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Carrie Etter reviews

Method, by Mark Salerno

The Figures, 2002

You can read three poems by Carrie Etter in this issue of Jacket.

This piece is 900 words or about two printed pages long.

Though generally I use the words collection and book interchangeably when referring to a new volume of poetry, I find it erroneous to speak of Mark Salerno’s Method as a collection. Nominally, Method indeed collects, gathering 55 poems between its covers. For a volume not constituted of a single long poem, however, Method proves more a cohesive book of poems than most.
     Salerno achieves such coherence (unity might wrongly suggest a lack of loose ends, and Method relishes its loose ends) not only through the usual avenues of consistency in style and focus of interests, but more interestingly and unusually, through the obsessive repetition and reformation of what he denotes ‘key words.’ That is, the Method of the book lies in the poems’ evocative introduction, repetition, and rearrangement of a fairly lengthy and interesting list of words and phrases; though not all words and phrases repeat, Salerno’s ingenuity manifests in how many he does repeat and how inventively he does so.
     The poems’ wryness, earnestness, and vernacular quality engage the reader in a conversation most narrowly about the work (as in operation and function) of art, more generally about the nature of expression itself, whatever its vehicle.
     These two engagements mutually reinforce one another throughout the book, while individual poems lean toward one without ever excluding the other. In the poems that feature an unnamed ‘she,’ for example, a she recurrently described as one who ‘refuses,’ we think of the problems of expression in personal relationships, while that in itself returns us to the speaker’s interest in his artistic expression and his relationship with his audience.
     The speaker’s expressed longing ‘for an art that would be more’ proves a metacommentary on the poems themselves and the method Salerno has chosen. Here is the book’s first poem, ‘In My Paintings’:

In my paintings I am apt to find
the thousand injuries I had borne
if only a crude childlike hand a
glass half-full slash half-empty
questions lists key words and
observations of everyday life
my painting is my way and yet
I long for an art that would
be more than an expression of
my hatreds and desires as occurs
a congenial mode of thought for me
is counting granted conspiracies
granted the baseline of chance
and a small green tree obscuring.

Here the speaker appears both to feel disappointed with the self-centeredness of his art and to acknowledge it impossible to separate the self completely from its expressions. This is how the turn to method begins: ‘counting,’ referring both to the repetition of key words and the sonnet or near-sonnet length of the poems (all but ten of the poems are fourteen lines) promises a degree of distance as well as ‘the baseline of chance.’ Through this method, the poems, interleaving, accumulate meaning in such a way as to seem hardly self-absorbed or overly concerned with the speaker’s ‘thousand injuries,’ and this result gives rise to the speaker’s expressions of pleasure in the poems: midway he notes, with an air of surprise, his liking of ‘these pieces’ ‘even the / so often hard to say words’ (‘You Heard Me’), and in one of the last poems, the speaker can affirm the moment ‘When the air of the arbitrary / vanishes and we fall into / positions that feel destined’ (‘Woody ’N You’), though the method succeeds so well that it rarely feels arbitrary. The book as a whole produces as it investigates the belief that even a randomly chosen approach to art, seriously grasped, can achieve greater accomplishments in self-expression than a more formless pursuit of ‘what occurs.’
     By ‘seriously’ I mean with dedication rather than gravely, for a significant share of Method’s pleasure arises from its poems’ playfulness. This comes in part from the speaker’s self-deprecation that simultaneously evokes the problematic of achieving and measuring expression’s success and pokes fun at the speaker’s ambitions and the loftiness of his overall project. Phrases employed toward this double end include: ‘idiot don’t write that down,’ ‘my messy fascination,’ ‘too technical,’ ‘blah blah blah,’ ‘flush them out,’ ‘chop chop,’ ‘snare and delusion,’ and ‘hoax of modernism.’ Additionally, Salerno’s use of the mock heroic vocative of ‘O lengthening light O couch of / mammary’ and the repetition of this construction with other invoked objects, as well as references to such commonplaces as ‘crime scene tape’ and ‘a beef bowl a punch bowl’ further play up this work’s lighthearted seriousness.
   Let us close with ‘A Dutch Door’:

If I make my reports so be it
in detail in minute particulars
the vast array the ever-shifting
panorama and finest gradations
of felt experience my speaking
voice is not my only voice and
now I think of Gigi LaMorte lo
these many years traduced wronged
abandoned she was known as a pleasing
bit in the passing human cavalcade
a congenial mode of thought for me
in my methods for they are everywhere
apparent look back if you must and
so be it if I make my reports.

The wry intelligence of these methodical, congenial, ever-shifting reports recommend Method as both an accomplishment in itself and a promise. This is, after all, only Salerno’s second book of poetry, suggesting that ‘an art that would be more’ is at once here and forthcoming.

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