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Maverick Among Placid Cows:
The Poetry of Joseph S. Salemi

Peter Paul Rubens, Two Satyrs, 1618-1619 [1]

Peter Paul Rubens, Two Satyrs, 1618-1619

1,430 words

Joseph S. Salemi was born in New York City in 1948 and grew up in Woodside, Queens. His grandfather, Rosario Previti, was a renowned Sicilian journalist, poet, and translator who rendered Edward FitzGerald’s version of the Rubaiyat into Italian, and who served as the American correspondent for the newspaper Don Giovanni in Messina, for which he wrote a popular series of satiric columns on the lifestyles and habits of Americans.

The elder writer had an indelible impact on the artistic and intellectual development of Salemi, which can be confirmed by reading the homage he gives to him in many of his essays and reflections published at Expansive Poetry Online, and in his monthly column at the prestigious Pennsylvania Review. Salemi learned from his grandfather not only to make poems as the artisans of antiquity made “well-wrought urns,” just as critic and scholar Cleanth Brooks espoused in his eponymous book, but first and foremost to stick to his guns when it came to content, to tackle any subject matter, no matter how much it might irk the ire of some of the self-appointed gatekeepers of what is and what is not appropriate.

Granny in Tights

The fastest growing section of the Internet pornography
world are sites that feature old ladies and grandmothers.
—News item

The stage names given to the ladies cast
Are chosen for their frilly, antique tone—
Names quaint and powdered, reeking of the past,
Like body talc and Champ-des-Fleurs cologne:

Lavinia or Ernestine or Zoë,
Arletta, Marguerite, or Bernadette—
Prudence, Sophie, Martha, or Aunt Chloë,
Hermione or Constance or Claudette.

Some wear girdles, half-slips, corsets, stays,
Seamed stockings, lingerie with Belgian lace—
Their hairstyles hearken back to bygone days
Of teacups, sachet bags, and saying grace.

Some are grossly overweight or plump
And others wraith-like, wizened, barely there—
All have droopy breasts and sagging rumps
With flesh as rotten as a long-ripe pear.

They do what every whore does who is paid,
But always with young men who might be sons.
They seem inured to their salacious trade,
As much as teenage chippies with firm buns.

And yet one wonders: Can it be mere cash
That drives a woman, threescore years and ten,
To let a camera crew explore her gash,
And photograph her orgy with three men?

Or is it more, perhaps? A final urge
To get back to some primal, vital source—
To seek out in a young man’s swollen verge
The deathless thing that Shaw called The Life Force?

In any case, it hardly matters now—
Our time is one where female honor’s dead,
When Grandma is a fornicating sow
And golden years are transformed into lead.

Here Salemi touches on a topic few poets, if any at all, would be psychologically and intellectually prepared to approach, let alone have the courage to approach: internet websites that feature pornographic photographs of middle-aged and elderly women. Salemi does so with masterfulness, wit, and a knockout ending. This is formalist poetry with gonads, with the horns of a bull on the streets of Barcelona, poetry whose purpose is not to edify the clueless or to moralize to the converted, but to entertain true poetry connoisseurs as we nod in approval at the heavyweight windup and closure. He makes no attempt to shy away from the brutal truth, nor does he try to spare us the unsavory details, nor does he feel obliged to tone the poem down so as not to offend the sensibilities of feminists and southern Baptists.

Salemi reminds me of a classical Roman poet in that in he plays by the rules of tradition, like a modern day Horace or Catullus, if you will, whose only concern is writing accurately and well. No topic, no matter how politically incorrect, unfashionable, or taboo is barred from his pages. On the contrary, you can expect him to bring up the forbidden, such as in his long masterpiece La Pompe Funèbre, in which the president of France, Félix François Faure, is fellated to death by his mistress. The poem ends thusly:

They gave you your due funeral of state
Recording “apoplexy” as your fate.
France and a mistress can be quite efficient—
In statecraft, lies, and love we are proficient.
And though all men must pass through death’s dark valley,
I never dreamt I’d be your grand finale.

In another poem comprised of two couplets of perfect iambic tetrameter he pokes fun at the European Union bureaucrats, by employing a provocative title and using such derogatory slang terms as “Krauts” and “Frogs.”

The New Third Reich

The Belgians, with their beer and clogs—
A perfect blend of Krauts and Frogs.
They pass their laws and flex their muscles
High up on a perch in Brussels.

Will his readers be offended? The poet doesn’t care. Perhaps he wants them to be offended, for them to pry deeper and to ask questions with regards to the great super state that has succeeded the Third Reich and the Soviet Union in Europe. The essential light that he follows is to be faithful to his craft and perceptions, and not to be worried by the outraged reactions of those long-since brow-beaten by sensitivity training and cultural Marxist subliminal therapy. Most likely, though, these poems will give them a good-old fashioned hoot.

Salemi does not limit his subject matter to sex and politics. He is a broad-ranging poet of deep learning who travels through time and national literatures with the utmost of ease. A polyglot classicist with a Ph.D. in Renaissance English literature, he often makes allusions to historical and literary events and figures that have had great significance in the evolution of Western civilization.

The Reformation

Luther took a massive shit;
Zwingli got a whiff of it.
Then he wrote the Saxon friar
To express his righteous ire:
“I can’t stand your German turd—
I like Calvin’s Gallic merde!”

Back from Wittenberg there came
This rebuttal to the same:
“Listen, you obnoxious Swiss—
The stink is stronger when I piss.
As for spreading crap around,
Anabaptists win, hands down.”

Salemi’s forte is satire, the sort that jabs at the soft belly of enemies to the delight of the enlightened reader who appreciates and admires art for art’s sake. Always impeccably metered and rhymed, his poems demand not only to be enjoyed for the message they convey, but as linguistic structures that evoke a neurological response from the human brain’s inherent love of rhetoric and order. He loathes mushy outpourings of disorderly feeling, maintaining the conviction that poems are not spiritual beacons in which some sort of Gnostic epiphany can be extracted. He is opposed to the pared down adjective-free poem as well, which is against the grain of all that is taught by poetry writing instructors and by the literati at the online workshops. Below he lashes out against the infamous McPoem.

On a Workshopped Poem

How nice! You’ve seen to every single thing.
Congratulations on your deft removal
Of any phrase that might offend or sting
The consciousness of Those Who Grant Approval.

There is no word disparaging or vicious;
No heinous hint of ethnic derogation.
Your verse is free from anything suspicious
Like thought or wit or humorous deflation.

You’ve excised terms insensitive and callous,
All slurs, invective, insult, and aspersions.
You’ve stayed away from vulva and from phallus
(We do not sanction those obscene diversions).

Indeed, you’ve labored long and hard. And now
Your poem is as placid as a cow.

Salemi is a true maverick among formalists and is one of the most skillful and entertaining poets alive today. He not only writes well and with ease, but always says what he wants to say with aplomb and bravura. I will close with a poem that exemplifies the vastness of his range and that reveals the softer side of the poet.

Calligraphy Lesson from a Chinese Student

She took my hand and showed me how to coax
The inkstone gently, to release black swirls
Into a well of water. Soon smooth strokes
Of badger brush—held upright—laid out twirls
And streaks of meaning. “Here I make the sign
For teacher,” she said, smiling as she drew
A character, precise in every line,
And glistening with fresh wetness. I said, “You
Are now the teacher, and I am a student.”
She made me no reply, but then extended
The brush in offering, as though impudent
Forwardness on her part had offended.
I laughed, refused, and urged her to go on
She smiled again, the chill of distance gone.