A CLOSER LOOK: David Salner



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.


Opening Day

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—

Charquisa’s kiss.


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.


Manhattan Seasons

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
for margarine,
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.


Working Here

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 

kept working, 

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.


Monongah WV

          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.


It’s autumn.

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.


Leaving Spain

     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)

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