Dip up a ladle-ful anywhere from this broad pool of enigmatic yet plain and transparent words. What are these, you’ll ask, these alluring strings of sounds and beguiling images? Well, they come from the workings of a wonderfully complex and adventurous mind—in fact, maybe they are the workings of that mind, the record of what that mind’s possessor discovered in the “expedition” that we know, from the title of the book, just recently set out.
Alan Salant is many things: Student of philosophy, student of math history, an inquirer into the nature not only of human society but of existence itself. Like his thoughts, his poems can be surreal, funny, deep, towering, while always wide-ranging and allusive, moving effortlessly, for example, from Dostoevsky, Gauss, and DNA to personal laundry. (“Sometimes that’s what I think / And other times I have trouble figuring out / Which shirt to wear.”)
For many readers, Salant’s will be a wholly new kind of poetry, appealingly direct, philosophically nimble, a bit like an unexpected good conversation or chancing upon a wonderful lunch companion. Others will hear earlier voices (like Emily Dickinson’s) in the poems (“I went to meet my instincts / And they came to meet me. / It had been a long time since we met”) or will sense earlier sights and artists (“This committee should not only have people on it, / But swaying trees, and birds in the early morning, / Perhaps a few owls at night, / And some of those single-celled beings, / And bacteria that form a second self, / Making a cloud of life round every animal. . .”).
Archibald MacLeish wrote that “A poem should not mean / But be,” and people have been spilling ink over the point ever since. Some of us don’t take sides on the MacLeishian dictum, however, since we think that a poem can both mean and be. That’s also the position we hold about the poems in The Expedition Sets Out. They’re much too full of observant, charming (and, yes, deep) argument not to have meaning. And they’re much too witty and deft in the way they exist on the page not to give pleasure simply for their being.
Take this passage from “Calluses of Eternity.” Test to see if the poem can be without meaning, or whether it can mean without being. Don’t forget: This is a test, so you must concentrate and be very, very serious—although, certainly, this test will be among the most curiously rewarding you’ll ever take. Our recommendation: Buy the book and prolong this wonderful exam.
I think the Twentieth Century said no.
(A schoolgirl told me it was back
When Hitler was preparing the Petri dish of existentialism
And Lenin, Stalin, and Mao devoted lives
To sullying the name of Community.)
I think the Twentieth Century said,
“I will show you horrors
That will silence your hopes,
So that all you hear is nothingness,
Breed a permanent silence.
And when the dust settles I will leave you with a deafening ideology
Suitable for corpses,
That it’s everyone against everyone else,
And between naps and boardroom massacres
You’ll puzzle over why you still can’t love your neighbor
Two millennia after it was all explained, wasn’t it?”
But we are in a new Century.
A new millennium,
And there is plenty of time for despair later.
For now, again we hope.