A review of Alterworld by Philip Salom

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Sky Poems, The Well Mouth, Alterworld
By Philip Salom
Puncher & Wattmann
2015, ISBN: 9781922186669, $29.95

There’s nothing bucolic about the poetry in Philip Salom’s Alterworld. Reading these poems can be uncomfortable, confronting and confusing, moving through a series of imagined worlds full of death, destruction, unhealthy sex and occasionally hope and nirvana (though no Salom nirvana is without its dark side). Taken as a collection, the book takes the reader on a journey that, despite the difficulty, is epic. There’s a huge and complex imagination at work here: with worlds as tightly plotted as that of any speculative fiction, and stories that drag us in, attract and repel at the same time. Once you’re sucked into these intimately related, but different worlds, it’s hard to look at life around you in quite the same way.

The work begins with the republished 1987 collection Sky Poems, a modern take on heaven. This is no Catholic heaven, or happy, easy place meted out as a reward for earthly goodness. Instead, it’s a writer’s heaven – arrived at through death, empty as a white page, ironic, self-aware and in need of a creative act: “There need be no Newton, no discoveries but your own.” (“Instructions for Living in the Sky”). In many ways, art (Art) is the only thing that matters in this heaven – the bringer of immortality and shifting but eternal imagery. Here there is no God as such, but a range of gods – both Abrahamic, mythological, performers, and above all, the artists, such as Cartier-Bresson, whose photographs stimulate an ekphrasis response, taking us from image to image “like his velocipede on its spinning wheels.”:

Invisibly, but we know it, in that air,
there’s a step everywhere, the same step leads up,
awaits us all, our foot-shock, a flash of white …
There’s a blue opening in the brain – the sky light,
The chute upwards to a place of flight.
Below it we feign to be land livers but for moments
Can throw off this delirium of the ground. (“Flight: Images from Cartier-Bresson”)

Not all of the first section is heavenly. After lulling the reader into a false sense of security with poems of open windows and open possibilities, the dark side of human frailty appears. There are jealousies, betrayals, masks, psychological disorders, dreams and nightmares, but above all, this is a sky where creation happens, either purely or perversely.

To call this work meta-poetic would be an understatement, though the meta-poetic nature of the work, the darkness and the perversions become more acute in the second and third books. The Well Mouth was written in 2005, and is one long poem situated in a kind of limbo space, which often feels more like hell than purgatory. There’s enough of a plot here, poetic and dispersed as it is, to read this as a kind of verse novel. The voice comes from the bottom of a well, a Tiresias character who has become, as in the myth, a woman. Grappling with genre, gender, abandonment, fear, time and space, the narration fractures into two parts. One part is the central poem, separated by no more than a vertical bar at the top. Each of these is a separate voice, though the voices do meld and intertwine. Below each poem is the voice of the Tiresias character, commenting on the poem above it, as note, or a subtext. This Tiresias voice is the wellspring – wise and lost – coming from a woman who gives us her own story in prologue. It’s a brutal tale of a woman (transgendered) murdered and thrown into a well. This voice remains a constant, coming from its subterranean/displaced (hushed up) place, and despite the death, won’t be silent. Instead, this voice channels the stories of other crimes, and comments in a continual narrative below each one. Structurally, the vertical and horizontal work together powerfully – creating a strophe/antistrophe tension in the reader that broadens the voices from the singular to the plural. Though this voice is not a happy one, and the stories (“echoes of the dead”) that come to us through this lens are often ugly, the writing is powerful, elemental, and often beautiful:

My pale skin turning into burnished film
of mineral blue-green hallucinating water:
Its surface glows brittle as a sheet of mica

This section is divided into three parts each providing a series of stories – the voices of those who have died, usually through vicious means. They are often the dispossessed and powerless, killed by the powerful, the greedy, the psychopathic, and the corrupt, and their stories reverberate through the well and out into this purgatorial world. Tiresias’ voice functioning as a mouth for them. There are echoes here of The Bardo Thodol (Tebetian Book of the Dead) as we move through these post-death, intermediary states – the interval between death and the next plane – where these disembodied voices explore their own demise, and learn how to let go of life and their body. These are souls that haven’t passed easily.

The pieces move through a range of society’s ills – drug smugglers on ships, whistleblowers, a father and daughter hit by train, death in flagrante delicto, suicide, death by saw mill, gunshot, stab wounds, drowning, tidal wave, and even old age: “their hand-to-hand combat with/the dying air.” Throughout the stories, the personal is mingled with the political, reflecting on the corruption of those in power – whether that be simply the strength of a man over a woman or the political power of the media, politicians, the mob, and frequently, the police. Though the tales are harsh, sometimes terribly so, there is also a subtle black humour running throughout. Above all, the poems are self-referential – even at their most intense – reminding us that this is the creative process at work:

a poem full of irony: the doubleness
of life / death. A presence where it isn’t.
a poem is becoming pauses inside story.

poems written alive with the eyes closed
by poets fearful alert because they know
well a poem is death with its eyes open.

The final book, Alterworld, joins the other two to create a trinity. This new book is ostensibly focused on life: from the domestic to the grand scale, in constancy and flux. The proximity of this book to the other two gives the reader almost a sensation of having been reborn from those terrible deaths, or even from the sky of the first book, into this life, especially if you read the work sequentially, though that’s not specifically necessary. Unlike the poems in The Well Mouth, each of the poems in Alterworld can be read on its own, and many have been published on their own, but taken together they do create an impression of motion, chaos, and transition. As with the other two books, the alter world that underlines these poems is a place where meaning (“the windows”) is open, and where life is self-created and truth non-hierarchical, created as new each time in that place of connection between reader and poem. I read many of these as being (partly) about this creative process – not just the process of creating poetry, but creating our individual and collective lives here, in this modern and complex world:

Dusk comes, its green-tea light. And the black
wave of darkness enters me, its weather
passing across the sill and transom
like fainting without falling,
gone back into itself. (“In the Alterworld the Windows Are Open”)

It’s possible to see the poems in this collection as a model for 21st Century culture, but not one that is fixed or causal in a linear way. Instead there are links – connections between words, characters, moments and situations – both those internal to the poems, and external referents too. We find, for example, David Lynch, a brain damaged veteran Zasetsky, Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, director Peter Brook, and murdered transsexual prostitute Adele Bailey, who was found in a mine shaft, and who links Alterworld directly back to The Well Mouth:

So much goodness and truth and then …
Tiresias is blind enough to see. The box and dice.

And Adele’s silky impants that ID’d her
Adele who spoke The Well Mouth of her poems
artesian seeping to the endless prose of the ocenas. (“By the time they found Adele”)

Woven throughout these poems is so much music, art, myth, magic, politics, and even the domestic, in such a silky and natural interplay, that it is possible to read them over and over, uncovering a little more each time. Though I think that each of the books is powerful in itself, having these three together creates a far grander picture, where each poem is informed by, changed, and strengthened by those around it. So we understand this imaginative work to be a multiverse, rich with hell and heaven together, and also our daily struggles – love, death, desire, and loss. It’s quite the undertaking, and Salom does it exceptionally well:

Looking down I am surrounded
by the impossible, dark matter, its 98% of everything,
on my face, on my hands, all around and through me
this immensity of the impossible, against
the mere trace
of our possible world our made and modal
building of what we must.
I must resist it to the death
Or embrace it. (“The Making and Resisting Eye”)

About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Sublime Planet, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at www.magdalenaball.com.