Part of Graywolf’s wonderful “Re/View” series, which publishes important work by out-of-print and outsider poets, The Salt Ecstasies, one of the jewels in the crown of Graywolf’s impressive poetry catalogue, seems long overdue for such treatment. Luckily, it was worth the wait. Series editor Mark Doty introduces the collection with a thoughtful essay, and has included two previously uncollected poems, as well as excerpts from White’s journals.
In addition to making The Salt Ecstasies available to a new generation of readers and writers—the book, published posthumously in 1982, has been hard to find outside of libraries—this new edition gives us the chance to reconsider White’s work and legacy beyond that of being a ‘poet’s poet,’ unknown to most and idolized by a rarefied few.
White’s outsider perspective permeates much of his work. Whereas the work of his contemporaries leaned heavily on the erotic, political, or erudite, White’s poems, as Doty points out in his introduction, “are heartbroken in that everyday way we recognize; they are the exhalation of a sorrow held so long it’s become as ordinary as it is sharp.” In this way, he is a sort of Minneapolis version of James Schuyler, and a male counterpart to many lesbian and feminist writers of his period.
“Making Love to Myself,” for instance, one of White’s best-known poems, takes a stance on autoeroticism otherwise unheard of among gay men, even down to its title. “Men don’t usually ‘make love’ to themselves,” Doty observes—“they jerk off….” In his plainspoken and poignant free-verse style, White begins
When I do it, I remember how it was with us.
Then my hands remember too,
and you’re with me again, just the way it was.
Free of ego, shock, or posturing, White’s diction and tone invite the reader into this most intimate of moments. “What a sweet gift this is, / done with my memory, my cock and hands”: alloyed with the heartfelt, language that might otherwise be too crude or obvious becomes credible and eloquent. After these lines, though, comes a turn; typical of White’s poems, and, one senses, of his life, the erotic is short-lived, hard to hold:
Sometimes I’d wake up wondering if I should fix
coffee for us before work,
almost thinking you’re here again, almost seeing
your work jacket on the chair.
As the speaker goes on to ponder his break with his working-class lover, self-pleasure seems all but gone. The pervasive pull of loss and longing are stronger than those brief moments of joy, stronger even than fantasy, so the poem is aborted: “I just have to stop here Jess. / I just have to stop.”
If so many of White’s poems are about not fitting—frequent themes are loss, aging, being overweight, illness, isolation, and a bittersweet childhood—they tell us much about the human heart. They also debunk assumptions about gay life and gay literature pre- and post-Stonewall, the closet on one side of the riots and liberation and free love on the other. White’s potential partners, then, are just as likely to be closeted, or ‘straight,’ as not—if they seem fickle or reluctant as a result, there are also moments of vulnerability and tenderness that are lacking from other more modern, liberated, cocksure writers. From “The First Time:”
Sometimes I’m their first.
Sweet, sweet men.
We’re bunglers when it’s really good:
bow legs, pimply backs, scrawny chest hair,
full of mistakes and good intentions.
Another poem on similar themes, “Lying in Sadness,” sparkles with striking images and emotions that seem instantly relatable, yet particular to the speaker’s experience. “I love you completely as salt” in the first stanza, and later “You exhale a fist of memory,” followed by the last stanza: “When you return to something you love, / it’s already beyond repair. / You wear it broken.”
In his journal from October 1979, White demanded bare honesty of himself: “Don’t be afraid, Jim. Sometimes this will hurt you but there is also great beauty in your life. Don’t be afraid, Jim, or if you’re afraid, just go on and do what you do have to do: tell it, tell the story.”
Writing on the cusp of the decade, White trained his pen on age-old, deep-seated fears and desires that for many of his fellow gay writers were sublimated beneath the post-Stonewall frisson of political and sexual liberation, and then sidelined by the political and sexual stridency that the AIDS crisis demanded. Writing in the spaces between, before, and outside those zeitgeists, White explored the sublimated and unearthed the sublime.
White knew how painful it could be to stare directly into what we fear—including the ways in which many of us today still feel alienated, different, and indelibly queer. Perhaps writers and readers at this moment in queer history are again willing to take up the work White started 30 years ago; in so doing, we may come to a deeper, more personal sense of liberation, and even connectedness—to ourselves, to each other.
THE SALT ECSTASIES
James L. White Graywolf Press
Paperback, $15.00, 96p