Dogs, Death, and Cruelty: Looking at the Heart of Shelter

Shelter by Carey Salerno.
Alice James Books, 2009 (64 pages)
ISBN: 978-1882295722.

Michael Vick has served his time and the moments will soon come when the National Football League has to decide whether or not it wants to reinstate a canine mafioso guru. Vick’s vicious dog fighting helix got him poster-man status for what to hate when it comes to the DeLillo-esque underworld croonings in and outside the United States. Sad that this sort of spectacle is more fun for flyover viewing when it happens to black men. Interesting that animal-fighting occurs all over the world and throughout history so why would it not be happening in and around Georgia, USA? Turn on Discovery channel right now and you might see a lion mauling a helpless zebra. Freedom is only upright when there is an honest, unmitigated sanctuary for a creature to exist in.

This is the attempt (among other upstarts) that Carey Salerno’s new book, Shelter makes, poem after poem interjecting and impelling the thrusts and denials of animal cruelty. The cover would entice any embittered dog owner and, whew!, if your dog just died yesterday, skip the cover altogether—two coon hound puppies pawing and staring through a fence, up-close. From the first poem, “Fledgling,” Salerno exercises a first-rate couplet form which takes on a breath-pattern of panting, of steam, as here:

We turn from the purple carrier,
backs to the mother, guttural moan. (3)
Or, similarly in “Entre Chien Et Loup” (“Between The Dog and The Wolf”) when the poet’s “I” starts to see the concept of a day for errand-use or killing:

I will spend it drifting, watch others pretend on TV.
Pretend, too, my head isn’t wrapped in this heavy

coat, shelter, churning wind in its backyard.
I press my face against cold fence and scream. (17)
But, by as early as page 14, the brain is crammed to the brim with vividly-fierce halogen and steel gurneys, surgical tables and domesticated lungs still pulsating on the floor. If a reader can make it the distance, his or her sensibility and heartfelt responsiveness will need a vacation, a gulf coast far from any poem because Salerno’s poems are not subtle (the poem on page 3 is called “Instead of a Shotgun”) as they work their way into your gums like a bad nicotine overdose. Ironically, I found myself at my desk, smashing a gnat with her book. Bizarrely peculiar.

When I interviewed Salerno, she seemed kind, generous, and unabashed about answering any question I had. She, in fact, did work at animal shelters, so the “work” shakes its own first-hand:

“I worked at a kill shelter in my late teenage years, and I'm not sure exactly how many animals I've seen to the ‘other side’ . . . and I think the war and my feelings about war prompted me to revisit the experiences I had within the shelter. Writing was cathartic for me in a lot of ways, but I also wanted to shed light on aspects of society/humanity that are rarely recognized, confronted, or discussed.”
What becomes echoingly apparent is that contemporary, young poets are heading north toward Conceptville, the city with a huge populace that refuses to pay their taxes, as well as, shuns the idea of a book of poetry, a book that does not build itself around a specific theme, place or character. The concept has taken over. I’m one of them so I’m not exercising my PlayerhatingDegree here; but I do, personally, wonder when books of poetry will come back around to being just that—a collection of individual poems that are separate, free and existentially-ambitious individuals yet come together to attempt public, in the end.

Salerno’s poems, unfortunately, cannot do that. Without the concept of animal cruelty swirling like an Alaskan mosquito swarm, these are too oblong, parables and allegories that don’t hold hands but are attached at the hip. It’s an onslaught, too much, overdone. Salerno should definitely sell the book to PETA and make more money than she’d ever dreamed possible in this magnified microcosm called Poetry. Something done exactly to a T here, though, is the magnanimous effort to remain gritty and realistically-captivating. Poets have to show the looking-glass its own guts, even if it is a Hanoi amount of euthanized Weimeranners choking on their own blood.

Readers of symbolism will be pleased at what alternate chemicals the concept has in its breath—layers of CIA extradition, Kevorkian psychological tactics, abortion, even Texas death row chambers. Who knows? Maybe even Rwanda, the US government’s eradication of indigenous peoples, the Japanese, and of course, the Middle Passage. Not a single poem is directly about that, though—you know, human beings! And perhaps, that is the point of the signifier not being the signified, of the object (in this case, animal cruelty) not being objectified enough, not sparking enough flint.

All the poems are instigated by a talented writer, no doubt. The prevalent problem is that all the poems could be whittled down into two or three exclusive pieces, instead of a whopping forty six. To side with the humanism and satyagraha involved, I’ll end with an excerpt from the best piece in the book, “Certification,” which possesses a weird variety of Marxist Humanism, the kind that Erich Fromm tried to make centrifugal. Salerno writes, “She’s saying over and over I feel foolish [. . .] careful with the needle,//not too deep. The drugged cat’s ears/press the skull. She cannot miss its vein, focusing//on the twenty five cent raise. Wasn’t that enough”

Ken L. Walker still has a Kentucky driver's license while being an MFA candidate at Brooklyn College. He facilitates a poetry workshop at the Riker's Island Correctional Facility and is the Features editor for ColdFront. Previous publishing can be found in Lumberyard and Crab Orchard Review as well as in a collection and chapbook from the now defunct Shekhem Publishing.

Boxcar Poetry Review - ISSN 1931-1761