Five Poems by Mark Salerno

Sunday, August 29, 2020

According to the finding guide at the Archive for New Poetry at UCSD’s Special Collections in Geisel Library, I first responded to a letter from the poet Mark Salerno in 1985. My memories have grown imperfect, and at some point I hope to get down to San Diego to review that correspondence, which lasted almost 20 years. At this point, I only remember that he had arrived in Los Angeles too late for me to include him in POETRY LOVES POETRY, which is a shame since his poetry has gone on to become far more interesting than the work done by at least two-thirds of the poets in that anthology. I suppose that Mark would make that cut-off line slightly over three-quarters, if not four-fifths, but that’s not a matter for me to settle or to adjust. Mark Salerno’s poetry is right up there with the work of Paul Vangelisti, Martha Ronk, Lee Hickman, Dick Barnes, Lewis MacAdams, Amy Gerstler, Jack Grapes, Charles Bukowski, Ron Koertge, Gerald Locklin, Michael Lally, Laurel Ann Bogen, Kate Braverman, Suzanne Lummis, Wanda Coleman, Eloise Klein Healy, Jim Krusoe, Peter Schjeldahl, David Trinidad, and Dennis Cooper, even if his poems did not appear in PLP. The twenty poets I’ve just listed, by the way, constitute one-third of PLP’s roster; I’ll leave it to the reader to pick a quartet of poets to delete from that list in order to give Charles Harper Webb, Bob Flanagan, Michael C. Ford, and John Thomas a spot in the “starting line-up.” This ensemble of poets, along with Peter Levitt, Doren Robbins, Aleida Rodriguez, Bob Peters, Holly Prado, Harry E. Northup, Bob Crosson, and Jed Rasula, was just a fraction of “the scene”/”scenes” that Salerno found himself in as he was turning 30 years old.

Salerno returned back East after a couple years in Los Angeles, but was back in town “for the duration” by the early 1990s, when he started a magazine, ARSHILE, under the imprint of 96 Tears Press, which also published his first book, Hate. (“96 Tears” was the title of a hit song in 1966 by a garage band from Michigan that is still remembered fondly by those young enough to have savored its carnivalesque fantasy of an abandoned lover turning the tables; “Arshile,” of course, refers to the painter Gorky. All in all, a perfect little example of postmodern juxtaposition.) Salerno has gone on to have had several books of poems published, including Method (Figures Press, 2002) and Odalisque (Salt Publishing: Salt Modern Poets; 2007). A volume of “New and Selected Poems” is long overdue, but Salerno is my nomination for poet-in-residence at the Ovid-in-Internal-Exile of American poets. I am no longer a publisher, so I cannot rectify this situation, but perhaps I can entice the interest of some ambitious young publisher with a sample of Salerno’s poetry. Here, therefore, are the final five poems from Mark Salerno’s ODALISQUE, a book of poems that deserves to be right alongside Ted Berrigan’s THE SONNETS on every contemporary poet’s bookshelf.

In Hours

It ends in bra logic and failed transitive devices

just to advance from one headlong desire to another
notwithstanding our cooped up notions of a primary system

or tunnel vision flop sweat and shtick to save a fairy tale

it’s how we got canned under the regime of reason

the summer after Biggie got shot I gave up my process

because it faded me a little toward the sidelines

I was M. no longer significant in the general crackdown

for a no-talent peroxide blonde in go-go boots

she was brazen as nails to give credence to the world

insofar as cue lines amounted to the dream itself

sticking my damn neck out for whore talk at Steve Boardner’s
and shoring up fragments like all the other poor immigrants

or mouthing off to authority for an odalisque I was M. I was M.


More wan beings in panoramas of their own imaginings

or mixing in with the breakfast crowd at Denny’s on Sunset
they came to the new world to get laid and freak out

in right light moments sordid greed and cheap vainglory

it was a way to be significant without recourse to the alphabet
when the double cross of seduction presented several aspects

a pile-on of widely held beliefs and plural identities

hence one grateful tether to rein her in and connect her

to the world of being under authority and castigation

along with all the other beauty school graduates roughed up
repeating the word free and killing time on the back seat

pretty soon it will all be in English or muffled under the money
the summer after I gave up my process to save a fairy tale
another summed up light in the general crackdown of desire.

Lights Out

A little roughed up and so mouthing off under authority

stranded between seeming and being in fact thrown off the squad

for a no-talent peroxide blonde in go-go boots as occurs

in the next decade of his life he becomes no longer significant

wondering what’s left of our lungs and the brightly colored air

she repeated the word free and told her soul to shut up

on faint scenes of life and numerous assorted fragments

while my part was cut down to a few lines at the end

from a synopsis that could have been found in the back pages of Tiger Beat
Barney’s Beanery Duke’s The Power House The Side Show El Carmen

flunky cops beauty school graduates despised scriveners and seduction

on mile-high heels tits out to here and a small-town history

insofar as being famous was an end in itself

notwithstanding stupid mistakes and the fall back position of blind preoccupation.

Lie to Me

It amounted to a salvage job but there you’re on your own
in twilight a few paces behind the bigshots at Fred Segal
memory that just has to jackhammer your brain for a while
as you wonder if you could ever be relevant again
suppose I didn’t care anymore about her hands or what she said

as though she were just another dumb odalisque on Hollywood Blvd.
new in town and working from a Polish blueprint and mistakes

to be the one who knows versus the one who learns as occurs

when the idolatry of reason got cashiered for fame itself

and the concomitant h.p. demands cue lines and a handful of ludes

it got headlong living below compass to shout oneself hoarse

like two-drink minimum poor immigrants and pie-eyed to be here
until one day it all blows up in your face

I was M. I was the hero this is my story.

Trouble No More

When thinking of his feelings he imagined it as carefree

having relearned risk management on the roof of Hollywood High
because he thought the years of tv light and reason were behind him
he went his own way and took his lumps for it end of story

in the movie the renegade cop resists the system and does good

by transforming the figurative and shoring up useless fragments

he was just seeing himself as unlucky he was playing the sap

if you step over the line once you get smacked you get canned

or sometimes you just find yourself over the line

he thought of himself as below compass and good to go
notwithstanding several aspects simultaneously and a lead pipe logic
immigrants beauty school graduates scriveners and the like

sentenced under The Pottery Barn Rule and mouthing off to authority
long after the point of speaking slowly and simple vocabulary.

All five poems reprinted by permission of Mark Salerno, who retains the rights to the poems.

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