of death and imprisonment of family members. The spine is the white rainbow.
Fifteen years later, in “We Are Asked To Understand” from his collection Rainbows of Stone (2000), Salisbury throws horrific scenes right into our laps: “his friend’s severed head / between drenched thighs.” Salisbury doesn’t soften his experiences of war or his history for us. He makes no bones about the “suffering flesh / more precious, more beautiful, / its doom foreknown.” His newer poems capitalize on his past: There is no undercurrent of victimization separating reader from speaker; we are in the trenches together.
In “Empathy for the Unlikely,” the first poem in the New Poems section, Salisbury gives us a glimpse of where he is heading. His playful language, his propensity for abstraction, his warrior history and his Cherokee roots, culminate in joyous celebrations of life.
Say, “chert,” for instance, the joy
of hurling from your tongue
an utterly unknown stone.
Here the poem is spiced with a playful language— internal rhyme, such as, “automobile steel,” “Verdun, for one,” and “resolute roots”— and plays on Salisbury’s command of abstraction. The poem captures the breadth of Salisbury’s worldview with a marksman’s precision.
Although fresh sweat glistens on
the trigger of your gun,
your great grandparents’ world in love,
still, with the sun, let’s pray that your cells,
your beautifully patterned cells, will feel
growth, interrupted in crucifix wood, surge
ever higher, to clouds.
Salisbury’s poems call for a hopeful future: A call for hope initiated by despair. The more recent poems continue to sustain this hope and are now effused with wisdom and tolerance: An eye-to-eye contact that the earlier poems seemed to avoid. Salisbury was able to find Light from a Bullet Hole, and I enjoyed wondering if the fifteen-year gap helped him realize that vision. This collection is a wonderful testament of a fruitful career.
Eric Wayne Dickey's poems and translations have been published in West Wind Review, Manzanita Quarterly, and International Poetry Review. He is a John Anson Kitredge Fund for Individual Artists grant recipient administered by Harvard University and a Vermont Studio Center Fellow. He co-edits Pacifica: Poetry International formerly known as To Topos: Poetry International. He lives in Corvallis, Oregon.