Review: sulphurtongue

Rebecca Salazar’s full-length debut works in a lot of really exciting, menacing ways, ways poetry coming from the highly-educated literarily-suffused world often does not work. In fact, the poetry embodies what the speaker in “Childless offspring” admits they want: “…I would prefer the ghosts / come out fully screaming just to prove / that they are there” (24). While Salazar may be trained with formal academy chops, they adroitly navigate the barbs and traps such training usually imparts: “who knew the ivory tower I climbed / to lift my head above the smoke / that con of godliness that only beacon / of respectability for immigrant children” (106).

jfc what a cover

sulphurtongue screams its loudest when it veers into supernal genres, here: the gothic, and body horror, though camp rears its head now and then as well. The whole world is a kind of destructive influence on the bodies of the speakers, eroding their very molecular base as racial and environmental sanctions are executed by a Canada (often specifically an Ontario) that simply will not accommodate distinction, and in fact wishes violence against those “hyphenate-Canadians” (101).

Salazar’s characterization here calls to mind Fred Wah’s “Strang(l)e Poetics,” where marginalized writers “develop instruments of disturbance, dislocation, and displacement” with which to wrestle with the “hyphen,” as “even when it is notated, [it] is often silent and transparent. I’d like to make the noise surrounding it more audible, the pigment of its skin more visible” (Faking It). Salazar obviously does not speak on behalf of every second-generation immigrant in Canada, and is wary of those narrow scripts offered by “mainstream white canlit book clubs and the like” that impress upon poets of colour that one must be the “perfect brown victim of immigration” (Glass Bookshop Radio); those kinds of readers (there’s no shortage out there) feed on comforting (to them, at least) refined and familiar narratives of trauma and acceptance, and Salzar hopes to abjure (in the magical, defensive sense) sulphurtongue against that particular commodification. Salazar knows precisely when and where to twist the hyphen’s arm, when to call in those screaming ghosts, and how to do it on her own terms.

In interview with Matthew Stepanic, Salazar describes this careful situating as learning to not just write for white audiences. Further, she amply details her experiences in learning to write, edit others’ work and run journals, and eventually coming to work with acclaimed writer Dionne Brand, and learning to eschew politeness and “get weird.” The interview is well worth a listen, and serves as a further reading list too, as Salazar details many other contemporary poets she identifies with and admires.

The thwarting forms of exhaustion those bodies and minds in the text endure do not restrict themselves to any one spatial or temporal geography. These varied loci sometimes lead us into a charged ‘motherland’ myth-making past—“his abuela, barefoot mender of the earth, who lay down / aged one hundred and twelve after hiking the finca at dawn / to repair a spent fence” (25), the thumping d’s of the plodding hike until the body is released in the second beat of the ent/ence stress at the end of the line. In turn, Salazar’s contemporary speakers sometimes travel into a chilly, spooky bog, and other times a kind of cyberspace, dissociative elsewhere—“closeted, thrift-store-leather femme / millennial, triggered and checking Twitter, sober-slumped outside a high-school theatre / trying not to cry in front of baby gays” (52), the “femme” tumbling in distress to the enjambed mmm cushion of the “millennial,” this embodiment of sliding down a wall to your bum as you process potent news surrounded by a bunch of people with no idea what you’re going through.

This kind of wide travel makes for a collection that feels at times (though not explicitly to its detriment) like several different books altogether. Take the subheading of “doppelbanger,” where Salazar works magic with a contentious[1] kind of para-ghazal, many of which appeared initially in her Anstruther Press chapbook, “Guzzle,” where “shores shrink with mercury” and “Lakes gather teeth from dead walleye, lost swimmers, / and rumored cetaceans” (74). This thematic and formal partition renders a discrete sequence of grotesque (the blending of animal, mineral, and architecture) verse, a soup of not merely disparate parts, but a kind of hyperstitional immersion with myth itself (the poem title’s proffered “Cryptoecology” and the “rumored cetaceans”).

The formal precision throughout the collection putters like a fog machine, spooling out a low-hanging gossamer that traces the otherwise invisible dimensions of poison(ed/ous) earth, the poisonous cyber-ether, the poisonous and ever-present threat of sexual violence, and the poisonous glares of apathetic settler-colonialism all alike in a highly palpable fashion, form and content both supporting a series of voices frustrated by (and biting back against) a world that feels condemned to ever-accelerating rot.

Salazar is not afraid of a bit of rot, though, because they recognize the ways in which it dis-orders and dissolves arbitrary and antagonistic structures alike. For example, let’s turn to the poem “Genealogy” (the one discussed earlier in this review, with the speaker’s exhausted abuela). Here the speaker instructs us to “add a footnote / for the secret queers whose progeny are uncontainable / in lineage, biology, or text,” and in lieu of the kind of those usual bromide refutations of genealogical mechanisms (a striking out, a burning, etcetera), Salazar deploys a full, fomenting rot-gothic, guaranteeing a fairer valuation of those not included in the traditional form with the form itself, feeding “this family” (those secret queers) “by composting this page into rich loam” (26), everyone getting something resembling ‘fair say’ in the atomic subscendence of dissolution (see: Timothy Morton’s “Humankind,” aka, the parts are greater than the sum).

Returning to their interview with Stepanic (whose own work Salazar has edited, just one of many contributions Salazar has given to the literary community in her busy tenure as a writer), Salazar speculates on ‘the audience’ of the book: “queer kids (of any age, let’s get real),” other second-generation immigrants (also figuring out “belonging” and language and culture-loss anxiety), other folks with chronic illness & disability. Salazar wants “to connect with people who’ve shared experiences with me: survivors of sickness, of sexual violence, of racism, of misogyny, of queer-phobia, of the rest.”

The collection also, I think, advocates for the very earth, as I mentioned earlier never afraid to get its hands (paws, fins, flippers?) dirty in the loam, risking its voice and wellness to go down to “the creek / clogged with fluorescent silt” (110), cup that lambent tumid glow, and hold it up to us as though to toast with the collection’s closing remark: “Let’s drink until your body overgrows this place” (113).

A remarkable, yucky, angry, and lasting debut. I say, bottoms up.

[1] Many of us at UNB were taught the ghazal in the tradition of the late John Thompson, which is to say, not the actual ghazal, but a kind of appropriative (generally white) can-lit settler version of the Persian form. Salazar’s “Guzzles” don’t necessarily side-step these concerns, but waymark a stage in the development of her practice (and the rest of us, too), writing with a kind of cosmpolitan influence (a good thing in such an atomized world) but with a mindful eye (essential to any writing practice, though, sometimes harder in practice than in theory). I would also encourage folks to look into Thompson’s work as well, available from Goose Lane.

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