Salient by Elizabeth T. Gray, Jr. (New Directions, 2020)

Elizabeth T. Gray, Jr.’s new book-length poem, Salient, is a tightly woven coil of barbed wire, a single poem in parts, all parts touching upon the third World War I battle of the city of Ypres, Belgium, in 1917, also known as the Battle of Passchendaele. Set amid the most apocalyptic of modern military engagements, on a stunningly death-saturated patch of Belgium, the Ypres Salient, where western leaders did their best to annihilate all culture but that of war, the book is a brilliant meditation on death and transcendence. The poet has walked the killing fields, combed first hand and scholarly accounts, visited archives, consulted with military historians, stood long where graves should be, all to quicken her ever-evolving devotion to the dead. Salient urges readers to wonder at the work of death; ultimately, the book seeks a way in which we might think ourselves free of fear. The following cuts to the quick of Gray’s gritty metaphysics:

“The Guts of It”

I think I would prefer
to be killed in a railway
accident he said Why Because
well there you are

if you're killed by an exploding
shell he went on then
where the hell
are you

Salient is a single-minded foray to find where the hell you are, in the midst of a battle you can never fully see. To be sure, there are dark scenes brought before the mind’s eye: (for example, one combatant spends a night hiding under a frozen corpse, keeping watch through the crook of the cadaver’s arm). But it’s the fear of a further, metaphysical, oblivion that propels the poet’s inquiry beyond any battlefield. She wants a spiritual version of actionable intelligence, as if poetry could provide some glint of movementfrom beyond the outpost of individual experience. To refute common opinion that wisdom awaits us in our suffering, Gray passes on a chilly observation: “The wounded came back to give vague hints of what was happening, but as a rule wounded men know nothing more than their own adventures in their own track or shell-craters.”

The author consoles, if only through the exactitude of her phrasing and cadence, and through the ritual of imagining a space within which poetry can magically call divine forces to act on her behalf. Each poem arises from a stringently tested conviction that we can know an invisible world beyond the bloodbaths of the intimate, secret, and disembodied wars that constitute daily life. However matter-of-factly, maps, trajectories, triangulations, trenches, obstacles, aerial photographs, all call forth from Gray a muted exuberance. Historical documents form the substratum of her poetry, and documents and poetry share an essential feature: they must be fastidiously studied, checked against  an ever-changing terrain, (bombs routinely obliterate landmarks) as if to verify that in this life, yes, much that seems absent might still be there.

Gray reveres what accuracy can be won amid mayhem. A repeated form of battlefield instruction glows with connotative power. The poem “Indirect Fire: Shooting from the Map (from Appendix B)” quietly turns sets and subsets of commands from their original utilitarian functions into a multi-perspectival meditative prompt. First configure where you are, then strike the object of your desire, as clearly as conditions permit. (The substitution of “object of desire” for the expected “target” suggests that Salient is, in some remote way, a love poem.) The “position” of the modern poet, or pilgrim (Gray is both in this book), is a perpetual and fraught triangulation. From “Indirect Fire: Shooting from The Map (from Appendix B)”:

     8.0   Pick a point from which three previously fixed points can be seen.

             8.1   OK. Here, by the car. Then

             8.2   the memorial to the 85th Battalion (Nova Scotia Highlanders) at

             8.3   the prayer flag above the stupa outside the cave on the northeast
                     spur of Copper Mountain, and

              8.4   where you were last seen that morning.

The poet’s quest is to find the soldiers who were never found, the slain collective known as “The Missing.” This is as frankly spiritualist an enterprise as that which would preoccupy an earlier poet of a later war, H.D. (Hilda Doolittle, 1886–1961), who sought through her poetry psychic contact with the souls of slaughtered RAF pilots. Given Gray’s distance from 1917, we can hardly assume a transformative, personal connection with the war dead. The power of the death zone itself draws the poet into her subject. The allure of a space cleared by annihilation for a work of spiritual dramaturgy brings her to the war’s textual history and the actual battlefield.

But it may be an undisclosed grief for some absent love that is the ultimate subject of Salient. This covert subject accounts for the eeriness of the poems. They are, at once, documentary requiems and secret devotional handbooks. They mesh the needs of the living pilgrim with the plight of foot-soldiers, commanders, pilots, mapmakers. The poems seek to commemorate, but what the poet craves is a vision of a life beyond this life, a communion with the vanished, and possibly an ecstatic reunion with a lost Beloved. Terms like “error” and “obstacle” and “intelligence,” rooted in that long-ago battle, are restored to immediacy through the act of writing. These terms mark a way for the presiding consciousness of the poem to advance as it makes its way into and through death.

In the extraordinary opening poem, gods strip the dead and depart. They are called into being by poetry as much as war, and are called upon for protection in the present moment. They are what the poet sees but the soldiers do not. An imagined Tibetan cosmos endows Gray with a powerful liturgical language, which she adroitly adapts from the Chöd lineage in Tibetan Buddhism, as expounded by female saint Machik Lapdrön, and translated by Sarah Harding with such ferocious attention to image and sound that the 11th century homilies read like Rimbaud.

The First World War occurred in the midst of the burgeoning fascination with Tibet among a wide range of English, European, and American, theosophists, occultists, artists, writers, adventurers, and psychic researchers, and no doubt intensified it. For some, Tibet loomed as the last viable, and happily non-Christian, spiritual center in modernity. Poets such as René Daumal and Antonin Artaud uncovered a deep rapport between modern poetics and tantric thought. Each poem in Salient is a carefully rendered counterpoint between one of the most harrowing of belief systems on record  (Chod) and the undisclosed spiritual situation of the poet as a pilgrim (and, possibly, a bereft lover) walking upon ground made sacred by annihilation. 

In addition to military handbooks, a second order of instruction manual forms the basis of Salient: those on making Tibetan amulets. Amid all the death, it turns out we are in a living cosmos. Protective spells are cast in the face of trenches and mines and mortars. It’s not a stretch to see, in poems that concern the making of amulets and in protective spells scattered through the book, Gray’s hope for how poetry might, within the strictures of the ritual of composition, “work.” From “Amulet against Camouflage”:

This amulet enables the wearer to detect and see through camouflage.

It consists of fragments of apprehension and crushed glass, moistened with rain. No syllables are used.

When placed inside a small section of freshwater reed and worn on the body, a copse will become transparent, netting and paint peel away from the long guns, loopholes gape among sandbags, and what tracks say becomes visible from the air.  

Each poem in Salient is a turn in an invisible path that unfolds through despair and ignorance, toward the poet’s deepest desire: a vision of the transfigured body. The logic of commemoration, even the call to imagine individualized dying — such as the haunting tableau of a mother’s grief rendered in “Machik Lapdron Tries to Explain One of The Immeasurables” — is momentarily subsumed in the revelation of a spiritualized selfhood. The latter, recorded in “Our Bodies,” draws upon a second Tibetan source, Sera Khandro (1892–1940), as well as on Carl Jung’s The Red Book, composed between 1914 and 1930:

When I looked over my shoulder
the dense mist separated for just a moment.

and there were our bodies,
changeless and radiantly luminous.

Gray’s accomplishment is extraordinary. A vision floats up from the muck, a promise that can only ever be disclosed once we accept that all of life is a preparation for our own personal battlefield oblivion, our own intereior Ypres.Finally, the poet must understand herself as the one who is atomized, bereft, and lost in the present, speaking, ultimately, as one of The Missing, begging a maternal god not to depart. Reimagining, here, in historical terms,what psychoanalysis and critical theory understand as the death drive, Elizabeth Gray Jr.’s Salient finds the sacred, finds it and returns with it, from just past the outermost bounds of the known.

Salient (2020) by Elizabeth T. Gray, Jr. is published by New Directions.

Joseph Donahue's most recent volumes of poetry are Wind Maps I-VII (Talisman 2018), and The Disappearance of Fate (Spuyten Duyvil, 2019). He is the co-translator of First Mountain, by Zhang Er. With Edward...