David Salner is a hard working poet, just as, after finishing his MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he worked hard all over the country as an iron ore miner, steelworker, machinist, bus driver, cab driver, garment laborer, longshoreman, teacher, and librarian. He was also an usher for minor league baseball. This hard-won experience of the gritty, real world informs the subjects of his poems and provides the landscape for his powers of perception.
Salner is the author of several collections of poetry, including The Stillness of Certain Valleys (Broadstone Books, 2019), Blue Morning Light (2016), Working Here (Rooster Hill Press, 2010, and John Henry’s Partner Speaks (WordTech Editions, 2008). The poems below have been selected from those books. More recently, his first novel, A Place to Hide (Apprentice House Press, 2021) has been greeted with praise from Kestrel magazine (“A tale of life on the lam with a deeply human dimension.”) and from Lit Pub (“A winning combination of verisimilitude and lyricism . . . the reader is witness to the great heart Salner has for the men and women he describes.”) More appreciation of his work can be found in Innisfree.
His work appears in Threepenny Review, Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner, Salmagundi, North American Review, Ploughshares, Innisfree Poetry Journal, and many other magazines. Salner has been honored with grants from the Puffin Foundation, the Dr. Henry P. and Page Laughlin Fund, and two from the Maryland State Arts Council. He won the 2016 Lascaux Prize for Poetry and the Oboh Prize. He has received nine Pushcart Prize nominations and on three separate occasions Garrison Keillor has read his work on the Writer’s Almanac. A review of Working Here appeared in Innisfree12: http://authormark.com/artman2/publish/Innisfree_12_27GREG_MCBRIDE.shtml
It’s a wonderful thing to have a mother
you didn’t come from. I can remember—
when I was four—the heavy varnish on the floor
I was playing on in one of those apartments
built all over Baltimore
after the war. My mother
holds me in the glitter of her black eyes
expressing humor easily, strength and care, and love
with difficulty. She has my father there
for back-up. It’s a conversation
filled with produce words—“We picked you out,”
as if I were an avocado and they were squeezing
my chubby knees—or a cantaloupe.
My mother sniffs my bellybutton
while the world looks on. “We’ll take this one,”
she announces, “because he’s ripe.”
Both of them are smoking, and the words
parade in the smoke, dance in the air
high overhead, meaningless as motes
—for I had already
adopted my mother, when she was a girl
about my age, playing on the marble steps
in a neighborhood where poor Jews lived
in row houses. My orthodox grandmother had a painting
of a handsome man, her husband, who disappeared
when his bank failed. They never saw him again.
As I stared at the painting, I understood
my father would disappear, also,
in a way my mother never would. The words
meant nothing to me, for my mother’s eyes
had already told me what I had to know.
I was not the fruit of her body but of something
more important—her choice.
I was the fruit of a woman’s choice.
I helped the sexton’s son, Russell,
bury old Ginny Mummert one day in mid-April.
I remember the softness of the spring air and the hint
of manure from somebody spreading maybe a mile off.
It was opening day, and the Orioles were on the air.
We put the portable radio by the water jug
and draped the antenna over somebody’s stone,
but we couldn’t hear much except static
and the sound of dirt on the casket.
We were almost done with Ginny
when the Orioles got runners on base
in the eighth inning—so we stopped our work
and hovered over the radio, listening hard
for each crackling word. And if you didn’t know
we were pulling for Gus Triandos to hit the long ball,
you might have thought it was our gentle send-off
for Ginny. Godspeed. But the Birds never scored.
A Short Poem on the Shooting by Police of Charquisa Johnson, April 27, 2003, in Washington, DC
The police said she held a gun in the air
and refused to drop it. Her friend
said her hands were empty
except for the kiss she was blowing
her two children. They blew her lights out
but missed what was dangerous to them—
there it is, still blowing—
After the Picnic
My mother puts the blanket down,
unwraps wax paper from our sandwiches,
releases the sweet and sour smells
of lunch meat, dill pickles.
My father leans against a tree
with jigsaw bark, drinks something
purple from a glass, shakes another Lucky
from the pack, cups his hands
to light it, sighs the blue smoke
in and out. His eyes meet mine.
I see through them into our future: a job lost,
a long breakdown. After the picnic,
he spirits me into the house
on day-old sweat, on night-air
that fills with wine, tobacco,
the stale smells of his body.
I breathe that richness
when I need to know I had a father.
trucked in from Jersey
with a little dirt. Also,
romaine and dressing.
When I get back from Rockaway,
after I’ve gotten the sand out,
I'll wash them under cold water
and use a sharp knife.
on my way home from work
I'll look for meat on sale
and something I can use
for a starch—coffee filters,
some brandy, and The Post
so I can read about
my wide receiver’s ACL.
these old buildings
were built for Jewish immigrants.
Some facts are meat to chew on.
I'll slice the zuchini and onions
and then go out
a little hamburger,
and some aspirin.
at the liquor store
that never opens its grating
I’ll pick up something
in a dry Chilean
then chick peas,
cucumbers, and peppers.
A clean breeze
flutters in the curtains.
Another Dead-Wall Reverie
If I eat papaya and bittersweet chocolate
within an hour of bedtime, I’ll dream
of sailing a catamaran beyond the reef
and into a sea too wide for my own good.
It’s gentle, which can be deceiving.
A shot of gin and I’ll dream of a pub
in London, circa 1835. Another shot
and I’ll feel guilty, but—hell!
I’m a weaver in the mills, carrying the empire
all these years. I’ll have another shot.
But when sheets of icy rain
fall on the city and the water courses,
tea-brown, down gutters and into sewers—
I realize that I’m susceptible
to a recurring dream in which a well-dressed chap
stares at me and pronounces the words,
“Ah, Bartleby! Ah, Humanity!”
Cheerleaders Practicing in Eveleth, MN
The sky is a stone-cold blue, a late-summer blue.
In the North Country, there are blues so perfect
you want to tear your heart out to be alive
and sober. And the cheerleaders of Eveleth High
are stamping their feet in the cinders, wearing
flip-flops, pumps, tennis shoes, sandals.
They maintain a businesslike, a gum-chewing calm
as they rehearse the difficult moves, like the toss,
which must be perfect, and the even more difficult catch—
with a strength not in their arms, which are slender, and not
in their conditioning, which is nonexistent. I don’t
blame them. Last night was a good one to spend
on the lakes with their friends and a case of beer.
Those lakes, some glacial, some quarried out.
Those lakes in the North Country, that perfect sky—
it’s enough to make you get sober or try
or cry. But when Shelly Jongewaard flies in the air,
she knows that whatever else in the rest of her life
could go wrong, and probably will, the arms
of those girls from Eveleth High will be there
beneath the stone-cold blue of the sky, the sober sky,
will always be there, locked in a basket to catch her.
People who don’t work here
would never dream
what it takes to make iron.
That’s what we said at Eveleth Mines.
We walked a mile of coal-belts
to the tipping point, stared seven-stories down
into a shaft of air suffused with dust,
into the softness of slaked air.
On kiln patrol, marbles of iron
tumbled in a yellow ooze. The heat of hell
turned inches from our heads.
Then we paced a grate the size of a football field
to check each Atlas bearing
with something like a stethoscope
and listen for a telltale scratch
in the forever rolling of the world.
Or, we watched magnetic separators,
the red cones churning through a river
of gray ore. In the West Pit,
the bucket of a loader
brushed boulders of ore, a finger-flick.
But something about the crusher bothered us.
All over Northern Minnesota, it kept the earth awake,
shift after shift—until they shut it down,
and the whole expanse of grinding and breaking
ground to a halt. Then, everything was quiet
as an April snow. In all the bars,
a distant chatter, a sort of silence.
Rumors they’d be calling back
to Eveleth Mines. Rumors, then more silence.
I think back to the noisy world I kept alive
when I did things you’d never dream.
That’s what it took to make iron.
Just Like a Man
for the women at 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
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
that made you scream.
Your scream was different,
different from the scream of any man.
Florsheims at a Thrift Shop on All Saints Ave.
What made him surrender these shoes
and this jacket, which can still be purchased
from the flea market on All-Saints Ave? Why
were the blue serge pants removed, one leg at a time,
from this Florsheims man, this blue serge man?
Perhaps, as these discarded dress clothes suggest,
he walked the streets addressing those he met
as sir or ma’am, craving mutual respect, like some men
crave wine, women, or weed. Of these four things,
we should add, most men are in some kind of need.
The heels are worn on the outside but still good,
an inch thick, and the soles—God bless them—
are thick as well. The leather is shiny where the toes
ought to be, puffed out and stretched like the cheeks of a boy
holding his breath against great odds.
What child, what man will never
kick up his heels in them?
A Dream of Quitting Time
From break to break, I’ll wish my shift away,
get through it, somehow, shower off sand, go out
into the night, the crystal clear all-clear
of quitting time. Midnight in Arizona— I’ll soar,
bank like a nighthawk, high over Guadalupe,
this town I work in, where Yaqui Indians
have been driven into the corner
of a long-lost nation; sail further,
Apache Junction, home of Nate’s Used Cars
and GIRLS, GIRLS, GIRLS; or further still,
where copper towns are dying, to Globe, Morenci,
where copper town are dying, leaving high-rise dumps
of orange tailings, listless hills of slag;
or long the dried-out Gila River, into a basin
southwest, through the Gila River Basin,
of forgotten lives, where Brandi Riley
says goodbye to Jason Sanchez, a loud kiss,
a silent night in Casa Grande;
or float above a lonesome birds-eye
of saguaros, careen on desert monsoons
almost to the border, to Bisbee, home of the famous
deportation, surrounded by the tufts and brambles
on the otherwise bare-assed Mule Mountains.
I’ll leave my shift and float into the desert night
beneath a firmament of sand.
The Stillness of Certain Valleys
The miners who worked here
lived in a town of clapboard and tar.
They ran coal into cars of dark iron
stretching for miles along the river.
Day and night the coal clattered down.
Black clouds rose the length of the valley.
Now, water drips from a tipple
to wild strawberries sprouting from rail beds.
Someone has stacked the ties by the roadside.
Scavengers have been salvaging copper
from cables, gathering sections of belt, finding
more trouble than they can haul off.
A jungle of ferns smothers the old blockhouse
of the fan. Once, it drew air, so the valley could live—
huge drafts of coal dust, methane, and rage.
The metal lungs never stopped breathing, until
a stillness entered the valley, of weeds and rust,
of underground voices doggedly calling.
Horse Trailer with Beans
One night, I woke to the clang
of a man unhooking a horse trailer
in the darkness in front of my house,
loosening the coupler, dropping it
on the road, leaving me with
three tons of beans. He couldn’t wait
for the thanks I would have given
on behalf of the laid-off miners
at the food pantry— he had to drive all night
to get home to fields full of corn
and more beans, work,
a herd of beef cattle, and a life
that would leave him with nothing
but the dirt under his nails
and who he is.
On December 6, 1907, the Fairmont Coal Co. exploded,
killing all of the miners on day shift. The official count
of 360 overlooked many immigrants.
Every December 6, I drive to this place
along Route 19, near the banks of the Tygart,
and turn my car toward the wrinkled flow
of the West Fork River, and stop. The fresh snow
crests around rocks and debris.
In the water, old antifreeze bottles knock
against each other like aimless chimes.
A spark ignites Fire Damp, the methane blows,
flames rush from speck to speck—like the breath
of a surging dragon, licking the coal dust
suspended in haulageways, spitting fire,
reaving stout timbers, seeking, by instinct,
live bones among fossils, devouring the faces
before they can scream, as the men duck,
are sucked into blazing entries or crouch
in a shelter of ash by crimson steel cars.
I’m in a meadow
filled with the threadbare gray
of five hundred women in the snow. They sob
to the heavens, gaunt as the heavens are
in West Virginia. I ask them to leave,
for we’re in danger from another explosion,
but the women won’t go. Eyes starving
for news, they peer from snow-soaked scarves,
babushkas, prayer shawls.
The mine blows again, and the earth trembles
like the hide of a frightened mule.
I blink and the West Fork River
seems to sizzle beneath the snow’s touch.
The fog drifts off down the river,
between two banks of melting snow,
toward Morgantown and Pittsburgh,
cities of what once was—
the smoke and fire
in the human heart.
Satchel Paige at the Slave Market
Satchel was driving
a big car on a Monday afternoon
on the roads around Charleston
with his friend Buck O’Neil. “Come on,”
he said, “I’ll show you something,”
and they took off for the harbor,
which was full of rush-hour traffic,
and he pointed to a big tree
with a plaque on it. “There it is,”
he said—“the slave market.”
The people streamed by
not noticing Satchel and Buck
who stared at the tree
as if they were rooted in time
in this harbor of souls.
Frank Little in the Big Sky State
They beat him, because it was clear
as moonlight to them that their fists
had the right to break a man’s jaw
and muddy his flesh and blood
with their blows; then they tied him
to the bumper and dragged him
out of town, because it was a right
the darkness bestowed, and also
it was a nice touch, it was, to erase
a man’s knees; and then they flung
a rope over an iron trestle and pulled,
all six of them, because at night,
they had the right to lift a man,
hand over hand, out of his life
on earth and into the big sky—
but before doing that, they had
the foresight to pin to his shorts
a sign warning us they knew who
we were and we could be next—
as the hills and buttes were their
witness, they had the right.
The next morning, we found him
cinched to the sky and cut him down
and claimed him
because it was our right
and buried him beneath red roses
and threw away the sign.
Deep Sea Rescue
For years, the sea washed away
childhood beatings, worse abuse,
pummeling him in a timeless
dream of risk. He discovered alcohol,
then drugs, because surrendering
was how he’d learned to swim from rips.
He lifeguarded summers, in the winter
he built homes. The hills above the sea
were full of hammering. Hawk-high,
he’d take a break and wipe the sweat away,
watching the miles of silence, sunlight
weeping on endless crests, each one
a tiny breath. Closing his eyes,
he’d feel beneath this peacefulness
a mood in the waves, the worry
of a storm far out. He taught deep-sea rescue,
became an active member of AA,
but still we rushed him more than once
to an ER. Not easy, for him or us,
the saving of a savior. Entering treatment,
he repeated formulas that sometimes helped,
that he was not to blame
for whirlpools opening like the mouth
of someone crying, drowning.
The last time I saw him,
he was turning toward the sea, searching
for something lost, someone to bring back safe.
Steel Lunch Pail
I’m not going to carry my lunch
in paper or plastic. When I get a job again
I’m going to buy one of those steel beauties
with a riveted box. I want to hear a thud
on the sideboard when I set it down
and when I go out the front door,
a little late as usual, I want to know
there’s four peanut butter and jellies
and a bologna sandwich in the box.
No job lasts forever—but I want to carry my lunch
in something I can count on.
On a Photo of Babe and Lou
It has that 1930s look,
and they look like men of that time—
no more famous than I am.
Except for the baseball jerseys,
they could be two harvest hands
who wandered into a tavern
after tossing square bales in the sun.
The shade and the overhead fan
are good things to these men—
elbows resting on the bar, chaff
in their eyes, chaff in their hair.
“I might follow the harvest south
to Texas or California,” Lou says.
“Hell of a life,” Babe adds,
crow’s feet showing through his tan.
Lou puts a dime on the bar.
One more beer for Babe and Lou
and the two harvest hands are gone.
I can’t imagine life through the eyes of a goat,
but there is a boy who says that Niko
needs a window.
The orange scent of Grand Marnier
vanishes into the chilly night.
and Niko sleeps in a white shed,
the flat yellow eyes finally closing, the short legs
folding in the straw under the weight
of a round belly.
The first cool night, the orange scent.
The boy who knows him, who knows him
as he knows himself.
Who says that Niko
needs to see the horses, who sleep standing up
at the edge of a steep field.
Needs to see them
through a window I would make for him.
A Dog by the Sea
Just after dawn, we get up,
without coffee, and let the dog lead us
through a grove of wind-stunted trees,
spiked succulents, red-berried holly,
and over the dune ridge out of the gray
of still sleeping minds. A line of pink
from the not yet risen sun
reminds me of the lilac shadows
caught in the radial grooves of shells.
I take up your hand and feel the blood
warming your fingers, as the dog bounds off
dragging her leash through wet sand.
She’s after gulls and a line of waves
that repeat themselves, she seems to think,
because they want to play.
A morning breeze
stirs the now turning tide, breathing over it,
sighing toward bayside. As the waves come in
whorls of light unfold on the sand. How I want
for us to repeat ourselves, on and on,
you holding the leash of a silly dog, me
feeling the beat, the blood in your hand.
for the memory of Robert Greenway
Headed for the Alicante station
on a stretch of EU highway no one drives,
we open the lunch bag packed by Eva
containing slices of sesame rye,
olives, chunks of queso manchego,
almonds, an empanada, still warm.
Our train stops in Valencia, accelerates
through orange groves, past irrigation trenches.
Each holds a narrow gloss of water,
mirrors a fragment of the sky.
Blocks of quartz stacked by the tracks
shatter sunlight into green, translucent shards.
From before we left, the image of a lizard
streaks across the shoulder of the pool
and leaves a blur upon the sunbaked day,
a hazel stain on alabaster. Surrounded by cactus,
high above the seaside calamari stands,
stucco walls trace sharpened pencil lines
against a perfect blue, a depth of sky. In this land,
all things are marked by demarcation, the clash
of elements at their edges. But in the stucco house—
darkness. Robert will sleep all afternoon,
or try to. Wake from a double-dose—
chemo, radiation—gulp the air he needs
to entertain his friends with talk
about events in Barcelona, about the red and yellow
ribbons of Valle de los Caídos, where the tyrant
lies buried, will not always be. His face lights
to an hour’s conversation for words
are the reward for what he lives through,
a run of words he chisels into time, our lasting stone.
Surrounded by parched olive groves
and ragged rows of pomegranate, we talk
past sundown, when a soft breeze comes to us
flowing from a range of bluffs down to the sea,
a gray mirage below a gauzy sky.
We watch a spume climb from the waves
into a haze, an opal mix with no horizon line.
No past or future. The present is a veil of clouds,
an envelope for hearts to beat within.
Twilight. In the corner of an eye,
the pain leaks back.
We are prepared to tiptoe from the house
and let him sleep, but he wakes in the afternoon
and follows us to where the sun beats down
upon the cobbles. With Eva bracing him,
he stands before a purple bougainvillea,
grins into the future, waves.
(first appeared in Delmarva Review)