Drunk on Salt by James Nolan
Willow Springs Editions, 2014; 38 pp
Reviewed by Mark Allen Jenkins
Some poetry collections defy easy summaries or classification. James Nolan’s recent chapbook is one such book. As part of the Acme Poem Company Surrealist Poetry Series and based on the back cover’s blurbs, one has to acknowledge surrealism in these poems. Surrealism is often broadly misused, but at least one way to define surrealism is it avoids pure reason and makes connections in a dream-like, imaginative way. Early Surrealists included Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte, Andre Breton and Benjamin Peret,
Some of the more surrealist poems in Drunk on Salt include, “Nostalgia for the New,” “Walt Whitman Takes the Antibody Test,” “A Modest Menu,” and “Begonias and Bus Stations.” A poem like “Begonias and Bus Stations” is as unusual a place to start as any in Nolan’s book. It opens with the playful statement that “Begonias are the opposite of bus stations” followed by a pun “Begonias are the other side of be gone.” The poem’s meditation on this annual then begins an unexpected turn “World travelers are drawn to begonias/ to their sassy serenity/ and belligerent immobility,/ a mute determination to stay put.” Opposites attract. The poem weaves these seemingly disparate subjects together in the second stanza “World travelers often plant begonias/ in the tires of tired Greyhound buses” and third stanza “Begonias even get motion-sick/ in the hats of little old ladies.” The tension between stationary loving flowers and restless travelers drives this poem pushing imagination and playfulness “One day begonias will grow out of a mulch/ of cigarette butts and Chiclets,/ in between the toilet stalls” then the poem imagines a rogue Greyhound bus might “tear like a blind Cyclops through/ choked fields of lush begonias/ their fingers around each other’s/ stupid pink throats.” The imagination takes the poem in one surprising direction after another.
Other poems are more about a person or place, such as “Drunk on Salt,” “Acts of God,” and “The Princess of Banana Leaves and Rain.” The latter poem reappropriates depictions of New Orleans as a place of decay and danger, “At any moment…a garter snake may drop on you/ from a gnarled live oak overhead.” Of course, a garter snake is only menacing to anyone who fears snakes. Elsewhere expected images are also undermined “white cemeteries of toadstools/ glisten on lawns after summer showers,/ sex and death conspire, are married/ together by the lascivious priests of dark water and dense heat” and in the Mississippi River, “enormous water moccasins, covered/ with eons of silt/ writhe slowly…in a jazz/ funeral of perpetual decay.” These threats, both real and imagined, don’t really slow down anyone or anything, “a skeleton tangos/ with a rose clenched/ between its teeth/ at Carnival.”
Drunk on Salt is a wild ride into an unexpected world of James Nolan’s vivid and sometimes surreal imagination.