Salt Moon by Noel Crook
Southern Illinois University Press, 2015; 63 pp
Reviewed by Laurie Saurborn
Noel Crook’s Salt Moon, winner of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry, is a meditation on time, place, and connectivity. Organized into four sections, titled Dark Country, Evening News, Notes from a Salt Flat Prisoner, and Comanche Trace, the poems are rich in description, delicately bound to the interior and exterior landscapes from which they fiercely unfold.
Crook’s speakers are watching the sun, testing the winds, tending their children. In voices as quick to question as to demand, the poems closely observe and refuse to give themselves the comfort and protection of distance. They consider the particular details of the landscapes in which they move, be that North Carolina, with “ten kinds of birds all hollering at once”; a Texas of “shallow waters” and “parched hills"; or Old Delhi, where “the sky/turned pewter” before it began to rain. Refusing digression or associative leaps, the speaker trains her eye steadily on her narratives, whether contemplating the history of slavery in the southern United States, the murder of neighbors by their own children, or the blood of a hunt on her child’s hands. As demonstrated in the poem, “First Kill,” the speaker’s attention is steady and unblinking:
I touched your little wrist
and traced the blue life pumping there.
I kissed your face, grown older
in a night, and kicked the dog
that would not leave the meat. (55)
Maternal love, time’s swift passage, a dog’s instinctual hunger, and the speaker’s agency all compress in five short lines that in their razor-sharp specificity never lose grip. The speaker touches, kisses, and kicks. She acts upon others, moving inside the poem as one would her own body. Throughout the book, Crook’s poems harness this physicality of movement, this action of living in a world never still. As if struggling in a net or a caul, each poem becomes a body.
This physical capacity stretches beyond subject, action, and voice. The lyric power of the lines creates a tense, muscular musicality that encourages the reader to linger while also briskly pushing them along. In the delicately rendered, “Reading Ovid at Buzzard Rocks,” intense sonic echoes ricochet like rocks tossed down a canyon wall:
April, and I’ve come back to this blunt horizon
butting up against a bell jar of blue
and a sun that can bake the meat off anything,
even loss. Where if you hold out your arms
at the bluff’s edge and breathe deeply enough,
the sky will agree
to swallow you whole. (61)
Blunt, butting, bell, blue, bake, bluff, breathe. These are descriptors, actions, markers, and objects, their round sounds melodiously presiding over a world—now in Texas—that does not spare the human. There is much collision in the landscapes of Salt Moon. Here, this energy is rendered through consonance and assonance, the quickly repeated “b” and “e” sounds like quick retorts from a shotgun. One has a sense that the speaker herself is pushed against the edges of an environment that at one time seemed boundless. Bell jar, butting up, the bluff’s edge: all speak of containment, pressure, and breakage. As time moves, it gains speed.
And so, no moment is wasted. In every observation lies opportunity for reflection. In every reflection time both accumulates and progresses. The poems move with grace from the story of Job, to that of Demeter and Persephone, to the scene of a mother combing lice from her daughter’s hair. Often these stories involve suffering, whether through the imagined or documented experiences of a character or speaker, or in movement across a landscape in which suffering occurred. Danger, real or perceived, is as much a presence in this world as the animals and people who do—or do not—sense the threat. Often in Salt Moon it is the domesticated animals that notice what humans hope to ignore. The poem, “Dark Country,” begins:
Night presses its Rorschach shadows
against kitchen windows I haven’t bothered
to curtain yet. Who’d prowl these rutted
back roads anyway? Who’d even find us
out here? But the dog disagrees. All day
he stares me down and begs me to attend (12)
Rorschach shadows. Prowl and rutted. Sonically, the poem quickly shifts from sibilant whisper to sharp punch. Tonally, danger alone is implied, suggesting that there are unfathomable answers to the speaker’s questions. Danger and safety mix in equal measure, further muddling any attempt to categorize. Rooted as these poems are in the concrete, figurative language contributes to this dissolving. Through the use of metaphor in “Smith Canyon,” the canyon becomes a scar. The fossils become tattoos. That which is rock and record of another era and being are compared to, and so joined, to the human body. The images become not only symbols of time, but of time lived.
Like the rocky moon above us, the world exists apart from our perceptions. Yet Salt Moon stands in witness to the grand accumulation of histories, however they might be recorded: human and non-human, written and instinctual, cruel and kind. Its impressions becoming, undoing, and reconfiguring with laser-like poise the landscape to which it bends and from which it rises.