Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Salt Ecstasies: A Review

Poetry can quickly fade from sight. Most books are printed in small runs and unless that person gains great recognition their books can quickly disappear and become hard to find for future readers. This is why reprint series are vital. Graywolf Press has such a series call "Re/View" and they recently reprinted James L. White's 1982 book The Salt Ecstasies.

Prior to reading it, I had heard great things about it and so I placed it on my reading list for 2011 (which I have now read three books off of). The book absolutely engaged me and surprised me. White, who did not gain tons of recognition in his lifetime, is a powerful and important poet of the 20th century. I found myself connecting to White in ways I didn't expect, because I knew very little about him before reading the book. White grew up in Indiana, which is where I am from. He was also gay and his poems attempt to get at the complexities of relationships and the internal loneliness that can come from life.

This reprint includes a great introduction by Mark Doty. I often dislike introductions and sometimes don't read them until after I've read the book, but this one I read first and I was pleased by Doty's careful exploration of White's work. His essay is genuine and helped build a context for the poems. The reprint includes the entire book called The Salt Ecstasies, which was White's last book. He actually died before it got printed. Doty also includes two previously unpublished poems and a selection from a memoir White had written out in 1979. The memoir is a great exploration of "truth" within family and probably could have become a great book had he lived and finished it.

The heart of the book is still the poems from The Salt Ecstasies and these poems are beautifully sad. They truly capture the loneliness of a gay man in his 40s living during the late 70s. The poems are heartbreaking in places and always thought provoking. Doty mentions in his introduction that he has often suggested this book to young gay poets in his classes. He says one absolutely hated the book and couldn't take the saddest of it. The young man was seeking more encouragement that his life would be about community and love. White's poems don't really paint that picture.

White's work is different than many other gay poets writing at the time and even today. He touches on a few topics that I've rarely seen in gay poetry by men. A lot of gay poetry is filled with hot bodies, muscles, and all around sexiness. White paints a different picture. For example, he has a poem called "Overweight." In the poem, he explores the idea of our bodies changing. I found this refreshing. I've rarely, if ever, read a gay poem that talks about being overweight. In other poems, the speaker is often not viewing himself as attractive or sexy. These poems come from a very different place and truly capture the reality of life for many people.

My favorite poem in the book is also one Doty writes a lot about in the introduction. It is called "Making Love to Myself." First of all, it is a great title. It is also a great exploration of sexuality and of a lost relationship. As the speaker of the poem is masturbating, he is remembering a former lover named Jess. What is most interesting about Jess to me is his portrayal as a working class man, which again is something that can sometimes be ignored in gay literature (not always, but many times). Jess is described as coming into the room smelling of gasoline and in his work overalls. The poem is sad and also gets at the complexities of gay relationships in the 60s and 70s when being out and open was very different than it is today.

The book also includes intimate portraits of other relationships. The final poem in the book is called "Naming" and is about the speaker and the speaker's mother. The inclusion of poems about family relationships paired with these sexual relationship poems shows White's ability to examine those close interactions with have with people and the sadness and sometimes hope that comes from these relationships. They are all complicated in their own ways.

White's book is one I plan to read again. He has really grabbed my attention in a way a poet hasn't for some time. Again, I am thankful for presses that reprint books like this. I'm lucky to have had the chance to read these poems and I'm sure White would like to know that his work is still inspiring people today.

-Stephen (Salty)


  1. I had a subscription for awhile to a gay literary magazine called The James White Review. I think I read a couple of his poems there (the magazine was named after White after his death). I'm glad to hear Salt Ecstasies is back in print and will be easier to find & read.

  2. Yes, I've heard of that magazine, but I haven't read it. Thanks for the comment.

  3. I have the original paperback edition of "The Salt Ecstasies." It was considered a landmark of gay writing at its time—and one reason the Review was named after him was in honor of both poet and the writing; it was a good gay lit mag while it lived—and I read it with pleasure when I found it (used, some years after publishing). It's great to see that it's back in print.

    There are some gay poets whose writings are so different from what most people think of as gay poetry, even from what gay writers who should know better think of as gay poetry (post frank O'Hara, Doty, etc.), that it's always good to be reminded of the real range of such poetry. Your review here helps with that. I also think of Edwin Denby, and his modern versions of the sonnet form which are unlike anything else out there.