A REVIEW OF
Headless John the Baptist Hitchhiking by C.T. Salazar
Paperback, 70 pages
Mississippi, identity figure prominently in Latinx poet’s debut collection
By Michael Martella
Special to the Mississippi Clarion Ledger
USA TODAY NETWORK
In his first full-length collection of poems, titled Headless John the Baptist Hitchhiking, C.T. Salazar establishes his poetry within several distinct traditions—among them, the literature of the American South, the lyric mode, and the poetry of identity.
The poems of this collection move simultaneously through a descriptive terrain and into emotional and spiritual inquiry. In this pursuit, the physical landscapes and cultural geographies of Mississippi feature prominently—sunflowers and cotton, hawks hunting field mice, a consuming night sky and small country churches.
As is often the case in poetry that engages questions of identity, the positionality of Salazar’s speaker closely parallels that of the poet, whose vantage as a queer Latinx Mississippian propels the book through explorations of personal strife, private and systemic violence, and an unrelenting desire to attain mercy and wonder. As a result, Headless John the Baptist Hitchhiking serves as a record of the poet’s experiences grappling with identity and place, at once calling to mind the antipastoral poems of Eduardo C. Corral and evoking the unshakable wonderment and joy grounding the works of Aimee Nezhukumatathil.
The collection’s primary themes are well-served by Salazar’s usage of an intimate, confessional lyricism. In this style there is always the negotiation between liberal expression and the tension gained by restraint; the line between these is perhaps especially relevant to a writer speaking to, from, and about Mississippi, with its entrenched systems of oppression and the urgency of resistance against them.
The first poem in the collection, “Sonnet for the Barbed Wire Wrapped around This Book,” charts this middle way. There is the title image, of course, with its barbed wire figuratively ensnaring the text, and then there is its lacerating effect: “You were first to show me what my blood / looked like … sharp apology + / I know your name by heart: NO TRESPASSING.”
The use of the apostrophic address (a recurring device in Salazar’s verse) makes of the barbed wire a metaphor for the speaker’s home, for the myriad constraints placed on the marginalized individual. From here, the speaker turns inward, so that the force of this meditation (like the collection’s broader argument) does not emanate from a cataloguing of harms done, but instead develops from the close analysis of how one responds—and who one becomes—in the aftermath of psychic and spiritual harm.
The opening poem concludes, “I saw you barbed on Christ’s bleeding head … [but] come dawn I’m a saint blue parable / so telling how paradise takes … + on my arm these torn constellations / made me heaven + my chest of bright stars.” The speaker lays out a vision of himself as wounded, yes, but consecrated and undiminished, too.
The second poem in the collection, “All the Bones at the Bottom of the Rio Grande,” offers an immediate extension and complication of the speaker’s initial conclusions. By inference, it may be understood that the bones in the riverbed came there through real suffering. In their ongoing condition, they rest squarely on (and within) a geopolitical, cultural, ecological boundary, in what the poem appropriately names a state of “displacement.” These bones, and the lives they exist as relics of, are quite literally subsumed by a disunifying force. By this fact the speaker himself is riven, noting that “in between two halves of [him] a river is running.”
Here is the sort of metaphysical breakage with which Salazar’s poetry sets out again and again to reckon, and echoes from a later poem titled “Triptych Just before Mass” suggest the terms of this reckoning. About of a group of parishioners bemused by an interloper playing their church piano, the triptych begins, “We stood in the shape of an open jaw, the piano / our black tongue, and breaking out of the room’s teeth / a multitude of carved horses.” Whereas the bones of the earlier poem are said all to “know the same song [they] cannot sing,” in this three-sectioned poem, the language and music of spirituality dissolve the lines separating insider from outsider, offering relief from despair and creating a “sanctuary to shave down / like sweet lemon peels.”
Ultimately, the guiding question of Salazar’s newest work is the question his speaker poses to the unidentified, drowned subject of “Incident Number to Be Determined”: “[S]avior who forgot to come up,” the poem begins, “[w]hat would you have saved us from?” The poems in this collection answer as more than mere rhetoric, they offer an impassioned guide for how one may turn from injury toward tenderness and lift oneself from suffering to salvation.
Michael Martella is a gay poet and writer from Mississippi. His work appears in Queer Nature: A Poetry Anthology and has been published in Rattle, Rust+Moth, Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Jackson, where he works for University Press of Mississippi.