Review of The Salt Ecstasies by James L. White

The Salt Ecstasies by James L. White
Graywolf Press Re/View Series, Soft,  $15

Reviewed by James Crews

James L. White’s The Salt Ecstasies, recently re-issued by Graywolf Press for their wonderful new RE/VIEW Series, edited by Mark Doty, is more than just a gay classic; it’s a rich and rare book that has been out-of-print and difficult to find for far too long. I can still remember the day I received my copy in the mail after an exhaustive online search, how I tore open the envelope to find the plain blue and black collection of poems that, more than anything I had read up to that point, made me want to be a poet. White’s work came at just the right time for me: I knew almost no other gay men, let alone gay male poets, having grown up in a small town in the Midwest (not unlike White himself). The sad yet ecstatic tone he struck so delicately in his work still rings true all these years later when writers like Mary Jo Bang and Tracy K. Smith are still testing the durability of elegy and its ability to console. White never offers easy answers, but in his frank nostalgia for the messiness of a life lived to its fullest; in his dwelling on nostalgia, sex and the failures of love, he lends us comfort. He was never afraid to be fully human.

Reading the prose poem, “An Ordinary Composure,” which opens the book, felt like finding my “tribe” at last:

My people and I lean against great medical buildings with news of our predicted death, and give up mostly between one and three in the morning, never finding space large enough for a true departure, so our eyes gaze earthward, wanting to say something simple as the meal’s too small: I want more.

It’s difficult to describe or even quote from a James L. White poem because they plow forward, turn corners, veer off just to the edges of sentimentality before whipping us right back to the honest, concrete images that are his currency—“a cold practice room above the city,” or “the early bus to Laurel.”  Part of the appeal of this work (and why it’s held up so well) is its unabashedness in showing the ways most of us actually live. He remains perhaps one of the few gay poets who can speak for the average, working class man who just happens to prefer sleeping with other men, who tells his lover “wearing a coat that will not last the year,/ I love you completely as salt.” As Doty points out in his excellent introduction to the collection, especially in the early 1980s, when White was writing, there were two kinds of gay poets: those “which foregrounded sexual life” to the exclusion of everything else; and those who “were all about style, a high-gloss, witty surface that signified—through its modes of joking, its interest in the world of high art, its elegantly arcane subjects, and its intensely wrought formality.” But The Salt Ecstasies proves that beauty and rawness need not be mutually exclusive, especially in pieces like “Making Love to Myself”:

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 . . .

I’d breathe out long and say,
‘Hi Jess, you tired baby?’
You’d say not so bad and rub my belly,
not after me really, just being sweet,
and I always thought I’d die a little
because you smelt like burnt leaves or woodsmoke.

Even while portraying loss after loss—the words “salt” and “blue” recur over and over in these poems—White finds catharsis in the act of memory, in getting the past down on the page. And there is a quiet power, he argues, even in losing the ongoing battle with desire, with “flesh.” It might be a “stifling contract,” but it’s one he signs with abandon, even if only in the mind:

Some farm kid presses against my leg.
I look at the long backs of men in the fields
and doze to dream you’re going through me
like winter bone, your logs of arms pushing
me down into some stifling contract with flesh
until I break free for air.

The “Autobiographical Fragment” and two additional poems that Doty culled from White’s personal papers specifically for this re-issued volume certainly stand as valuable additions to the abbreviated oeuvre of a poet who died before his finest book was ever published. One reads these never-before-seen pieces with interest, of course, but the “Autobiographical Fragment” is excerpted from the poet’s journals, and it’s easy to imagine him mortified that readers were combing his private thoughts, never meant to be seen by eyes other than his own. At one point he confesses, “I’ve spent a large part of my life seeking every conceivable act with men, but somewhere in my stomach it all says it was never the right man,” and in another passage says, “Even to say villain of my father is easy enough, that he was a bastard, that I was his bastard . . . but to say that he was a part of my loneliness and I must have been a living part of his despair is to say it more clearly.” White was obviously self-aware, cognizant of how the past had informed his life and perhaps much of his work. Nonetheless, I wonder who really benefits from reading stuff like this, as it comes to feel voyeuristic at best and can begin to color how we read the work.

Still, re-examining the scant legacy James L. White left behind is part and parcel of our human urge to speculate: What might have been if he had lived even a few years more? What even greater poems might he have written? In the last poem of The Salt Ecstasies, “Naming,” the speaker begs his mother:

Old woman, don’t die.
Take me to your first words again,
to say there are plants that live as people,
that certain animals carry dreams,
that the hawk is itself where the canyon drops to air.

And the mother replies, “ ‘Look son, another flower called going away, and this/ is called too soon.’” It is as though, with those last words, White had anticipated what readers would be saying of him and his poems—too soon—nearly thirty years after this watershed book was first published. Contemporary readers should feel grateful to Mr. Doty and Graywolf Press for choosing to bring this collection to light once again. New generations will surely continue to appreciate James L. White’s strange, sad and transcendent poems for decades to come.