by James Sale FORMAL COMPLAINTS by Joseph S. Salemi, Somer Rocks Press, 1997 MASQUERADE by Joseph S. Salemi, Somer Rocks Press, 2005 SKIRMISHES by Joseph S. Salemi, Pivot Press, 2010 I first encountered Joseph Salemi’s work on the pages of The Society of Classical Poets, and a great discovery it was too. One immediately heard a powerful and distinctive voice in his poems; and so it was I acquired his three major collections of poems, and with the editor’s consent went ahead to review them. To take then an overview of how I see Professor Salemi’s work, I’d say that all real poets know, but do not talk about, where they are in the pantheon of poets. They know because the Muse informs them; but to talk about oneself in such a way would be to betray the Muse. As that would have dire consequences, poets don't do it of themselves. But the critic can ask, where is Professor Salemi in the pantheon? In my view he is somewhere to be classed with three outstanding poets: Ben Jonson, Lord Byron and Robert Browning. To all three of them he owes something: to Jonson that sense of classicism and high style; to Byron that vitriolic and intemperate sense of attack; and to Browning, perhaps most of all, those dramatic personae, that getting under the skin of someone and speaking in their voice. A brilliant example of a Jonson and Browning-influenced poem combined is Mr Salemi's "Volpone in the Stocks" where he directly cites Jonson (Volpone, incidentally, one of the greatest plays in the English language, and produced in the same year, 1606, as Shakespeare's King Lear: indeed, Volpone could be construed as the comedic equivalent of the tragic Lear) but enters, a la Browning, into the mind of Volpone. The only purity left in that mind is in recalling Celia, the heavenly one; and this is so spot-on, recalling Jonson's poem "It was a beauty that I saw," which establishes what beauty is through a series of negations. This, in essence, is any satirist’s technique: for by critiquing what is wrong, they presume, or assert, what is right. For an example of the Byronesque, we need look no further than his "Parliament of Professionals." One remembers Byron's devastating indictment of Lord Castlereagh (pronounced, Castle-ray) written sometime after Castlereagh’s death: Posterity will ne'er survey A nobler grave than this: Here lie the bones of Castlereagh: Stop, traveller, and piss. That’s Byron – pretty strong stuff, and pretty direct and amusing too. Here’s a snippet from "Parliament of Professionals": Educators: Our wallets fatter, then perchance We would not pimp for ignorance Or Bureaucrats: Underpaid, we are malicious Little vermin – but not vicious Or Publishers: Literature can go to hell - Can jerks read it and will it sell? Pithy, vitriolic indeed. But note, in the qualification, "but not vicious," we see a classic Salemi ploy, as the verse strives for ever greater specificity and accuracy. He is constantly assessing and finding exactly the right words for the objects of his attention – it’s sniper fire, not a blunderbuss. But in reading all three books one is impressed by at least three things: the range of reading, reference, language and history that Professor Salemi seems more than well acquainted with; the sheer technical brilliance and mastery of language and form that dazzles with its virtuosity; and thirdly, the unremitting vigor, energy and vituperation with which he assails his enemies. Indeed, this last point deserves one important footnote: that in the execution of the 12 Principles of Military Strategy (for keep in mind, Professor Salemi is truly at war) he probably gets full marks in 11 of the 12. But nothing for the 12th Principle: surprise! For his is a full-out offensive, no Trojan Horses here; and no winning friends and influencing people either. Professor Salemi is certainly a fully-paid-up maverick – a Clint Eastwood (The Outlaw Josey Wales), if you will, of the poetry world. Formal Complaints is a collection of 22 poems which, as the title indicates, assume the form of a public address, specifically directed to the court of the world, presumably, given that they are "complaints," in the hope of some redress, and certainly, if not, emotional release. For these poems contain severe, pent up emotions, all the more explosive as they are mostly contained in intricate, formal vessels whose very constrictions further concentrate the venom, the satire and the mockery that the forms deliver. Indeed, form for Mr. Salemi is a pressure cooker that transmutes the raw and crude materials into a baking hot and nutritious meal. Three particularly superb poems in this first collection (in addition to "Volpone" above) are "The Jeweller’s Deposition at the Coroner’s Inquest," "Contract Murder," and "God’s Final Comment on the Baby Boomers." The first in the series is an astonishing meditation – reminding me of a Browning dramatic monologue – on a young girl who starts to pierce her body with rings and hooplets. It is a longish poem, but completely absorbing. The jeweller makes a serious testimony to the court, which becomes increasingly absurd and surrealistic – yet actually is a devastating critique on our society and its values. A sort of reductio ad absurdum of punk. But it includes also hilariously funny details just almost thrown away in it. My favorite is The same, of course, goes for the bayonet Of blued steel that was pushed right through her heart By the unapprehended murderer. What a time we live in, gentlemen! So having pierced herself in every possible place with metals, finally she is murdered with a bayonet in the heart. I mean, that is a priceless joke – and notice the specious outrage of the "jeweler" who all this time has been profiting from the girl’s obsession. It is no less a poem than the best of Browning (excepting "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came," of course). In Masquerade we have a further intensification of his methods and techniques, and an even wider range of targets. There are some 53 poems in this collection and quite frankly one would need to write a whole book to cover some of the gems contained here. But in brief, a stand-out poem for me is "Porphyro and Madeline: The Epilogue by Lord Byron." Here we see essential Salemi at work: the overlay of a Byronic mindset onto a Keatsian classic. He uses the same Spenserian stanza that Keats used in his "Eve of St. Agnes," but takes it in a new and un-Romantic direction – but, with brilliance and brio. Some of the lines are simply polished diamonds: Though principles in solid bronze be cast No belly can endure for long a total fast And in the final line, we learn of Porphyro, that "(’tis said),… Died with his hands entangled in a rosary." This is simply masterful. The word "entangled" placed midway in the line seems utterly indicative of the life they have led - starting off with love but somehow becoming morally "entangled." So much of what Professor writes rings true, although caustically so. His "Homage to the Cultural Contributions of Native Americans" is positively vicious, and so we must not be expecting them to be promoting his poetry in their schools any time soon! But Salemi goes beyond criticizing races; hell, apart from his penchant for Nineteenth Century French debauchees (e.g. Rimbaud) he seems to condemn the whole French nation. But no worries: in his wonderful parody of Craig Raine, "A Martian in Michigan Sends a Message Home," all the people of Michigan - indeed all Americans - seem lacking in any cultural worthiness. So we can truly say of Professor Salemi: he is even-handed in his critiques and satires of others. As befits a true poet, we also get that Salemi is a prophet too: his wonderful poem "The Producer Reassures the Starlet" (keep in mind published in 2005) could have exactly been written for Harvey Weinstein and should – if marketing were of the slightest concern to Professor Salemi – have been re-released last year with a new title: "Harvey Weinstein Reassures the Starlet." If it had, I feel that there would have been every chance his work, like that our SoCP friend, Joseph Charles Mackenzie, might have gone viral. The final line of the poem, incidentally, is a bruising double entendre: "I’ll fill you in tonight at the motel." There is so much more in this collection. As somebody who has worked extensively in business and corporate culture over a 23-year period, I can identify with "Corporate Opportunity" - so true, and such a condemnation of what is often a phony and artificial life. Then we have his marvelous "The Hip-Hop Hippolytus." This is almost showing-off as he adopts rap style whilst maintaining a tight form; and we see his fascination with words, language, slang. Even the title itself, which picks up through alliteration completely dissimilar ideological domains and thereby semantically yokes them together. Superb. Moving on, I would like to say more but space forbids: Skirmishes, a collection of 67 poems. This continues the intense thrust of the earlier Masquerade. Indeed, it is so much linked to it that the poet seems not to have noticed one poem bleeding into both collections: "Piety In Due Season." If anything, however, Skirmishes is even more satirical and militant, as its title indicates – and the war is on. It’s like – to use a Dylan Thomas phrase (and Thomas appears in Masquerade) – Salemi is raging against the light, or rather the darkness of the modern world. Perhaps, too, like Yeats did. There are, however, poignant moments. One theme that recurs in his work is the futility of war. His poem "Military Review" concludes with a shiveringly sad observation: And shades, who once held spears and shields, Recall, remember, contemplate The peopling of their barren fields – The place, the weapon, and the date. One poem of particular genius in the collection is "The Belgian Congo, 1902." This is so brilliantly conceived and executed, and shows a profound insight into man’s inhumanity to man. But more than that I found it morally compelling in the connection it makes between the Belgians and their treatment of slaves in the Congo in 1902 and then how the Kaiser treated them in 1914. We have, certainly in the UK, a view of the plucky Belgians resisting the Hun, and tend to easily forget their awful, imperial history. Salemi doesn’t (and citing – who else? – Joseph Conrad) either and it makes for compelling reading. As does, "Lord Byron Remembers Beau Brummell." This is a fine conceit, and once again we find the influence of Byron – that steady mind that saw through the humbug of society and exposed its foibles. And I need to say now, before wrapping up, that there are a significant number of poems, including "Love’s Song and Dance," "The Fates Give Oedipus a Consolation Prize," "The Girls in the Cave," "Sexual Proclivities of 10 Poets," which are extremely erotic and on a par with some of the best of Dryden and John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. In both cases, if one needed to be told, the erotic easily slips over into the pornographic, albeit with consummate skills (that is to say, not your average pornography). So there may be lines that some readers of the SoCP may find too strong for their tastes, too close to the bone. That said, Salemi is always erudite and entertaining. So, where are we then with Professor Joseph Salemi and his poetry? It should be clear from my account that I think him a major poet: his work is inventive, creative, erudite, accessible, accomplished, prodigal, philosophical and pungent. Add to that its overall vituperative thrust, then you have a body of work well worth reading; and in a golden age everyone would be reading his stuff, and he would be on the syllabuses, at least at institutes of higher learning. But if this is praise indeed, what of criticism? What is there to say, perhaps, that one finds less satisfactory? And there is such. The first thing to say is yin and yang! Professor Salemi is all yang. Where is the yin? To be specific here, consider the following poets: Ben Jonson, Lord Byron, and Robert Browning. All yang poets too like Professor Salemi – great poets, but not like their opposite number and contemporaries like Shakespeare, Keats and Tennyson. The absence of lyric, of a softer side to his work, is noticeable; Salemi’s work is non-lyrical, intellectual, muscular, masculine and yang. In fact, in writing of bad poetry he directly will have nothing to do with "feelings" ("Poetry Today" from Masquerade). And we note with interest the lack of self-disclosure in his work. Of course, that is the lack of direct or intended self-disclosure. Plenty is disclosed about his internal world, for as Ben Jonson observed, "language most shows a man: speak that I may see thee." The fingerprints are there, but we have to be able to read them, for it seems to me that Professor Salemi wants to make that difficult for us to do. And there are two specific things arising from this that I think are a serious weakness in his poetry, if I may be forgiven for saying so. The first is the more blatant, but I cannot find in all 3 volumes one positive reference to women and womanhood. He seems to know nothing about the true love of woman, the true ideal of womanhood, and how women transform men from savage beasts to god-like beings through their love. There is a lot of whoring, Pandora, and morally falling away in these collections, but no mother, no Beatrice, no love that transforms the very souls of human beings. In short, the poetry is one-sided in terms of what I would see as a balanced view of human nature. And then there is this other position of Professor Salemi that I find difficult to accept. Given that I love his satirical jabs at all and sundry, at the sacred shibboleths of contemporary times, I love all this stuff, but for me he goes too far. His final poem in Skirmishes, "Self-Portrait," is the nearest we get to his self-disclosure. It’s not much of a self-disclosure, however, since the whole book reveals exactly this: "A bilious spleen is where your demon reigns." But by the time we get here we are full circle to the opening poem of Masquerade: "Rimbaud’s Apology." We find in other words the satire not just directed against abuses, but actually deployed to justify the Rimbaud style of living. For example, in "To Those who condemn Coleridge for using Opium," we find It doesn’t matter if a man’s a cad, A liar, drunkard, lecher, or a jerk – Is what he puts on paper good or bad? This is, I think, exactly not true, for he goes on to argue, virtually, that – to take one example – Dylan Thomas may not have written poetry without access to alcohol (we remember the poetry of the New York coroner who described Thomas as dying from a "severe insult to the brain"). This seems to me to be promoting pure license, not freedom, and ultimately suggesting that wasting our lives so we can be "creative" is worthwhile. At every level I disagree with this proposition, whilst I can also accept – which I think Professor Salemi might argue – that the deadening and bourgeois morality in which some of these poets functioned did need challenging. It’s a complex issue and I have no more space to discuss it, but I think it important, and important that so great a satirist as Professor Salemi is questioned about it, since it seems to me inconsistent to be a moralist who undermines morals. Actually, we all want to know about the life of the poet, not just their work, for as Professor Brian Cox once commented: "narrative may be regarded as a primary act of mind." My final hope is that this incredible body of work will find a much wider audience not only in the USA but in the entire English-speaking world. As an ex-English teacher myself, there are many poems here that I believe that students would love, laugh and enjoy – and learn from. It would be good to know that real poetry, Professor Salemi’s, was being read, and not the tepid and over-hyped rubbish which sadly we are condemned to read most of the time now.