Holy Blooms of Loss: Rebecca Salazar’s sulphurtongue

by Trynne Delaney

Trynne Delaney is a writer currently based in Tiohtià:ke. Their writing consists mostly of musings about how we got here, where we are, who “we” encompasses, how to care in a violent world and exist in spaces that are hostile to multiplicity. Read more of her work linked on her website: trynnedelaney.com.

sulphurtongue
Rebecca Salazar
McClelland & Stewart
2021, 120 pp., $19.95

 

What do you call it when noticing expands? When noticing and knowing and suggesting, guiding, evoking, get their wires crossed? When genealogy, sex, illness, inheritance, and violence don’t just double up but double down and bang against each other, create friction, heat, smoke, and mirrors crafted from a sort of ice that shatters, rather than melt in heat? All with dry wit scraping over the wetness of sex and illness? It’s all measured, it’s all excess.

“Childless Offspring,” a poem that appears early in the collection, captures the essence of sulphurtongue: “one foot slipping on banana peels / and one foot firmly in the grave.” Salazar’s writing is slippery in its play and firm in its execution of language. There is a sliding that takes place throughout “Childless Offspring” that fascinated me to the page: what is casual, “I should admit,” what is beautiful, “long plait of generations,” what is abhorrent, “cup of flesh,” what is sustenance, “cup of flesh,” are a slippery layer that guards the persistent pulse of existential questing throughout sulphurtongue. Salazar is clever about allowing for more than-double-meanings to bloom and fester in this Nature Morte of a poetry collection.

“A haunting is only a pheromone stain.”

Salazar is referential, reverential, irreverent in their engagement with the violence this world puts upon so many of us, that this world has put on them. It’s in the noticing of Salazar’s noticing that I notice the way secrets move these poems, and how these poems move through secrets. The imagery and language of landscapes enhances this quality: “cryptoecology” “acid rain” busses, planets, skin conditions—there is mystery to the cause and effect of the everyday considerations these poems hold. In sulphurtongue, secrets are embodied within ecosystems big and small.

Salazar is clever about allowing for more than-double-meanings to bloom and fester in this Nature Morte of a poetry collection.

Each of the four sections (how to lose, femme phobias, dopplebanger, sulphur bonds) gathers its own speed. In my reading, I especially enjoyed the intentional malapropisms that Salazar seems to embed with joy and care in their work. These malapropisms provide a portal into various dimensions of poetics. The most glaring example of this technique being a whole section of paired, coupleted poems titled “dopplebanger.” The poems in “dopplebanger” are call and responses, rather than mirrors of each other. They are offset, so that their misalignment is as clear as the intention of coupling. They bang against the assumption of sameness. It’s a well-calculated visual orientation of a form that requires a deft balance of language and theme.

And then there are the aesthetics of the book itself. It’s sharp: the black, red, and white spine of Rebecca Salazar’s sulphurtongue sits crookedly smiling from your bookshelf long after you’ve set the collection down.  There isn’t always a parallel between the design of a book and how much care went into its material completion but in the case of sulphurtongue, it seems that the collaborative process of editing, typesetting, and cover design produced a material object that amplifies the power of Salazar’s writing.

In relation to other writers, Salazar evokes some poets and poet-adjacent writers. She echoes Carmen Maria Machado in the complex (non)violences of bodies, their care and cutting. The complications of occupying a body, of being in relation to other bodies, especially, I felt echoed in Salazar’s engagement with the slipperiness of living in a body that does not behave the way it “should,” physically, emotionally, spiritually, essentially.

Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie and Lowell was an unexpected echo I sensed in this collection. That echo resounded deeply in the three-part poem, “Virgins.” From parts 1–3, the silk rope that ties sex to violence is drawn tight. I heard Stevens in some phrasings, particularly surrounding religion, though Salazar is a lot less devoted to Christ, more interested in Virgins, and significantly more interested in reproductive rights than Stevens. “French Catholicism fucks me / like the plaster serpent, perfect victim.”  Salazar and Stevens’ mutual interest in Christian mythologies in line with explicit and queer themes provides an ancient thrum to underscore their contemporary poetics.

In short: Salazar made me gasp where Plath made me hold my breath.

And what poem about “Daddy Issues” could avoid evoking Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy”? Salazar’s version is the more resonant of the two. Plath’s “Daddy,” while engaging with real and devastating pain, was a poem I have issue with for its casual violence and the way that her poem flattens Plath herself. Salazar’s “Daddy Issues” is in many ways a reversal of that flattening, centring the relationship between speaker and father rather than the resentment. In a world that so often sidelines the true desire for complex forms of justice and reparations for fantasies of punishment, this poem valued the complex factors that lead to harmful misconceptions that negatively affect relationships. In short: Salazar made me gasp where Plath made me hold my breath. 

sulphurtongue is an overgrowth of intensities, of realities. I know I will keep coming back to it. I still wake up with Salazar’s words lacing my breath.

Some parts of sulphurtongue were already a part of my body—Fredericton samosas, I ate almost daily during my New Brunswick youth while sniffing the sweet poison aroma of prejudice that wafts through the air constantly in white dominated spaces. The samosas were just one aspect of familiarity that swung into the more disturbing experiences that these pages and I whispered to each other and compared notes on. Of course, those experiences we shared were different, but similar enough to resonate.

I do not understand everything, nor do I need to understand everything I read, but I am constantly pushed to be more curious through the deft narration of this collection—it’s a gift of poetry to have to reach for meaning, and Salazar is a stellar guide.

Difference is important to note. There were parts of sulphurtongue that I will never hold in my body. Salazar has a talent for making the alterity that solidarity requires particularly evident. I do not understand everything, nor do I need to understand everything I read, but I am constantly pushed to be more curious through the deft narration of this collection—it’s a gift of poetry to have to reach for meaning, and Salazar is a stellar guide.

“The body knows.” The body needs to feed. And these poems ask to devour and be devoured in turn. They want to sit like a bad taste at the back of your tongue, to remind you how they made you salivate— you cannot remember: from nausea or desire? How sweet and how close to rot—these poems, they knew you, how you’d consume them, how they could never be consumed fully because they have their own lives. These poems. They will not leave you. They’ve bonded to your very skin. You cannot scrub them off. Instead, you learn how to care for the changes that take place after you’re done reading.

Did you crack the pages open or splay them, bury your nose in its holy blooms of loss? Did you turn the pages with care or suck sweetly at the paper cuts lining your fingertips? Maybe you whispered the secrets you learned from reading, passed the gift of this book on, as I do for you now.



Trynne Delaney is a writer currently based in Tiohtià:ke. Their writing consists mostly of musings about how we got here, where we are, who “we” encompasses, how to care in a violent world and exist in spaces that are hostile to multiplicity. Read more of her work linked on her website: trynnedelaney.com.

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