Review by Laura Minor
The innocence and desire for love in a first book—I’ll never get over it. There is an intimacy in trusting someone’s imaginative leaps for the first time. In Ron Salutsky’s Romeo Bones, one longs for escape in a world pinned down by maps, loss, love, and sobriety. The self-deprecating is comforting in Salutsky’s world, in the way you talk shit about yourself to your closest friends. It is a sobering look at our failures, how we remember them in the naked truth of poetry, where no one can judge us.
The book opens with “Romeo Bones,” a title poem with enough wonderment and youthful curiosity to break open the Pandora’s Box of the collection and watch the demons fly. In “Buck Fever,” we are met with the ferocity of self and nature colliding in the grief of remembrance and confession. “Desert” reminds us of what it is to be small in the world, and “A Quick Guide to Eros” is a wink and a nuzzle from a foul-mouthed friend you love to rib. The book is wistful, even nostalgic, but devoid of sentimentality—nothing here is free from being pissed on by Salutsky’s natural talent for scrutiny.
Romeo Bones illustrates the small cruelties inherent in a coming-of-age narrative, but also spirals into a psychedelic triptych within a triptych. I’ll never forget the first time I read these “shoulders” from “Camping”:
shone on your naked shoulders
of the galaxy’s starry claws through
the no-see-um mesh,
the airy wilderness kissing us
with the indescribable pleasure of pleasure,
nothing more than Tennessee revolving
around our slovenly island, our mauve oddity
among the trees, and the crickets’ calling songs …
Salutsky asks the important questions about love and hate, while smirking at you from behind the counter of some semi-exotic location, always rousing some philosophy from a surreal and sobering experience.
Romeo Bones swirls with themes of nature, and survival as it eddies around the many selves that comprise this tenaciously honest first collection of poems. Even as we travel from the South to the Southwest, and down to Florida, we are always firmly rooted in the natural landscape that animates these poems. Salutsky’s talent for injecting romance through the revolving doors of time and place results in a trip that is surprising at every turn, while pinned down in all the right places by the grit of the South. Every poem feels as if it is hinged on a dare, but there is sweetness in the questions he poses as well.
The poem, “Of the Limits of Love, Of a Lamb’s Ear,” begins with “In a primeval meadow with God/ like a lover above me I lie/ fingers pressed lightly/ into earth, my memory/ a bulb’s, confused by heat …” In “A Prayer for Nectar,” we have mothers and suckling, God and mistletoe. There is a vague sexual undertone to Salutsky’s voice, and it is a welcome twist to a genre that is often afraid of that or overwrought with it.
From the four “Still Life with Phone … ” poems in a series that round out the last section of the book, Salutsky continues to question the fragility and resilience of love, “Who could feel the air coming in night’s little bag of mist? That’s love.”
In “Still Life with Phone IV: Leaving Kentucky,” there is an awareness of an all-knowing finality, without being dismal or fatalistic. Salutsky brings us a connection to God, an omnipresent prayer, and a supplication tucking you in, ending the book with the bittersweet nature of love as you witness it disappearing.
Salutsky’s voice really comes from his two-pronged ability to surprise us with original language and delivery emboldened by gravely experience. Salutsky can take you back to the place in your own life “when the world was your toilet.” He can provide you with an antenna of regret and invisibility, dismissal and forgiveness, always nodding to the destructive aftermath of life’s little inventories.
We’re not too far into the book before these signature Salutsky lines start to appear, “If the sea had skin/ you could roll it up over Florida/like a condom …” And you didn’t think you’d get a “Mojave Triptych” without a vagina dentata, extended coyote metaphor, and this:
I will never cease to be nothing and when time has hardened my arter-/ies I will remain nothing in the great nothing that nothing is/remaining is nothing.
One of my favorite poems, “Fate, Chance & Twelve Packs,” addresses the stuff of poetic immortality in the lines “… and now in the playground gravel you see glass/ scattered like tea leaves and you don’t know/ if they’re telling you to write more poetry/ or go build a plant nursery on the west coast of Sea of Cortés.” The end of this poem makes me want to break all the windows in the house, just to smell the rain and touch something in Salutsky’s natural world:
Lean in, now, listen
to what the rain says as it shines
the glass and gravel and pokes its way
into the cracked dirt as if Earth’s dark loam
were something you could peel back
and slide into until the sun returns.
Finally, “Ode to Evel” brings us close enough to death to turn, look back at it over a shoulder, and shudder at mortality from a barstool—a metaphysical thank you to the “gods of our youth.” Salutsky has a pretty tough vernacular for someone writing poems about love and nature. Existential sunsets and oceans that are aware of us bring readers closer to the varied landscapes in Romeo Bones. Salutsky is able to capture isolation and solitude while in the company of others, a story you’ve heard before. It’s not perfect because we’re not perfect, and Salutsky is somewhere laughing at his own fallible despair and growth right now. But it has more than enough moments of grace to remind you “there’s love in the world. Now what?” I’m glad I gave it a chance. I’m glad Steel Toe Books gave Romeo Bones a chance. And I look forward to seeing Ron “shit in the void” again and again.
Laura Minor is a writer and a singer-songwriter who received her M.F.A. from Sarah Lawrence College. Her work has most recently appeared in Spring Gun Press, Bicycle Review, Trivia, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Sixers Review, and Lungfull. She was a finalist for Steel Toe Books and has released two records, and is currently working on a third record she wrote in Brooklyn while teaching at Pratt (forthcoming in summer 2015). She is currently a doctoral candidate in poetry at FSU in Tallahassee, FL where she is finishing her first manuscript of poems.