Cassells conceptually points readers toward C.T. Salazar’s Headless John the Baptist Hitchhiking when he says, “Listen: a blazing Mississippi cross / Never presages a messiah.” Salazar writes from and about Mississippi as both a geography and a psychology, a landscape of tortured histories and interior conflicts evading reconciliation.
To do the hard work at hand, Salazar makes overt the various forms he will engage to explore the complicated place he calls home. His titles and lines highlight sonnets, portraits, triptychs, parables, love songs, poems, self-portraits, odes, palinodes, lullabies, books, prayers, and eulogies. This formal self-awareness reveals the intentionality and breadth of his search for an appropriate structure to contain his moral confrontation with the sins of the Old South. In doing so, the speaker in Salazar’s poems finds himself using “a language I was never meant // to speak, but here I am speaking it.”
As a Latinx poet, Salazar must adjust a “second tongue / I keep in my mouth,” assuredly complicating his need and desire for an authentic investigation and expression of history, home, and self. It is this relationship between the embodied human voice and the physicality of language itself that leads Salazar to frequently reflect upon parts of speech and other linguistic elements across his poems. He tracks nouns, names, words, syllables, and letters, like “[h]ow the O / in the middle of devotion looks like a gunshot,” or noticing “the awe in hacksawed.” This careful attention is part of Salazar’s reclaimed and reformed religiosity, his worship at the altar of language across the collection:
… If God speaks
it is in single syllables we board like boats
to reach our fathers Yes If God speaks
it is a single golden O like Saturn’s largest ring.
For Salazar, “heaven is a compound / word,” and one that offers salvation only at the intersection of rural “barns” and a “star-filled star- / field”—one where “…all / the barns are eating themselves like sad stars” in a field. Like Emerson, Salazar aims for a language that finds the sacred through earthly facts. He tells readers that “the last cricket of summer / declared itself the size of my faith” and that “the language of electricity was / the language of prophets.” In his titular poem, he reiterates:
I said I wanted to worship something, even if it’s just the black
beetles in your yard crawling around hurriedly
like pieces of a star trying to reassemble itself.
Perhaps not surprisingly throughout the poems in this collection, the beheaded reign: headless John the Baptist, the head of Homer, a golden bust of Joan of Arc, and the poet himself. Why? Because, as Salazar writes in “Self-Portrait as Headless John the Baptist Hitchhiking”:
God makes more sense this way.
When blood flows from the neck, the body
looks like an uncorked bottle
but maybe this leaves more room for salvation.
The salvation Salazar leaves room for is that of poetry itself, of the connection possible with language crafted as carefully as his. “[The] ending of every story is about wanting / to be touched,” he writes. Salazar’s remarkable debut, in the end, makes that wanting all the stronger.