by Joseph S. Salemi.
Pivot Press (Expansive Poetry
Online Bookstore), 84 pp., $12.00 paper, 2005.
It is an act of courage to publish such a collection as Masquerade in
the face of today’s feckless critics and the mindless
gruel that most call poetry. Masquerade is a testament
to the tremendous amount of knowledge, ancient and modern,
required to achieve the perspective the author enjoys. Joseph
Salemi’s poems have many levels, and those questions
addressed in them are always worth the asking. Probably most
important, Masquerade is a reaching out to those
poets who are unaware that such poetry can be written! The
poetry establishment is consumed with trendiness, political
correctness, and plain bad writing. Salemi, a widely published
poet and translator who teaches at New York University and
Hunter College, reminds us that poetry, at its best, is imbued
with historical consciousness and is engaged with the eternal
verities of life.
There is something of the ancient Roman about Salemi; one
can see him up close to the assassin, taking notes on where
the dagger was concealed and how it found its home. He has
learned the lessons of history well. Joseph Salemi is a poet
who abhors the sloppiness of our age. Greatly to their credit,
his poems resist being placed within the usual hierarchy
of the presently acceptable. His larger vision shows us how
we live in a giant fog of self concern and self approval,
and he wants to shake us out of it; to make readers think,
as Horace and Catullus did. He desires that poets be better
Salemi is skilled in discerning the difference between putting
one’s individual imprint on a well-made poetic work
and the mindless expression of personal feelings. His scholarly
knowledge and interest in the ancient world come together
to produce sensitive and oblique comments on the Worlds That
Were and The World That Is, and the satiric observations
he makes cast a cold light on obscurantism and prissiness
of all kinds.
In direct contradiction to the meat of Salemi’s work,
much of what passes for poetry today ends up going down like
a fizzy soft drink. Even the humor of his short poem “Oneiromancy” (quoted
here in its entirety) has both classical reference and the
bite of an OgdenNash poem.
“Dreams are sent by God our maker,”
told he Pharaoh’s baker.
“Pretty soon you’ll
Birds will peck your flesh when
Such answers plain and without fretwork
won’t hear on the Psychic Network.
The observations on godly pomposity of those who think they
are above us, contained in his subtle analysis in “Jove’s
Apologia to Juno For His Infidelity” illuminate today’s
world and make the ancients come alive. He has salient things
to say which are expressed as he takes off from subjects
such as Icarus’ flight, the arrival of Columbus in
a New World, the lives of Villon and Donne; even Benvenuto
Cellini’s salt-cellar. In these poems, this poet seems
to be telling us “Poets, show some interest in the
past, or suffer the consequences!”
Some, assuming that Salemi is combative, unsubtle and too
much concerned with uncomfortable subjects, are moved to
attack his form, content, and style. Sometimes they sign
their names, sometimes they do not. Why do they react so
strongly to him? Perhaps it’s because he is not really
talking about the Rome of 2,000 years ago, or seventeenth
century London or any other time in the past. Those of his
poems which refer to the past are inevitably applicable to
Joseph S. Salemi is generous with his knowledge. He only
asks that you think on it. His detractors should read his
poem “The Yellow Leaf.” This poem of many levels
speaks of the eternal order of things, rising far above our
civilization of cigarette butts and coffee-lids. It is a
particularly lovely and profound poem, and I quote in part:
…(It)…Looks on a flowing
gutter with its freight
Of sodden cigarette butts, paper
Dissolving newsprint, gasoline, a spate
Of broken sticks
and coffee lids. Perhaps
Its eight rhumbs, like a compass
rose, reach out
To mark direction in this tangled flux
With lodestar fixity,
By true convergence at a common crux.
Such is a yellow leaf.
At least it seems
To function so above the
This book Masquerade, in sum a stinging indictment
of the way we live now, is that yellow leaf.
Salemi’s scope is wide, and can be both light and
serious. One of Salemi’s best poems is “Corporate
Opportunity,” which examines the way in which so many
of us must live. Other poems shine their light on what might
be significant moments in anyone’s life. We are treated
to his observations on such diverse themes as snobbery, fashion,
class differences, a blind date, and even the burden of listening
to Wagner. The poem “The Diver’s Dirge,” dun-colored
and doleful, paints a canvas full of the joys of isolation
and the price paid for its renunciation. “WhatPrice
Wisdom” is a marvelously wise comment on age and its
lessons. Poetry workshops, academics, degree-driven suckups;
all catch a bit of the sharp lash of Joseph S. Salemi’s
The variety of subject and poetic expression continues in Masquerade.
One of the loveliest of Salemi’s works, “An Academy
Painter Judges The Impressionists,” delineates the
limits of conventional aesthetic judgment, and shows his
far-reaching range. In the cluster of poems jump-started
by quotes from or about other writers, Salemi gets inside
their heads; he might be continuing a conversation with a
writer from another age. I’m thinking particularly
of “In One Ear” (about Boswell), and the poem
titled “Rimbaud’s Apologia,” though there
On occasion, Salemi even turns a cold eye on himself. Here
is a poet who thinks deeply and communicates well in so many
ways. From reading his poems I learn of his delight in art
and calligraphy, his love of wine, and of his remarkably
unsentimental attitude toward status, power, sex and other
personal experience. In fact, unsentimentality is his forte ‘,
and it is a quality we desperately need in an age of cant.
Both of Salemi’s war poems, “Shell Shock” and “The
Price of Flowers,” are dense, reserved and heavy, as
monuments to the past should be; yet the kernel of meaning
in each is as clear as crystal.
I quote from “The Price of Flowers”:
…The world’s still rife
With mayhem, spite,
stupidity’s dull spell,
enough to rival hell.
The ground we harrowed with our slaughtered
the same weeds, and gives off the old smell.
Perhaps the most difficult thing for any poet to do is to
meld his knowledge of his art with what life has taught him.
Somewhat like imprinting a footprint on wet sand, the process
which produces such works can never be totally directed,
but occurs as one walks along through life, succeeding in
putting one foot ahead of the other. Salemi’s footprints
are strong and sure; they lead to a place worth going.
I would hate for such a worthy book as Masquerade to
lie gathering dust on the shelf, while all the hypocrisy
and effusiveness of the age is enjoying a spotlight of attention.
There are many things contained in and concerning this book
that call for contemplation of the most serious kind.
As this collection demonstrates, Salemi is acomplex, often
profound poet who knows how to make everything work in order
to reach his goal. He is a poet who has found entrance to
the narrow way which connects technique and form, issues,
personal preference, and commentary. His poems are sharp,
direct, even at times acidic, and he is not afraid to put
a seldom-used word to work. Here, in Masquerade,
we are treated to a banquet of form, fantasy and a love of
words and how they work. Salemi’s language is anything
but politically correct, and I love it.
Salemi can be playful, cynical, oblique and deeply serious.
If these poems shock you, it is to get your attention. Once
he has it, there are lessons there for anyone to learn. Just
read the book. You’ll see.
Sally Cook is both artist and poet. As a painter, she
was a participant in the historic Tenth Street Galleries,
where she was a member of both the Phoenix and Camino galleries
and the Artist’s Club. Her many paintings of Emily
Dickinson have been discussed in scholarly journals and
her poetry has been widely published. Presently, an E-book
of her poetry can be seen on the website of The