salt. by Nayyirah Waheed

saltSelf-published in September of 2013, Nayyirah Waheed’s salt. has become one of the most important and influential poetry collections in recent memory.  A quick glance at any poetry best-seller list reveals a legion of admirers and imitators, ranging from Rupi Kaur’s sublime Milk and Honey to crass cash-ins like The Princess Saves Herself in This One by Amanda Lovelace.

Waheed’s poetry deals with themes like exile, racism, love, sexuality, womanhood and radical struggle.  She writes in a deceptively accessible voice which actually causes the reader to slow down and savor the “salt” dissolved in each poem.  Many of the poems are quite brief, like teaspoons of tears, sweat, or seawater, each as complete and unique as a fingerprint.

Formalistically, Waheed works to subvert and upend traditional poetry hierarchies by casting each piece in a uniform lowercase free of the coercion of punctuation marks, placing her titles at the end of the poems to neutralize the privilege and the guidance they invisibly provide when they traditionally  “head” a piece of writing.  Page after page, the reader encounters the body of the words before the titles which seek to frame and situate them, thereby reducing the title’s naming power to a retroactive re-reading that makes it always come too late to contain the text it is meant to master.  This is more than just an aesthetic strategy, as one of Waheed’s key concerns is challenging toxic, patriarchal writing practices which minimize emotional and embodied experience in favor of an invented and disengaged transcendence; here, the thought-bubble of the head rises to the surface only after the body has plumbed the depths.

Anyone interested in understanding the current popularity of contemporary poetry is advised to start here.

(Chris Fox, Central Library)

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