Elegy for Desire: Luis Omar Salinas 1937-2008
Christopher Buckley | October/November 2008
Luis Omar Salinas
Photo Credit: Karen Harlow-McClintock
On May 25th, contemporary poetry lost one of its true and original poets, and his family, friends, and all the poets associated with the "Fresno School" lost a brilliant and wonderful compadre-a good and great soul.
His health had been declining for the past five or six years, and for the last year and a half Omar had been living in a nursing home, not reading or writing much. Between 2000 and 2005, he worked at a serious and sustained pace to write and revise the poems that would comprise his final book, Elegy for Desire. I'd been working with Omar since 1978 when I first moved to Fresno to teach; I helped him edit and revise his poems, and often sitting with a small circle of poets-Gary Soto, Jon Veinberg, Ernesto Trejo-we were amazed at his spontaneous poetic responses to the general rush of experience. We often encouraged him to write down his spontaneous and idiosyncratic riffs that he'd tossed into the conversation; often those lines-his wit and ironic observations-were the beginnings of poems. His romantic coupling of disparate images was as much in play at a dinner or party as it was when he was composing in solitude. Omar had a mercurial or protean aspect about him, and he was able to toss off images as easily as tossing his hat into the chair. We were there to cheer and applaud his manifest talent, but we wanted to be sure that nothing was lost, that those lines would become the meat of new poems. I soon became Omar's main editor and secretarial helper, and Jon Veinberg and I conspired to engage Omar in revision and organization when he showed up on our doorsteps. He knew there was work to be done, and he lived for his poetry. His work remained as arresting and inventive as it was at the beginning, developing and maturing with each book.
Luis Omar Salinas was, and posthumously continues to be, one of the leading Chicano poets as well as an important voice in contemporary American poetry for thirty years. Since 1967, Salinas has been publishing poems and books of poetry, and receiving recognition and awards for his writing. His first book, Crazy Gypsy, (1970), is now a classic of contemporary and Chicano poetry, reflecting the politics and self actualization of those highly charged and changing times. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Luis Omar Salinas was one of the prominent group of poets associated with such major American poets as Philip Levine, Peter Everwine, and Robert Mezey who were teaching at Fresno State College, as it was then known. In his obituary in the Fresno Bee, Levine remembered Salinas when he was first at Fresno State in the late 1960s: "It wasn't the vocabulary or syntax, but the vision itself. Latino Surrealism gave an unusual edge to his work. I immediately could pick out poems of his out of all my students." The early hallmark title poem of his first book, "Crazy Gypsy" appeared in the now classic anthology from 1970, Down At The Santa Fe Depot: Twenty Fresno Poets. There he is in his coat, scarf, and hat at the apex of that black & white cover photo, Omar always with a hat....
With a professor in the English Department at Fresno State, Lillian Faderman, Salinas co-edited an anthology of poetry in 1973, From The Barrio: A Chicano Anthology. In 1975, poems by Salinas were included along with work by Gary Soto, Ernesto Trejo, and Leonard Adame in a chapbook, entrance: 4 chicano poets, from the Greenfield Review Press in New York, and there would be a chapbook of ten new poems, I Go Dreaming Serenades, published in 1979 by Mango Publications in San Jose, California. However, it would be ten years before Salinas published his second full-length book of poetry, Afternoon of the Unreal (Abramas Publications, 1980). During that time, Salinas developed and refined his craft and his style. Afternoon of the Unreal reflected the influences of Salinas's reading of and interest in Spanish poetry-the generation of '27-Lorca, Jimenez, Machado, Hernandez, and more-as well as South American poets Neruda and Vallejo. A deeper imagism, an element of the surreal, would combine with his ability to target specific emotional states revealing to the reader his mature voice, a voice more sophisticated than the immediate voice of politics and emotion ten years earlier. A sense of melancholy, a romantic longing and wildness balanced by a quixotic wit and irony, would be evident in Salinas's following books-Prelude To Darkness (Mango Publications, 1981) and Darkness Under The Trees / Walking Behind the Spanish (Chicano Library Press, University of California Berkeley, 1982).
In 1980, Salinas was awarded the Earl Lyon Award for poetry writing from Fresno State University, and in 1982, he won the Stanley Kunitz award from Columbia Magazine at Columbia University for his poem "Letter Too Late To Vallejo." In 1984, he received a rare General Electric Foundation Award to support his writing, and in 1985, he was invited to read at the Library of Congress with Sandra Cisneros. 1987 saw publication of The Sadness of Days: Selected and New Poems by Arte Publico Press at the University of Houston. A group of twenty-two new poems won the annual chapbook contest from Flume Press, Chico, California; Follower of Dusk, was selected by Quinton Duval as the eighth winner in the series for 1991. Those poems formed the core of a full-length poetry manuscript, Sometimes Mysteriously, which won the Salmon Run Press' annual national publication contest. By that point in his career-Salinas had just entered his sixth decade-his poems and his visions had developed and changed, and in the new poems a reader can detect an element of hope, of wistful resignation. Despite hardships, Salinas's disposition in these poems was one of acceptance and praise as opposed to anger and complaint. Greatest Hits (Pudding House Publications, 2002) is remarkable not only for its selection of twelve best known/received poems over twenty-seven years, but also for the history of the poems, which precedes the poems in accordance with the format for the series. In the last paragraph of the narrative, Salinas talks about the title poem, "Sometimes Mysteriously," from his last book:
This poem was a turning point in my life .... I was beginning to attain more authority in my life and in my work. Having survived, almost miraculously, so much of my life, having found my poetry, I began more often to take a positive outlook on the days I have left.
Luis Omar Salinas was born in Robstown, Texas on June 27, 1937 to Olivia and Rosendo Salinas. His father, a merchant, moved the family south to Monterrey, Mexico to open a general store. In 1941, Olivia Salinas grew weak with tuberculosis and died. Luis, four years old at that time, was adopted by his aunt and uncle, Oralia and Alfredo Salinas. Omar grew up watching Mexican movies, and his heroes were the singing movie stars Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete of the 1930s and 1940s. As a youngster, he had musical training on trumpet and violin and even wrote his own songs.
Omar's adoptive parents moved to Daly City, California, where his uncle Alfredo found work in a clothing store in San Francisco. After five months, the family moved to Fresno, and in the summer of 1954, Alfredo moved the family to Bakersfield following the promise of a better job. Salinas moved with his family, and once out of high school, joined the U.S. Marine Reserves. In 1958, Salinas moved to Los Angeles to enroll at California State University Los Angeles, rejoining his natural father, Rosendo. He discovered the Spanish poet Gustavo Adolfo Becquer, and enrolled again in 1965 at Cal State L.A., where he met and studied with the poet Henri Coulette, who had him reading Plath, Sexton, Snodgrass, and Justice, and these poets and their willingness to engage the personal in poetry had an influence on the direction of his work. After about two years in L.A., Omar moved with his family to Sanger, a small town near Fresno. Coulette recommended that Omar attend Fresno State College and study with poet Philip Levine, a poet whose work they had read and discussed in class.
Salinas began attending classes at Fresno State College in 1967, and there, in Levine's workshops, he met fellow poets Larry Levis, B.H. Boston, DeWayne Rail, Greg Pape, David St. John, and other poets of that renowned group who would emerge from Fresno in the 1960s and 1970s. This was the late 1960s, and it was a turbulent time on the campus of Fresno State, as it was on campuses throughout America. It was in Robert Mezey's class that Omar began to write his first political poems. He wrote "Guevara" (about the South American revolutionary Che Guevara) which was included in his first book Crazy Gypsy (1970), as well as poems of social and political protest, poems in support of the Chicano political movement, poems against racial prejudice, and assertive poems of personal awareness. "Crazy Gypsy" was a poem of personal and political revolution, and it was the first poem published of Salinas's mature work, appearing in Speaking for Ourselves: American Ethnic Writing, Scott Foresman & Co., 1969 edited by Fresno State English Department faculty member Lillian Faderman and Barbara Bradshaw, a UCLA colleague. In the Fresno Bee obituary, Gary Soto spoke of the beginnings of Salinas's work: "(He was) certainly a pioneering poet in the Mexican-American literary scene. He was one of the first to put his stamp on Mexican-American Literature."
The 1960s and '70s bred anarchy of spirit, and Omar was touched by those years-many poems were dark, angry, or unhopeful; many, however, were brilliant. There were protests against the Vietnam war, for equal rights, and for social and academic status for groups historically disenfranchised. The young and the educated were questioning authority-political and academic-at every turn, and they were asserting their rights as students and citizens, and as individuals. Within this context and out of this crucible, Salinas's early work found its audience.
Given his willingness to engage social and political subjects in his poetry, a number of faculty and staff members in La Raza Studies at Fresno State College collaborated to publish Crazy Gypsy in 1970. The evening of the publication, Salinas read to a large audience which was predominantly Chicano, and was given an enthusiastic reception; his career as a poet was born. About 4,000 copies of Crazy Gypsy sold in eight months in two editions, a very significant sales record for a book of poetry even by today's standards.
The title poem announces the tone, style, and the immediate voice of the book. In it we encounter many of the hallmarks of Salinas's early style as well as recurring themes and subjects. In the first stanza of section II, we meet the lyric Salinas, who mourns the death of his mother when he was a child, and we meet the angry and political Salinas of the times, throwing stones at policemen. Yet, while these first lines are forthright and lyrical, the stanza ends with Salinas introducing an image from the subconscious which alerts us to the range of his voice and imagination, which expands the emotional center of the poem.
I am Omar
the crazy gypsy
I write songs
to my dead mother
at fat policeman
and walk on seaweed
in my dreams
Salinas's ability to combine these poetic elements into a sharp poetic movement marks his original style-the lyrical or narrative woven with the political, and what many reviewers have labeled as his surreal imagery-the arresting seaweed/dream image at the end. Also in this premier poem, the reader first sees Salinas's conceit of using an alter ego as the speaker in a poem, a device he will employ in many books to come. Salinas gives notice that he is a gypsy, a character who is unpredictable, self-made, and self-determined, a desperate character with many undisclosed powers, a clever and menacing psyche who has his eye on everything moving around him. In the last section of the poem we hear the lyric voice at the beginning, and then see the terror of his subconscious vision in the middle; and at the end, the reader confronts an image with surreal texture-the social/political fact of racism/hate cast in an image of physical reality.
I am Omar
the Mexican gypsy
I speak of Love
whimsical and aloof
naked and cruel
I speak of death
as something inhabiting
awkward and removed
I speak of hate
nibbling my ear
"Aztec Angel" is a poem similar to "Crazy Gypsy" but it emphasizes the speaker's alienation from society even more strongly. Of all of Salinas's early work, this poem is the most anthologized. It combines political and cultural assertiveness along with socio-political complaint, and, as always, the personal lyric touches are interwoven with Salinas's trademark inventive imagery. The poem is in five sections; here are some representative passages:
I am an Aztec angel
of a scholarly
I am an Aztec angel
of an orthodox
where pachuco children
through poetry rooms
and end up in a cop car...
opens my veins
clouds go berserk
my Mexican ancestors
chew my fingernails...
Many of the poems in Crazy Gypsy embrace political subjects, and befitting the times, the book offers poetic appraisals of the war-"Death In Viet Nam" and an elegy for Che Guevara-"Guevara." The political stance is left off center, but Salinas is keen in his observations and loyal to the Chicano movement of the times, especially in "Death In Viet Nam." In the middle of the poem, he takes the theme beyond the predictable details of war and its atrocities to focus on the social and racial ramifications resulting from the political juggernaut of the war and hundreds of years of injustice: "and now choir boys are ringing/bells/another sacrifice for America/a Mexican/comes home/his beloved country/gives homage/and mothers sleep/in cardboard houses."
Afternoon of the Unreal was brought out by a small publisher, Abramas Publications, in Fresno in 1980. The craft in Afternoon of the Unreal was superior; the long wait between book publications provided for more editing and polishing, and produced a strong and consistent collection. Yet, beneath the engaging imagery and surreal technique, the reader sensed a darkening of emotional skies. Salinas was attempting to understand the hardships and unjust turns of fate in his life. Two of the earliest poems in the book are more lyric and narrative in comparison with the rest of the book; they are elegies for his mother, "Olivia," and for his grandfather, "Going North," which is the most direct and linear.
Those streets in my youth
hilarious and angry,
cobblestoned by Meztizos,
and dancing beggars.
Gone are the soldiers
and the nuns....
I hum Spanish tunes
waiting for the bus
young, open collared
like my grandfather
who died in a dream
There is an understated pathos here as Salinas tries to resolve the past and the present in his life as well as his dreams in the face of family and cultural history/reality. "Olivia" is equally poignant, and although it is also an elegy, Salinas's trademark style comes through as he translates the emotional pain of experience through more associative imagery, especially as seen in the last third of the poem.
I didn't come to this world
to be frightened
yet your death sticks
in my stomach
and I must clean the kitchen
with my hands
and I must wander on
into the night of leavened bread
and pursue truth
like a tube needing air.
"Ode To The Mexican Experience" is a poem in which we find the poet's personal past, his greater ancestry, and the joy he discovers in poetry, in "singing" about it all; the end resolves amid flourishes of brilliant and associative imagery.
The happy poet talks in his sleep,
the eyes of his loved one
pressing against him-
her lips have the softness
of olives crushed by rain....
The soft aggressive spiders
came out to play in the sunlight,
and suffering violins in pawn shops,
hell and heaven and murdered angels
and all the incense of the living
in poisoned rivers
wandering aimlessly amid dead fish,
dead dreams, dead songs.
I was an altar boy,
a shoeshine boy,
an interventionist in family affairs,
a ruthless connoisseur of vegetables,
a football player.
To all living things I sing
The most terrible and magnificent
Ode to my ancestry.
Salinas is writing from Monterrey, from Mazatlan; he is recalling his Aztec heritage and all the suffering and dead dreams and songs. Yet, this is an Ode, and he sings to all that he remembers and invokes, De Chirico-like or Dali-esque, supporting images of suffering violins and murdered angels to expand and reveal the emotional center, the pain, and he is sustained by his singing, by his poetry. In an interview with Omar I conducted for Quarterly West ("Any Good Fortune" vol. 55, fall/winter 2002/03), he spoke of his surreal style and its connection to a "dark side of the soul:"
...then I wanted to somehow come to terms with the tragic and through the tragic, gain a vision which transcends the world. I tapped freely into my unconscious, and thus, living in a fantastic world, I conjured many visions and idiosyncrasies into a poem. ...certainly the surreal events of those years left an imprint, and I would later use it in my poetry, that is, my impressions, thoughts, etc. would fuse, and fantastic imagery could, for me, convey reality.
In Afternoon of The Unreal, Salinas loosens the reigns on his imagination as witnessed in the poems' rapid turns of subconscious imagery and also in poems in which he creates an alter ego to speak and act. This other "Salinas" suffers as well, but at the same time is capable of much grander gestures toward the world, of absorbing and resolving more. In "Salinas Is On His Way," he announces that "After dreams get through with me/I shall devour books, sing arias,/walk on snow,/have arguments with darkness/and crawl into the corner of the sea..." Yet in the end of the poem, Salinas is "making a mad dash through the night/making certain everything is secure." The poet is capable of moving beyond tragedy and psychic difficulties. The little poem, "Salinas Sends Messengers To The Stars," gives us a more humble, yet a finally grand and romantic "Salinas," capable of overcoming physical and emotional poverty again.
Sir. You understand. I am poor.
I work from sunup to sundown.
Never mind what I do...
yet, I'll tell:
I send messengers to the stars.
With all the trouble and madness
on this earth
I feel the stars to be
I think I'll weave
and tell them
I love them so dearly.
With the short syntax and uncomplicated diction, this poem carries a modest texture filled with understatement and pathos, with an emotion that lacks all self-pity. The leaps of imagination are supported by the simple assertiveness and statement, and yet what a fantastic claim to make for one's employment, a job only fit for a poet of supreme imagination and dedication.
The method of Afternoon of The Unreal is one of brilliant and unexpected imagery counterpointing emotional darkness, and yet the poems are rescued by an imagination that finds joy in its craft, that can look upon circumstance with irony and with humor, that can give praise for just surviving.
Completed not long after publication of Afternoon of The Unreal, Prelude To Darkness is book of struggle-a personal, emotional, and psychic/psychological struggle. The poems embody the struggle of an expansive soul, one that desires to be generous, righteous, and accepting, yet a soul that at almost every turn is confronted by the many unmanageable and unkind particulars of the world-the getting of money, career, a livelihood, romance.
Some poems plunge Salinas and the reader into darkness, into a desperation which the poems convince us is all too justified. Section III of "I Sigh In The Afternoon" is representative.
And I've been smiling too long
to be overworked
I've got to find someone
to talk to.
I have a ruthless rendezvous
and I will not rest half-ignorant
in the cubicle of thought,
alienated from the happy condition
which plagues man.
I'm learning to question
the label given to genius.
I am questioning the modern term
We have to take a scrutinizing
look, a deep haunting courageous
blissful look into the mirror
of our ways, or
our crazy souls will not rest.
The poetic method here is direct, making statements which are honest and transparently brave, as only about half of the poems in the book rely on Salinas's keen and unusual image making. Yet to be sure, Salinas continues to transform a dark emotional state into imagery as we see in the last half of the short poem about blossoms, titled "Visitors": "Gaunt-legged/ bosoms of snow,/ timid little voyeurs/of dusk/in terrible/conversation with my/brain./ I take them in my hand/ and walk in my malice,/wildly eating the air." Salinas's ability to distill an emotional and psychological state into objective and wild images is what marks this work; the blossoms, falling here in "terrible/conversation" with his brain, his consciousness, translate to the reader the exact level of tension the speaker is feeling.
Other poems in this book bring the poet out on top of his circumstances, if only marginally. In "Last Tango In Fresno," he is accepting fate, doing his best with humor and a little wit to arrive at an apparently hopeful resignation despite being down on his romantic luck.
Midnoon and I'm between
a pastrami and a dream.
In love with bad love
I put out my cigarette
and count my blessings.
Bad kharma and no lover.
I want to seduce
the nearest woman
and run off to the
But the nearest woman
is thinking of vegetables
and buying a gift
for her lover.
So I waltz down
and bump into
a lesbian friend
who is out of
work and needs a job.
I give her five bucks
that in the next life
I'll get it all back.
Few poets can manage such a distilled narrative, one that jumps from one event and mood to the next while remaining emotionally coherent. The speaker may feel a little improved aware of the adage that there is always someone worse off than you, but there is of course no "tango" here, no dance or romance. We have only one soul pinned down by fate helping another, and a reader comes away-given the wit and ironic texture-doubting that the speaker truly believes in an afterlife/reincarnation, and hence his reward.
To say that Salinas was prolific and charged with creative energy during the early 1980s is an understatement given the proximity of his books' publication dates and the fact that Darkness Under The Trees / Walking Behind The Spanish is in fact two books under one cover. In a creative burst from 1979 through 1981, Salinas completed the two books, and The Chicano Studies Library Publications at the University of California Berkeley thought it a good project and published them both in one volume.
Many poems in Darkness Under The Trees reflect a dark mood resulting from a disastrous love affair, but an equal number of poems direct the book away from pessimism through a philosophic mode which examines such notions as God and Fate. One of the first poems is "I'm On My Way," and we see Salinas as a caricature, taking an almost humorous look at himself, yet sending a warning to God.
. . .
and I'm not letting up, God.
I'm still sleeping
with my neighbor's wife
and sometimes drive nails
into flowers out of boredom
and bump into beggars
when morning goes dead...
I'll make it
to heaven on a motorbike yet-
beardless Leo Da Vinci
singing Spanish folk songs.
Salinas is confronting God, the human condition, and attempting to come to some conclusions that will serve him emotionally and intellectually, that will help him resolve some of his more immediate emotional quandaries. Other poems in a highly introspective and speculative mode are "Salinas Summering At The Caspian and Thinking of Hamlet" and "Salinas Wakes Early And Goes To The park To Lecture Sparrows." Again to his advantage, he establishes a distance between himself and the character of "Salinas," and is able to reason more objectively and imaginatively.
"Fragments for Fall"-a longer poem in eight sections-should not be overlooked. Not long after reading Saul Bellow's Humboldt's Gift and re-reading the poetry of Delmore Schwartz, Salinas wrote this poem, assuming the character of Schwartz. It is remarkable for its sustained imagery around a lyric vision. Salinas surely must have found a kindred spirit in Schwartz, and in this highly evocative poem he is able to step into Schwartz's skin and elicit the paranoia and pathos of a great yet tragic poetic soul. Here are the main portions of the last two sections of this tour-de-force persona poem:
I accuse the world
of having stolen
the pigeons from
and beneath the benches
feed them cocktail sandwiches
from the night before.
I am Schwartz
smooth of wit,
facile, glib, and true
as a meteor
in my castigations.
I am the best
of my age,
its hands and eyes,
and say so
while the clock ticks,
as the frosted grass.
This poem is important in Salinas's work as it demonstrates his considerable range and skills. He is not only a poet of short lyrics and shorter narratives, a poet of wit and humor and dark hope, but he is a poet capable of intricate strategies-a sustained longer poem developed by imagistic progression and theme and variation. He is also a poet of great empathy as this poem, with its intuition into Schwartz's psyche, confirms.
While the atmosphere in this collection may be slightly bleak, Salinas manages to keep his head above water with grit and determination. The ending of the title poem again shows us Salinas wrestling with the idea of God, and, in essence, making light of God's purported effects in the world given the poet's cheerless emotional territory.
I wish I could explain to God,
ask forgiveness, but I'm awkward
with the sentimental.
Don Quixote and I have lost
our minds-this is
another involuntary jump
into the darkness under the trees...
Da Vinci, Don Quixote-despite his desperation, Salinas nonetheless finds kin and companions to help him bear the burden of loneliness and disappointment. Like Quixote-who is a frequent touchstone for Salinas-the poet manages the fortitude, the grit, to continue on in life despite the odds, and often, as in the case of the poem "The Odds," he can do so with a great irony and resoluteness found in the last stanza.
Let the dead-mad divide and
anger the moon, but I prefer
to simply go unadorned
among kings and hold my head
high among the common towns
I come from, unnoticed in my
open coat and summer hat.
I've known dogs in my life
who have died gallantly
with feet straight up in the air.
Salinas thinks it as unlikely that he will prevail against the odds, but no matter what the outcome, the poem tells us, he will meet it gallantly, like the dog in his unexpected but appropriate concluding image. Finding a code, a way to survive while interpreting experience, is Salinas's primary project in this book. Certainly, these are personal poems under the desolate trees of Salinas's world, yet he presents his difficulties with candor and approaches them with an idiosyncratic reason. From that frank approach and the brilliance of his imagery, he is able to see the irony in life and identify possible ways to survive.
Although appearing under the same cover as Darkness Under The Trees and written only a few months later, Walking Behind The Spanish is a large step forward in Salinas's poetic accomplishment. Here, we find Salinas at the height of his imagistic powers with concentrated and inventive imagery rarely matched in contemporary poetry. Salinas also moves beyond the lyric impulse alone to praise and eulogize the great generation of Spanish poets, to show compassion and empathy for their dedication to poetry and humanity which in many instances brought the poets their early deaths at the hands of Franco and the fascists. Salinas embraces the example of their lives and the example of their poetry, and enlarges his own vision.
To be sure, Salinas is still trying to decipher his fate and the complex emotions in which he finds himself tangled, and these subjects take up the first section of this book. The last poem in Section I, however, illustrates a more concentrated use of imagery to advance the situation of the poem and thus expand the emotional parameters and the determination of the poet to survive. Also, as in many of his poems, we see Salinas's mastery of the short line as it serves to make the quick and unexpected turns of imagery and tight narration. Here is all of "When We Have To."
An evening stroll
has declared me sane
The hurried days
walk besme like stray dogs;
no one today,
no ghost to walk beside
me and act as a shepherd
in the night.
Left this way
to the motion of flowers
and lovers who
have shunned me,
I discover the air-
air is air
yet the arithmetic
with their songs
becomes my waltz,
With the cry of the mudlark
as if starbound
we shine in the paleness
when we have to.
While the catalyst for the poem may have been "lovers who/ have shunned me," the ambition finally is much larger than that worn complaint. The speaker here is aware of his mental and emotional condition, and by extension, that situation common among us. He realizes, with the help of practical discovery-"air is air"-coupled with poetic discovery-"yet the arithmetic/of birds"-that the personal can be overcome when we look beyond ourselves, both practically and inventively, to the greater circumstance of our collective lives.
The project for the central section of the book is to transform emotion and experience into original imagery. "A Clever Magician Carrying My Heart" announces a more distilled surrealist method than we have seen before in Salinas- "...In the garden/the woman is breathing roses/and the sky is on horseback/opening like a huge bone." Yet, these are not images for their own sake, and the emotional center-the perplexed heart and mind of the poet walking through the world-is accessible and magnified by the imagery.
The height of Salinas's achievement comes in the third section of the book in the poems dedicated to the great Spanish poets and writers as well as to the great South American poets. Here, Salinas reaches beyond anything he has written to this point to a deeper sense of his poetic being, for the kinship he feels to these poets arches far above a similarity in imagery to a spiritual and humanistic bond. In the late 1960s, while in Philip Levine's poetry workshops at Fresno State College, Salinas was first introduced to Spanish and Latin American poets-Lorca, Jimenez, Machado, Hernandez, Vallejo, and Neruda. In the interview cited earlier, Salinas comments on this early influence and affinity: "I read and admired them all over twenty-five years ago. They spoke my language. That is Spanish." Clearly Salinas was attracted to the music, the freshness, and flair of their imagery, and that gave him a license to pursue his own brand of imagistic bravado. While Salinas developed an original manner of image making, the most significant influence is a connection to the lives of these great poets as they were given to poetry. Indeed, the first poem in this last section, "I'm Walking Behind The Spanish," announces the subject and style at the heart of this book; fully in Salinas's own voice the poems combine the details of the great poets' lives and deaths with Salinas's original imagery. The specificity of his imagination and details reveal the great extent to which these ghosts haunt Salinas's poetic landscape. Here is most of the first section:
Neruda sound asleep
Juan Ramon placing yellow flowers
in his kitchen.
Miguel in jail.
Lorca playing flamenco
to a house full of romanceros.
Ceasr Vallejo walking through
The streets of Paris.
I walk behind you
carrying this heart
of white rain which has
come out of the barrio
with the turbulence of
the Guadalquivir. . .
And this petty inquisitive
brain has watched you
enter my life.
Lorca clean shaven and alert
Neruda calm like dropping fruit.
Juan Ramon Jimenez
in a portrait of yellow flowers.
And Vallejo drunk with the ghost
of compassion, sipping cold coffee.
Behind time I'm
like a lost finger
in the sea.
looking for a lost heaven...
I'm taking everything
to the sea, toss bird bones
there, eat bread and hold on.
Salinas has internalized every detail, and these lives have gripped his imagination, and though time and heaven are lost to him in that age, he still takes inspiration from and finds courage in the example of their poetry and struggle.
Especially in its final section, this book offers poems that are homage to many heroes, and in addition to the heroes of poetry we encounter political heroes such as Emiliano Zapata of the Mexican Revolution and another poem to Miguel Cervantes. However, one of the most moving poems is placed at the end of the book, and it is a poem to an unlikely hero, the poet's adopted father-"My Father Is A Simple Man," direct and simply spoken as befits its subject. Salinas is walking behind this great man, and the simple facts, observed in his mature style and voice, need little embellishment to fit the subject. This is the last third of the poem:
I'd gladly give my life
for this man with a sixth
grade education, whose kindness
and patience are true...
The truth of it is, he's the scholar
and when the bitter-hard reality
comes at me like a punishing
evil stranger, I can always
remember that here was a man
who was a worker and provider,
who learned the simple facts
in life and lived by them,
who held no pretense.
And when he leaves without
benefit of fanfare or applause
I shall have learned what little
there is about greatness.
In all cases, Salinas is out to learn through his poetry. His style, many times flamboyant, is also capable of great lyricism and directness as befits his subject. Over the years, the instinct to praise is more and more evident. We hear an honest voice, one that takes the risks of being involved, of wrestling with the world-emotionally, poetically, and aesthetically.
Fourteen poems comprise the "new" section in The Sadness of Days: Selected and New Poems, 1987 and represent the poems that Salinas found worthy among his writing between 1982 and 1986. This was a transitional period, and not a particularly productive time. Nevertheless, this is a strong and fully realized group of poems with characteristic flashes of surreal brilliance supporting an essentially lyric subject. Even though Salinas revisits situations of psychological distress and loneliness, we find him looking outside himself, with compassion for the poor and institutionally committed, and closing the book with a very straightforward poem of commiseration, "How Much Are You Worth."
In the title poem, "The Sadness of Days," the poet is hoping for some relief from his sadness; he wants to be able to offer compassion to others, to understand himself and thereby believe in the future: "Honestly I want to find myself./to sit under a tree with its dusty fruit/of salvation. I will take my place,/listen up, and have faith in all things." Yet Salinas is weary battling for sanity, companionship, and the small salvations of poetry as we see in the end of "Letter To Soto."
And a woman somewhere, whispering
to the lilacs, "Omar is crazy."
Yes, ladies, yes, yes, yes to anything.
And the big theater of loneliness,
like a huge hand dropping out of the sky.
Yet I can hear my friends in the distance,
like doves saying, "Omar
it's alright, it's alright."
And the mind adds zeros. The flesh talks of youth
and its heart. The heart is silent,
like the dangling string on the package
of cigarettes in the asylum.
And they find me on bad elbows by the meadow
with a copy of Omar Khayyam, whiskey,
and my poems that can't find an ear.
Salinas's particular talent is found in images such as "the dangling string on the package/of cigarettes in the asylum." This is of course an unlikely comparison for the silence of a lonely heart, and yet it is fresh, original, comes directly from experience, and is completely apt given the long silences one probably endures in such places, given the tenuous connection to stability.
A very direct poem concludes the book; "How Much Are You Worth," is a poem with only one arresting image as the focus and tone are ones of admonition. Having suffered in such places as we have seen described in the previous poems, Salinas has lost patience, and wishes to practically exhort his readers to do something practical and positive. Here, the voice of a modern day "scourge" best serves his purposes, yet his ability to juxtapose even common items and objects draws a reader's attention sharply to the subject and ideas at hand.
Come sit with poverty for an hour.
Capitalism is a large room with idiotic stares.
And seagulls might as well recite the rosary.
Money that runs its hand over your face.
Anger that does not approach justice.
Come sit by the Martyrs of the highway.
Tie the shoelace of the beggar.
Come make yourself useful.
Boil an egg. Fry some cheese.
Run after Senators-stop their cars.
Wash the feet of the poor.
When Salinas is political in theme, he manages to keep his poetry from becoming rhetorical by his inventiveness and his concrete detail. Here the unexpected seagulls and the highway martyrs join with shoelaces, an egg, and fried cheese to render his vision and his theme original, specific, personal, and engaging. A reader cannot miss the image of Capitalism, its implied precepts, conjunct with the nonsense of seagulls reciting the rosary. A New Testament image ends the poem, and very possibly places poverty and materialism into a larger, more redemptive perspective.
Sometimes Mysteriously was published in 1997 as the winning entry in Salmon Run Press' annual book contest. The vision in these new poems is tempered, and while not openly optimistic, these poems are not nearly so strident as previous work. There is less a sense of anxiety in these poems although Salinas continues to employ his craft and image making to translate his difficulties.
"As Love Rushes By" gives the reader a good indication of the switch or modulation in temperament as it begins with a familiar lyric subject:
I'm thinking of those
evenings of love
rushing by me
as thrushes rustle through
the leaves of autumn.
and I want to wrestle
with fate and toss it about.
This poem continues in Salinas's characteristic manner with fanciful and original imagery; however it resolves in a more positive mood as do many in this collection.
I take leave of the patio
where birds dance about
like unconcerned acrobats-
for like them
I want to learn
the lesson of unforgetfulness.
I put on my jacket
and drive through
the fields . . . a full moon
is rising-I light a cigarette
and sing to all the madonnas
This is an autumnal book; the poet has entered his sixth decade with its writing, and is calmer, more reflective. A tone of sober resignation is also found in one of the more anthologized poems from the book, "My Fifty-Plus Years Celebrate Spring." The occasion for the poet is of course the arrival of spring in the San Joaquin valley, but it is also cause for observation and reflection which turns the poem toward a resolution that is political and takes a little of the shine off the idea of heaven.
in this valley,
the wind, the sun
building its altars
of salt, the rain that
holds nothing back,
and with the crop
at its peak
packing houses burn
their many diligent
Mexican workers stacking up
the trays and hard hours
that equal their living.
I've heard it said
hard work ennobles
If that is the case,
the road to heaven
must be crowded
The old irony of a valley of plenty and the poor never having enough is not lost on Salinas; the last line of the poem is fully intended to suggest the realistic lack of faith far exceeding the usual meaning of the catch phrase. Salinas would like to believe in reward and redemption, but his experience and that of those he observes has him doubting and hoping at the same time, ultimately perhaps, "beyond belief."
The Title poem,"Sometimes Mysteriously," is a short candid poem with subtle emotional turns and a lyric center that demonstrates the maturity of Salinas's vision. In this poem, and in most of the book, we do not come upon as much surreal tour-de-force images as in previous books. Rather, we are given a poem of eloquence, discovery, and honesty.
Sometimes in the evening when love
tunes its harp and the crickets
celebrate life, I am like a troubadour
in search of friends, loved ones,
anyone who will share with me
a bit of conversation. My loneliness
arrives ghostlike and pretentious,
it seeks my soul, it is ravenous
and hurting. I admire my father
who always has advice in these matters,
but a game of chess won't do, or
the frivolity of religion.
I want to find a solution, so I
write letters, poems, and sometimes
I touch solitude on the shoulder
and surrender to a great tranquility.
I understand I need courage
and sometimes, mysteriously,
I feel whole.
In his last years, Salinas returned to reading the English Romantics. Throughout his work, he has always had a "romantic" proclivity, a desire for the grand gesture, a desire to embrace the world and to be magnanimous as he walks through it. He would happily be the troubadour in "Sometimes Mysteriously." Certainly, he is a poet who found contentment in surviving and in his writing, and his last book admits the possibility of hope, of life finally turning out for the better. Elegy for Desire is the only one of Omar's books still in print (University of Arizona Press, 2005). In it, we see the full realization of all of Salinas's talent and powers coupled with a hopeful outlook despite the hard road he has walked. Peter Everwine eloquently summed up the journey of this consummate poet when asked for a comment for Omar's obituary: "What I have most admired in his work is his profound humility and courage, his ability to identify with the marginal, the lonely and the wounded, and to do so without self-pity or loss of hope." The last poem, "Sometimes," in Elegy for Desire, is a prose poem, a form Salinas only came to in this last book. The last lines offer his poetic creed and a salute to the world he loved and was leaving:
Tell me what you know, and I'll tell you something you don't. Poetry is not ideas. If I lean on my cane too heavily, it's because I won't sit down for anything; I'm a born fighter, a lover of the solid earth.
(Poems quoted by permission of the estate of Luis Omar Salinas.)
Christopher Buckley teaches in the Creative Writing Program at the University of California Riverside. Tupelo Press is publishing his sixteenth book of poetry, Modern History: Prose Poems 1987-2007 in October 2008, and Rolling The Bones will be out from Eastern Washington University Press in 2009.
Crazy Gypsy. Fresno, CA: Origines Publication, La Raza Studies, Fresno State College, 1970.
I Go Dreaming Serenades. San Jose, CA: Mango Publications, 1979.
Afternoon of The Unreal. Fresno: Abramas Publications, 1980.
Prelude To Darkness. San Jose: Mango Publications, 1981.
Darkness Under The Trees / Walking Behind The Spanish. Berkeley: Chicano Library Studies Publications, University of California,1982.
The Sadness of Days: Selected and New Poems. Houston: Arte Publico Press, University of Houston, 1987.
Follower of Dusk. Chico, CA: Flume Press, 1991.
Sometimes Mysteriously. Anchorage: Salmon Run Press, 1997.
Greatest Hits 1969-1996. Johnstown, OH: Pudding House Publications, 2002.
Elegy for Desire, Univ. of Arizona Press, 2005.