C.T. Salazar has a way of pointing out the quietest moments and rendering them holy, especially in his latest poetry collection Headless John the Baptist Hitchhiking. There is a sense that Salazar brings you inside of himself while he unravels his own practical divinity in the piece, which speaks volumes in the silence between stanzas.
The collection is filled with stories about Salazar’s life, family, and experiences growing up as a queer person of color in Mississippi. The poems are intermixed with the words of Sappho and Anne Carson and feature biblical stories as well. A line from Salazar’s poem “Traveler but I Scarcely Ever Listened” puts it best as: “It’s cold in America / & no one taught me the names of your constellations / so I named them after mi familia.” As such, the collection itself is a devotional to Salazar’s life, again shown in the poem “Ode” where he writes: “For every inch / you sink in the earth, for every nail and horseshoe // turned artifact, there is in me iron, tin, and everything / else that both resists and promises the same gentle collapse.” Poetry often speaks quietly, but this collection sings.
Headless John the Baptist Hitchhiking is a masterclass in power, both in its language and in its intimacy. Salazar achieves this closeness not only with stories, but with immense tenderness, such as in the poem “All That Dazzling Dawn Has Put Asunder: You Gather a Lamb” where he writes: “Somewhere // tonight, an abandoned mechanical bull is being coddled / by a calf–the ending of every story is about wanting // to be touched.” The language is intense, juxtaposing a young, sweet calf curled against a cold, broken machine. It’s this sentimentality that Salazar works with throughout the piece, and which elevates his images from visceral to ones that remain with you.
Another poem that truly displays the collection’s power in authenticity and closeness is “All the Bones at the Bottom of the Rio Grande” wherein the first line is: “All the Bones At the Bottom of the Rio Grande stick up like a cradle growing out of the mud.” This is followed with: “All the bones at the bottom of the Rio Grande / needed a home more than they needed a lifeboat.” Here Salazar employs a deep sense of compassion and respect, while not sugarcoating anything, which makes this poem, and indeed the whole collection, incredibly relatable.
Most of the collection focuses on family and untangling your own identity, often through the lens of religion. Salazar’s poem “Poem Ending With Abraham’s Suffering” explains this well: “Some nights, the sky is everything / it wants, and not just a wall for our fathers / to nail prayers against.” In this, he is juxtaposing the sky as clear freedom of self against the rigidity of his family’s beliefs. This is shown again in a different form in the poem “My Father in the ICU” as: “I didn’t realize I’d / be strong enough to lift his / gray body, his hair flat from / sweat, his arm outstretched / like Adam exiled from the / Sistine Chapel, Adam with a bad / gallbladder and IV dripping / morphine.” Salazar takes the aforementioned themes and merges them together with his own sense of religion, along with the experience of caring for his sick father and envisioning Adam lifted from the Sistine Chapel’s roof.
Headless John the Baptist Hitchhiking is a layered poetry collection. Personally, my favorite poem of the entire collection is “All the Bones at the Bottom of the Rio Grande” and “Mostly I’d Like to Be a Spider Web” – both are touching with bright imagery, but most of all they are entertaining. Headless John the Baptist Hitchhiking is, to me, far more of an experience than a poetry collection, and one that I never want to part with.
Headless John the Baptist Hitchhiking
By C.T. Salazar
Published February 18, 2022
Excellent write up!
HJtBH sounds like a worthy volume 🙂
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