The Poetic Rendezvous

A review of Dustin Pickering's book Salt and Sorrow

Dustin Pickering’s evocative book of poems, Salt and Sorrow, does a lot in the short precincts that it had. Also, it deals with a lot of problems and the intricacies that are quite unique in their own right, taking into account the American culture that the poet represents. One thinks of the conventional things when one thinks of Hollywood. One takes things for granted, say, the beauty of a woman. Pickering does not entertain such cock sure readers. He makes things pretty clear right at the beginning. In the opening poem, he talks about the beauty of a woman from an ontological point of view, which makes his poem so modern despite proclaiming that the book is guided by the values of Christianity.

What would strike you is not Hollywood but the Japanese new wave of the 70s. Especially the first poem would take you back to Kaneto Shindo’s 1972 classic Sanka (hymn). Beauty here is not objectified, at least not in the conventional sense. There is an adoration of beauty by Sasuke. Shunkin, the epitome of art, is not to be seen with the eyes that are not learned in ontology. There is a vivid scene where Sasuke defiles his eyes in order to escape from the defiled beauty of his teacher, Shunkin. They renounce the sense of sight, and touch each other with passion, have rampant sexual encounters because they know better than others: “what is good inevitably dies”. They make the most of beauty by becoming wise enough to renounce sight and feel their way to the light, or illumination. This is why, in the subsequent poems, the poet, with renewed vigour, can assert that what seems to be the simple straight road appears winding, and everything is not quite what it appears to be.

This theme gains immensity in the next poem, Who is Lucifer?  At the outset, the poet as if lures you into the poem by telling you what you want to listen, when he says that Lucifer is the Devil’s advocate. But then, he is intelligent enough to point it out to you that the Devil does not depend on the light that is without him, and rather, there is a light within him, that enables him to see the pulpy ground, which is a subtle hint at the procreation. It is as if the blue eyed boy has all the light of the world trapped inside his eyes. This poem also corresponds to one of Tagore’s songs that say, “I have seen the outsides in the light of my eyes”.

As we progress to the next poems, the poetic intensity grows sharply.  The author brings in the myths and fuses them in an oxymoron, among other delightful things—to cite an example, you would notice a phrase “wooden holocaust”, which could mean the bombs dropped and also the apocalypse that has unnaturally evoked itself out of the profession of Christ. There is a busy to do of the lines that revolve around in front of your eyes, much like Gasper Noe’s Irreversible, as you watch with astonishment how the drumbeats of the war become the hoodlums of the streets in a jerky movement that is seamlessly used in his poetry by Pickering.

The theme of beauty is never forgotten among all this, and we see the evocation of the Freudian dream element in the poem canned Sarah. We find ourselves thinking of beauty as an experience, as a dream and it remains elusive from us and all we get out of it is the “falling down” feeling we have when our hand touches the surface of the bed while dreaming. This is an exclusive take on beauty that is commendable: the poet has somehow managed to intermingle successfully a lot of subjects in his poems without making the subject matter of the poem itself overwhelming. This is no mean feat. We see the Christian myths mixing with the poet’s understanding of psychology and ontology: and he does so intelligently, without making it an overt attempt.

The poet experiments for a while with the themes that have been long the subject of poetry since the days of Greek tragedies. This is the topic of shedding the blood of one’s kin. This is the eternal topic of conflict, which has one central theme that keeps the discourse in its proper shape, and that is the debate on justice and the extent of rightfulness of vengeance. The poet here cleverly turns the dialectics to ontology once again, problematizing the position of jealousy, much like what the literary greats have done; for example, John Banville in his Mefisto or for that matter Umberto Eco in his The Island of the Day Before. This is not a problem for Pickering because of his adeptness in mingling myths. If the ontological question is seen wisely by the poet, he does not shy away from the essence of Nietzsche’s philosophy that was portrayed in his book The Birth of Tragedy. In the poem Word Become Flesh, we can feel how the poet has taken the risk of putting forward his version of the Dionysian and the Apollonian dialectics that was churned out by what is, arguably, one of the most controversial as well as influential books of the 20th century. The poet thus brings out his psyche and more precisely his poetic calculations and risks in front of our eyes if we look into the subject of his poems carefully.

Koushik Sen is a post-graduate (M.A) in English Literature (University of Calcutta). His works have been published in Harbinger Asylum, NY Literary Magazine, The Statesman, Lost Coast Review, among other places. He is an avid book reader and loves to write a review only when he feels like writing for a book. Read other articles by Koushik.