January 5, 2009

Review by Maureen Alsop

ODALISQUE
by Mark Salerno

Salt Publishing
P.O. Box 937
Great Wilbraham
Cambridge PDO
CB21 5JX United Kingdom
ISBN: 9787774 578737
56 pp., $14.95
www.saltpublishing.com

Odalisque is the book to be read on a rainy night with a good bottle of Shiraz after being swept into the flickering black and white images of a classic noir film and thus overcome by a subdued appreciation for windy alleyways and femme fatales. In the poem “Gaze” Salerno writes: “…because my subject is directional it includes/ desire and attendant clatter beating on someone’s door/ all day and all night beside the Cahuenga newsstand… “(21). These lines exemplify the urgency and mood of the collection.

Odalisque is eloquence and earth, possessed by syntax without beginning or end. The poem “It Was Not,” like many of the poems in the collection, reads as one long sentence, and mid poem Salerno writes: “she was correct to be the air in someone’s lungs/but how far out of Kingstown did you expect to get/with just panty hose and a cinderblock way of thinking…” And by the poem’s end, “it might as well have snowed could have snowed did snow/ if I kissed your footsteps as I have scrupled to aver” (24). Salerno’s poetry moves as if the grammatical structure cannot be anchored by punctuation, thus compelling the language to drift from convention.

Salerno masterfully uncovers the sensuality of repetition. Phrases such as “scrupled to aver” find themselves amongst new connections: “…insofar as we are always betrayed by the world of appearances/and plummet between seeming and being as I have scrupled to aver” (41), and “…beauty school graduates/ cooped up and portioned out running gangs and shtick /to save a fairy tale as I have scrupled to aver…” (42), underscoring the narrator’s hesitancy to reveal too deeply the transgressions in which he is fully immersed. The use of anaphora, not of sentence or image, but of unique idioms, parallels the structure found in Hejinian’s My Life, in terms of post-modern constructions where the repetitions themselves create new interplays on language. Here, poetry enacts as an obsessive confession wherein Salerno’s unique phrases form answers to unrelenting questions. Salerno carefully crafts his repetitions so they emerge like familiar scenery in a movie. His idioms lull memory repeating themselves with a rough glow as thoughts become formative locations among the bars, 3am street corners, and iconic Los Angeles venues such as Staples Center and Union Station.

Salerno is consistent in his technical execution; his style offers a sort of poetic “re-mix” of phrases and situations which find new harmonies through a diagrammatic montage of language. The poems in Odalisque seem to rebel against standards of expected narrative while simultaneously leaning into a dialogue about what makes for an acceptable plot, and as a collection, the poems metaphorically unfurl traditional elements of rising action, conflict, and climax. The collection culminates in a poem (“Trouble No More”) which seems to capture the essence of the story, the characters, and the writer’s management of these questions of narrative device.

When thinking of his feelings he imagined it as carefree

having relearned risk management on the roof of Hollywood High

because he thought the years of tv light and reason were behind him

he went his own way and took his lumps for it end of story

in the movie the renegade cop resists the system and does good

by transforming the figurative and shoring up useless fragments

he was just seeing himself as unlucky he was playing the sap

if you step over the line once you get smacked you get canned

or sometimes you just find yourself over the line

he thought of himself as below compass and good to go

nothwithstanding several aspects simultaneously and a lead pipe logic

immigrants beauty school graduates scriveners and the like

sentenced under The Pottery Barn Rule and mouthing off to authority

long after the point of speaking slowly and simple vocabulary. (56)

The poem poses as many questions as it answers regarding conformity and the nature of our cultural habits. Ultimately the poem coherently responds to the collection’s original intention: a search for the genuine. Salerno’s voice is a voice that rises against the tide of tradition, demonstrating integrity in originality, consistency, and defining a new standard for language.

This is not the poetry to read if you are interested in plain language, or straight story. This is poetry that fires the mind with edgy associations, a jazz narrative, wherein the silence between notes is palpable and imagistic leaps transfix. This is poetry that resonates, weighs you under, and blooms just as you close your eyes. It is the poetry from the place logic blurs into a sub-reality. This is poetry that loves poetry.

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Maureen Alsop’s poems have appeared or are pending in various publications including: Agni, Tampa Review, New Delta Review, The Cortland Review, Barrow Street, Typo, Columbia Journal and Texas Review.    Her first full collection of poetry, Apparition Wren, was recently released.  Her second manuscript, The Diction of Moths, is pending publication in 2010. She can be contacted at: maureen_alsop@yahoo.com

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