The Hypodermic

For a poet, the pen is merely part
Of the apparatus of addiction.
He emulates the frozen fly in amber
Watching eons come, roll by, and pass.
As motionless as veined quartz in a stone,
He seeks a waxen perpetuity
Bound and shackled in his dreamless cell,
Etherized with the sweetly soporific
Incense of language, swirling in a mist
Of endless iron chains of lines and words.



If You Can’t Say Anything Nice, Don’t Say Anything at All

A language lives when street gangs brawl in it,
When whores lisp filth in it to turn their tricks,
When little kids throw fits and scream in it,
When dicers damn their luck in its worst curses,
When angry women bitch in idioms
Peculiar to the tongue, and vendors hawk
Their wares in its colloquial crass gab.

And somewhere high above this verbal flux
Grammarians sigh in helpless, mute despair;
Poets writhe to grasp what has been said,
And stupid censors stare agape, undone.




Call him back from wasted reveries
And poems cornucopious of words.
Those lines that thought to chant and cense themselves
To trembling metaphysics of the nerves—
Let them peter out in abject silence.
On his arm that was so youthful pale
Pierce the skin and open it with needles.
In the ruptured and the blood-wet pores
Rub the pigments of a tawdry rainbow.
When he speaks no plague of toothless clowns
With their clackers and their obscene horns
Will gravel him. The swollen cicatrice
Will keep them in a reverential awe.



Joseph S. Salemi has published five books of poetry, and his poems, translations and scholarly articles have appeared in over one hundred publications world-wide.  He is the editor of the literary magazine TRINACRIA and writes for Expansive Poetry On-line. He teaches in the Department of Humanities at New York University and in the Department of Classical Languages at Hunter College.

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20 Responses

  1. Paul Freeman

    Another day, another poem.

    The second piece particularly resonated. I was just watching an episode of The First 48, where two gangs got into it, and some of the text messages calling in reinforcements were tricky to follow.

    I write a lot of short fiction and sometimes to get it published by a particular publication you need to follow guidelines that can dilute its original earthiness (but then all publications have guidelines). On other occasions, outlier characters in futuristic pieces develop their own jargon – try A Clockwork Orange, oh my Brother – and the readers have to learn a new jargon as they go along.

    Writers tend to suggest regional accents these days in fiction, guv’nor, otherwise, if its too authentic, the reader has problems following what’s being said by a character (The Sweeney was originally subtitled in America, I believe). Your namesake, Joseph, from Wuthering Heights, is a prime example – I had to find a site that translated what he was saying to follow his gist. Martha, from The Secret Garden, is another character that is difficult to follow because of an overly-authentic accent.

    About the first poem – some of the imagery is pretty amazing, the sort of flashes of imagery I try to reach for to enrich my short stories. Graham Greene used a lot of metaphor and similes like that in his work which is why he’s one of my favourites.

    The third poem I’ll read again later. It’s a bit abstract to me at the moment after an hour-and-a-half’s commute and too little couch time.

    Sorry if I’m blathering and maybe a bit off topic.

    Thanks for the reads.

    • Paul Freeman

      Just one more thing, as Colombo would have said. The penultimate line of ‘Revocation’ – ‘gravel’ or ‘gavel’?

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        “To gravel” — to bother or to annoy. An older English verb that is now obsolete in the U.K., but still part of American speech.

  2. Brian Yapko

    These are three stunning poems, Joseph, which speak of the poetic drive as well as the love and very nature of language. I read The Hypodermic and Revocation almost as a set. Both are somewhat startling in the way the poet’s very vein is opened. In Hypodermic poetic inspiration is described as something akin to a narcotic injected into the poet. Once that happens, the active verb of writing takes a back seat to passive watching — a fly in amber, motionless, etherized, enchained, still seeking but utterly addicted. There seems to be no escape route for the poet from those endless iron chains of lines and words. A poet’s fate seems rather locked in much like that fly. Accurate? Perhaps.

    Revelation depicts something of a cure. The speaker is ambiguous but important for there are a number of directives being issued. It is almost as if the Muse were speaking through the guise of a sterile physician. Whomever the speaker, he means to bring the subject poet back from a world of wasted reveries. The poet’s vein is opened, but this time – as I read it – more in the sense of old-fashioned blood letting. For whose good is this? Are the poet’s reveries really a waste or is he being spared? If he is “cured” of writing, maybe those clowns who have limited taste but loud clackers and obscene horns will stop deviling him once and for all.

    The middle poem, “If You Can’t Say Anything…” is couched in shocking terms, but in actuality is anything but. It’s a very sensible and accurate description of linguistics and how language lives and breathes and changes over time. Italian exists because Latin had to become simplified and useful to the common people. Most people did not speak like Ovid or Virgil. Language shifts and changes and sometimes new usage is worth embracing and sometimes change is worth beating back. That poets and gangsters can mine the same language for their different uses is a fantastic thing. But I will never get used to using “them” and “they” to avoid offending the gender-confused. Still, I’m grateful that there’s no language police.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Your critical perception is very sharp. Yes, I did think of “The Hypodermic” and “Revocation” as a pair, even though they were written at different times. The first is about the real addictive quality of poetic craft, and the other about how to escape some of that addiction’s traps. The imagery of blood-letting and the raw pain of tattooing was meant to suggest, metaphorically, that something beyond “cornucopious” language was necessary for effective and lasting verse.

  3. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    For me, one aspect of being a poet is to observe subjects from unusual angles and these poems on language do just that. In “The Hypodermic” I travelled beyond the pen to just beneath the skin of the poet to see him seeking a “waxen perpetuity” (impressive)… and can wholly relate to the closing three lines. I love the seductive use of sibilance in: “Etherized with the sweetly soporific incense…”

    My favorite poem is the second one in this series. I love the wry wink in the title and I love the way you lift a language full of life from its earthy origins to the page. The reaction to this type of language has me smilingly knowingly.

    The breathtaking power of language in “Revocation” has me hand wringing at the fate of this silenced poet. It brings to mind the closing scene of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. I hope I never live to see the language in poetry such as this fade into the dire drivel of defeat.

    These skillfully wrought, rousing and riveting poems are a real privilege to read. Joe, thank you very much.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Absolutely correct, Susan. In the second poem, the entire poem is a refutation of the title. I would always fume inwardly when schoolteachers and priests and nuns and maiden aunts would hector me with that patronizing cliche about how one always had to be “nice.”

      In “Revocation” it’s not so much that the poet is being silenced, but that he is breaking free from a kind of restrictive rhetoric that prevents his poetry from being taken seriously. Instead of being stuck in a prim and proper rhetorical mode, he is having his flesh cut open to receive “a tawdry, brazen rainbow” of tattoo colors. The inspiration for this idea came to me from a friend who was serving in Vietnam — he told me that the bravest and toughest South Vietnamese soldiers had the words “Sat Cong” tattooed on their chests in bright colors. This means “Kill Communists,” and needless to say if you were caught by the enemy with this motto blazoned on your body, you were in for severe torture and death. The sheer impetuosity of this kind of courage impressed me deeply.

  4. Margaret Coats

    Having had the experience of etherization a month ago, I see the poet in “The Hypodermic” as one with no ability to work at his craft. The anesthesiologist insisted that I drink his martini although I asked for a margarita, and there were no more words. The drugged state is a great image for a would-be poet with nothing to say. Glad to be out of it.

    Can I say something not nice about the call for slanguage? There seems to be an immense life of verbal flux in that line space between what is common and the mute higher level, with potential for still more vivid usage beyond the limits treated by the poem. I take this as a critique of stilted or finicky or pretentious or pedantic speech, of which there is too much, but there is also absurd affectation in the lower modes, not to mention the outcries of screaming voices unable to convey meaning. Some are in desperate need of better words than they have.

    “Revocation” reminds me of a man I knew who paid a surgeon well to sculpt a genuine fencing scar into permanent, garish visibility. He was an art dealer, and I suppose his profession, like that of the poet, needs to inspire reverence in certain customers.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Well, I wrote “The Hypodermic” as a kind of warning about the sheer delight that writing poetry can give you, and how it was analogous to what an addict could get from opium or cocaine or heroin. The “frozen fly in amber,” and the “veined quartz in stone,” and the “waxen perpetuity” should be read as analogous parallels to Horace’s longing for a monument of enduring bronze as the reward for his poetic achievement. All serious poets hope for such fame, but it can be seen as a trap that cuts one off from life, just as the soporific haze of an opium dream can isolate the addict. The imagined poet in the first poem can indeed write well, but that’s the danger — he may become addicted to the entire process.

      I didn’t intend the second poem to be a call for slanguage, but simply an assertion that the real generative force for verbal expression is rarely in the hands of grammarians, poets, or censors (and God knows I am the most persnickety of prescriptive grammarians). As Brian Yapko pointed out in his comment, the precious Romance languages don’t come from the Latin of Cicero or Livy. They come from the hard-bitten Vulgar Latin and Proto-Romance of farmers, soldiers, whores, and street brawlers.

  5. Mia

    I think the last three lines of the first poem are amongst the best I have read anywhere. They exemplify the power of language, both to lull and to enslave.
    Sorry my comment doesn’t do it justice.
    In fact I think the whole poem is exquisite.

  6. James A. Tweedie

    I can’t decide how to describe these three declarative pronouncements. They are condensed, concentrated, terse, pithy, dense, packed, compact, small enough to slip into my pocket, pocket-watches, snuff boxes, pen knives, high-octane, 190-proof zingers with well-aimed points that sting.

    What a delight to see how an earthy Anglo-Saxon vocabulary can be both brash and sophisticated at the same time. If both poets and politicians would trim their bloviation to such succinctness, we would at least have a fighting chance of understanding what they were talking about.

    As for my own poetic attempts . . . all too often, guilty as charged.

    Which is why the well-aimed points sting.

    For me, this is a lesson learned.

    I can’t wait for the next one.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Actually, James, I wrote all of them as lessons for myself, but if they can be of use to others that’s fine.

      Mixing Latin, Anglo-Saxon, and Norman French in one’s diction is a crucial key to producing top-notch verse. It also provides one with a range of metrical possibilities unavailable to the poet who insists on a strictly Germanic vocabulary.

  7. Shaun C. Duncan

    These are extraordinary poems, Joseph. The first a perfect encapsulation of the narcotic quality of the creative impulse which seems to appeal equally to poets and schizophrenics scribbling away in little notebooks.

    I love the sentiment of the second piece, especially living as we do in an era when language is being weaponised to sanitize and oppress free thought.

    Like Brian, I couldn’t help but read “The Hypodermic” and “Revocation” as complimentary pieces, with the latter speaking of the power of words to either subdue or transform. I love the way the slightly perfumed language of the first five lines quickly gives way to the blood-soaked tattoo imagery, which immediately brings to mind the brawling street gangs of the second poem. Fantastic stuff.

    Oh and a “plague of toothless clowns” is the most wonderfully evocative phrase I’ve heard in a long time. I’m in awe of that one.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Thank you for the kind comments. As I mentioned above in my reply to Brian, those two poems are a pair, but they were composed at different times, so their placement together is merely serendipitous.

      All three poems were written a long time ago, but never published. I’m pleased that the second one is still potent enough to carry some meaning for our current time, when language is being gelded and shackled by the left-liberal fanatics who now control much of society. Ideologues with an agenda, as well as certain religionists who also want to censor speech, are even more powerful today than they were in Victorian times.

  8. C.B. Anderson

    I have noticed, lately, Joseph, that you have been doing what Milton did when he was at the height of his powers; namely, to eschew end rhyme. I don’t blame you for taking this course, and I don’t mind, except for the fact that you are so damn good at concocting end rhymes that I always look for them, even when they are not present. I can’t say much about the poems at hand because it will take many more readings to digest them properly. They are very chewy and will require much more mastication before I will be able to assimilate them. I don’t think you ever meant for them to be convenient snacks, and I will do my best to stay on their trail to the letter of the letter.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Kip, I like blank verse because it is so easy to write. But in fact, these three poems were composed over thirty-seven years ago. They were never published because no editor would take them.

      I also love to concoct end rhymes, but of course they always take a bit more time to do perfectly. I still do it, and my latest example was the poem about the uptight librarian that appeared here about a month back. So I haven’t given up the practice.

      • C.B. Anderson

        The fourth line of “The Hypodermic” is absolutely exquisite. It reminds me of something Omar Khayyam might have written.

        “If You Can’t Say Anything Nice …” brings to mind several poems of mine you have published in Trinacria, which most likely will never appear in this venue.

        In “Revocation” the message I get is to speak plainly, at all costs. Above all, you write about facts, not about theories.

      • C.B. Anderson

        If only you had waited a few years, things might have been different.

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        Kip, many thanks for your kind words.

        Thirty-seven years ago, the poetry world was just as crazy as it is now, but in a different way. Poets were still suffering a hangover from the 1960s, and editors (with some honorable exceptions) were publishing worthless drivel.

        TRINACRIA is privately distributed and for adults only, so that is why we have a freedom and latitude that other places don’t. My big complaint against some conservative publications is that they are still shackled by Comstockian prejudices against seriously erotic and powerfully satiric verse.

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