The Stillness of Certain Valleys

Poems by David Salner

Written by:
Toba Singer
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If you have a nose for power, drawing a deep inspirational breath from the approachable majesty of nature, the long view of history, and intriguing vagaries of human expression, can be a tricky business. Nonetheless, poet David Salner, thus nasally endowed, sallies forth undaunted. On the exhale, he brings all of himself to his work, laying bare a certitude of sensibility he developed early on to defend against the unfathomables of a chaotic childhood.  Always seated with portfolio in this collection is a strategic instinct for what to do next in a life built around improving the fortunes of the potentially powerful cohort he half-inherited and fully chose to ally himself with: the working class.

Salner is not the poet you go to for an extended soak in the hoped-for healing waters of familial  sentimentality.  He does not extrude a palatable social patriotic line of verse larded with unctuous tributes to national borders you fully know were drawn in blood to suit the whims of kings and the schemes of robber barons. Yet, in Salner’s images, you find a dependable homing resonance.  If his head is (exploratorily)  in the clouds, his feet are determinedly planted on whatever turf he happens to find himself. It might be a river bank, the factory floor, or a stance he assumes, the better to take measure of the crosscut of his life and a penetrating look at what moves his social class to act on its own behalf. He constructs what an earlier history-intoxicated poet, W.H. Auden, called “the furniture of home,” and so there is no mystery or mystification about where Salner is at and why.  He co-locates what is deadening about the workday right alongside what catches you by surprise on a random midnight shift, when a coworker’s brief comment sums up an instant while he bluntly imparts how to avert what would have ended in disaster. Salner invites you to glance at the sky through the confines of a hospital stay just to show you that, though caught in a time warp, and though simultaneously flattened and flattered by the spangle of morphine, something not a little miraculous can still dance on your horizon.

Here’s are two such excerpts  from first poem in the collection, “A Dream of Quitting Time”:

1. Desert Foundry

Still t-shirt weather in this makeshift place,

a corrugated roof with I-beams,

a desert foundry full of sand.

I stare through gaps and rust holes,

beyond rimrock and cactus. Outside,

the shadow of Camelback Mountain

darkens a line of palms. Each frond

waves in a slow waltz on this calm

late afternoon. Rush-hour traffic dies away.

Coronas of blue fumes still circle creosote,

that greasy plant, and choke the leaves

of fleshy aloe vera. So much pain and sacrifice

soaked up by desert flora.

Somewhere in the background,

the carriage of a crane sings over rails, grinding wheels

hiss sand, a furnace arcs and rumbles

like the earth was gnashing its teeth.

The day cools. The light beyond the foundry

dissolves into a mid-December sky, a sheen

of desert turquoise, a glow that lingers,

reluctant as the last words of a dream.

6. Desert Whispers

I spend Christmas in a hospital,

stare through the window as the valley sun

falls behind a hump of Camelback, vanishes

with the last brisk winter light. A slice of moon

rises above the map of Arizona,

over Buckeye and Surprise and Tombstone.

My hand explores my body, down to my toes,

and I discover that I’m still all there, or almost.

The night sky floods my room, bathes monitors and tubes

in waltz-time gray, sweeps over the see-through

bag my morphine seeps from, splashes me with light

from dying galaxies, black holes and neon stars,

where boom towns come to life and half-lit ghosts

still prowl the dusty streets of Bisbee.

. . . and a third from “Burning Magnesium”:

I’d been stacking forty pound ingots in the heat, working to the point of exhaustion. I walked to the open furnace, attracted by the way it shone in the darkness, fascinated by the peaceful appearance of the liquid, so ordinary, like a pool of water, a small swimming pool.

This was my first shift in the foundry, my first view of a furnace of magnesium at 1300f.

A waist-high rim of bricks was all that separated me from the glowing pool inches away. As I stared, a change took shape in the depths of the furnace. The core was now suffused with a faint rose shadow that deepened before my eyes, as if the metal had come alive, blushing.

I stood over the furnace as my face baked, my skin a crust of heat. I was transfixed by the flux, now blood-red, but changing again, rising, blooming from the depths of the coloration, swelling until the silver skin of the metal began to split. An open wound, then another, another. Dozens of strawberry blisters riddled the sheen.

“Turn that fucking furnace down,” a voice boomed. “The damn metal’s burning.”

Someone in another room dialed the furnace temperature down, and the blush began to subside. That individual was not a doctor but, I later discovered, a metal refinery operator, an MRO. Meanwhile, someone else ran to the brick rim and sprinkled a dust of lemon-colored sulfur on the blisters, choking the burns, healing the skin.

I’d learned that magnesium is not so much a metal as a creature that needs to be nursed.

The furnace was peaceful again. A silver sheen covered it and hid the suffering flesh.

The tricky business element could entice a poet to write his voice large, so that it registers like a serialized voiceover, reducing the experience of a worker’s life to a blustery, elusive weather system. To Salner, it is just the opposite: a working person’s life can be neither cut nor fashioned to fit a lexicon and caricature meant to pitch low balls to the class that bankers, landlords, and company bosses fear most and therefore despise. Here’s an homage to women miners who give the lie to that specie of reduction:

“For the Women of Eveleth Mines”

You walked into a mill—

balancing on steel rods, which rolled

like logs—and stumbled, just like a man

would stumble; you laid track

and pinched your hand between the rails—

your hand turned purple-black,

bruised just like a man’s; you cut your arm

on the knife-edge of a pillow block

which made you bleed just like a man—the rich

pink tissue, the gash into your life—

you had to wash it out

and bandage it

and keep on working

just like a man; you torched a wear plate

in a chute—a shower of white-hot sparks

burned through your coveralls, but you

kept working,

shimmied up chutes,

stacked plates on grate all midnight shift,

got held two hours overtime, cursed

the boredom, bit your lip

just like a man, stacked more plates

till you could taste the salt of your blood

mix with the metal grit. You worked

just like a man till they did something

they wouldn’t do to any man.

Salner’s tributes extend to figures in history, some of them literary, in whose prose or verse he finds an echo of his own provenance or more than a whiff of licensed prophecy. Consider these two tributes:

“Dry-Dock Music: Baltimore”

“It was therefore an act of supreme trust on the part

of a freeman of color thus to put in jeopardy

his liberty that another might be free.”

The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.

Surprising, most of all,

Stanley himself…. On the way to work that day,

he walks through clouds of cinnamon, an amber fog

enveloping the port, all the way to Fells Point

and the dry docks, where he works

building a ship with a four-pound mallet,

driving cotton-white strands between oak planks,

sealing a sharp-built hull with oakum

from keel to turn of bilge. Dry-dock music

freights the air, saw-scrape and mallet-knock,

chatter of carpenter and caulker,

craftsman and slave, of black and Irish

joined in an uneasy hug of labor. He knows the trades,

sailing and caulking, and others that a free man needs

in this slave port, like how to keep his freedom papers

always in his pocket, for the eagle stamp

protects him from slave catchers, the lowest form

of life, who love the music of another’s chains.

His papers say that he was born right here,

born free, but it was in the port of Charleston,

when he was just 15, that two white sailors

who hated slavery, grabbed him by the arms

and told a port patrolman, “This here’s

the cabin boy of our good ship, the Mother Mary.

His name is Stanley Johnson—he’s had a bit

and captain needs him sober, so let us pass.”

He had the wherewithal to play the drunk,

although he’d never had a sip, not then,

and with their help, he slipped

the chains of bondage, set sail on Mother Mary,

kidnapped into freedom. From that day on,

he’s worked on ships, on shipboard only,

where he feels free. Now that he’s old,

the ships he works on are in dry dock,

his papers always in his pocket.

They describe the bearer by his age,

color, height. . . . But they could just as easily

describe a man named Frederick, on his way

to freedom, with papers in his pocket

in the name of Stanley Johnson


Your friends did not fare well.

James Naylor, skin flayed off

his back, tongue gored through

with hot iron, branded, released

on the road to Yorkshire, where

four thugs beat him to death.

Natural causes took another, but

the king’s men dug up the corpse,

hung it, stuck the head on a pole,

displayed it for twenty years

at Westminster Hall. Your name

was on their list. You sat there,

blind, composing your epic

of Man’s first disobedience,

not knowing when they’d come.

And still, they gather in the dark

outside that room of light

If discovery is more your thing more than recovery, why not take a break from Mary Oliver, and pick up David Salner?  Then share him with your coworkers and the generations reaching for victory who you’re betting on to follow you into the breach.

David Salner has an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He has worked across the U.S. as an iron ore miner, steelworker, machinist, bus driver, cab driver, garment laborer, and longshoreman. He now works as a library clerk in a Delaware shore town.

Eveleth Taconite, one of the iron ore mines he worked in, was featured in the Hollywood movie North Country, starring Charlize Theron.

Salner won the 2016 Lascaux Prize for Poetry and the Oboh Prize. He has received seven Pushcart Prize nominations and on three occasions Garrison Keillor read Salner’s work on the NPR show, Writer’s Almanac.

He is currently finishing work on a novel set in the 1920s about a fugitive from Montana vigilantes who works on the great Holland Tunnel project and finds shelter among the poor Jews of the Lower East Side.

Toba Singer

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