Salamander 2024 Fiction Contest

SUBMIT: May 1 through June 2, 2024 | READING FEE: $15


Geographies: Cold Storage by Keith Althaus (Off the Grid Press, 2016); Spill by Kelle Groom (Anhinga Press, 2017)

Valerie Duff-Strautmann
| Reviews

In their new books, Cold Storage and Spill, poets Keith Althaus and Kelle Groom, who both happen to hail from Cape Cod, are not isolated by its geographies—instead, each holds a dialogue with and pushes out from them. There are places mentioned in these books that will feel familiar to residents of New England: Provincetown, Gloucester, the Atlantic, and the craggy northeastern coastline. Both collections reveal the transformative power of ordinary life in a not-so-ordinary location.  

Groom’s poetry steeps itself in sensation and conjures communication of many kinds: speaking in tongues, conversations with psychics, overhearing a snippet of dialogue that takes on deeper meaning. In her considerations of what she overhears, as in a poem like “Hour,” the region plays its part:

        Ow wah the black haired man behind the case of meat
        said, laughed, face in profile. A sentence I can’t remember.
        In his dark cap, nose rounding, dark round laugh,
        I saw my uncle Dean who died a few towns up the Cape
        last spring. Wept wide empty aisles of things on sale,
        past natural foods, quietly mouthing Ow wah, Ow wah,
        with Dean’s intonation, hard on the Ow. I want to go back to
        the meat counter man, Say something else.

Groom’s poetry ventures far afield from Massachusetts and the islands, but occasionally rotates back to the draw of areas like Provincetown, as in the poem “Helltown”:

        in summer, tourists ask about the long
        low shape on the horizon
        like a sleeping headless body
        could it be stellwagen bank out there
        where the whales go? no liz said laughing
        it’s the great island of Plymouth, really
        just the arm of the cape rounding
        across from us here at its fingertip
        helltown is the old name
        for the dunes and pools where I walk,
        a settlement named for the helling that went on there
        november now, dunes still green
        tide line a path of stones
        to walk instead of sinking sand

The marriage between character and place drives these poems. But for all her specificity of location, the unnamable also comes into play, along with the personal mysteries she circles in the writing: the death of a child, the lineage of one’s ancestors, the uncertainties and luminosities of one’s own life.

Poems are ways to put words on what cannot be spoken, and Groom’s poems are a testament to that process. In “The Lost Museum,” she reflects, “If someone must saw open/my chest I want all this light to be what spills out.”  Often the unspoken is inextricably connected to place, as in “This Furnace Inside”:

        where is riga another teacher would ask
        as if locating latvia would be helpful
        when someone says ma it brings
        me to tears by some means of transport
        and I can’t make sense of this furnace
        inside how long I’m going to keep burning

Groom finds poetry in the mundane, in minutiae. In “Message on a Coffee Cup,” she explains: “In the spiky leaves someone left a coffee cup/upside down, a hat for the grass that said,/I am not dead in black magic marker, weathering,//like ahem, like you are not paying attention.” In her poetry, objects, acquaintances, and the earth itself accumulate into a singular voice.


Valerie Duff-Strautmann is the poetry editor of Salamander. Her poems have appeared recently in Poetry, The Common, and Cortland Review.

The View from the Necropolis
Here as I Am: The Aeneid   by Virgil, translated by David Ferry (University of Chicago Press, 2017).