Book Review

Recently, I attended a wedding in the Catholic church on the campus where I went to college. During the ceremony, I remembered how my mother once offered to buy me season football tickets if I agreed to go to mass on Sundays. I didn’t bite, having fallen out with the church in high school after much anguish about my sexuality. But now, as the organ music swelled, I couldn’t help but feel moved. The church’s rituals, with their sense of agelessness, have always appealed to me. In the moment, I reminded myself of the church’s many harms and reached for my substitutes—nature foremost among them—but I can’t deny that I still crave, and sometimes miss, that particular flavor of awe.

Not a week later, I was intrigued to tread similar subject matter, and feeling, in a new collection of poems that grapples with the intersection of nature and religion. C. T. Salazar’s debut collection, Headless John the Baptist Hitchhiking, reaches past the cliché of finding God in nature to look for religion in the natural world; and in it, he finds flashes of religious iconography and ritual abundant, if sometimes ambiguous in their implications. Earnestly searching his surroundings for keys and clues, Salazar makes a case for religion’s necessity as a bridge for his speaker to better understand his world, even as religion, to this speaker, is necessarily inadequate and plagued by complications.

Indeed, the book’s first poem, “Sonnet for the Barbed Wire Wrapped around This Book,” holds much of the complexity of emotion that runs through the collection. The barbed wire here strongly evokes religion. The poem begins: “You were the first to show me what my blood / looked like + praise be the first to say no / to my soft body . . . .” And later in that same stanza, “I saw you barbed on Christ’s bleeding head / + knew heaven speckled us like cattle . . . .” It’s the final lines that convince me of the speaker’s willingness to accept the pain of this religion for its satisfactions, “maybe I wanted the world to wrap / around me regardless of what that meant / + on my arms these torn constellations / made me heaven + my chest of bright stars.”

A catalogue of recurring images binds the poems, bringing a feeling of order to the collection and reflecting its subjects. Bridges are one of these images, as are bones, windows, wounds, fish (especially blue fish), barns, and, of course, heads. These images play off of one another: sometimes a barn is a body, sometimes a fish, a mouth, or a head with crows for brains and horses for a soul. But most conspicuous among the images are the stars, which appear in nearly every poem, often as constellations and sometimes slantingly, winkingly as diamonds. Sometimes they are close, making the universe feel small; sometimes they are distant, making human dramas appear miniscule. Salazar is deft, deploying his stars in ways that suit many different lyrics and accumulate to complicate their every appearance.

The heavens also blend with heaven in a way that invokes the biblical. And further, as barns bleed into fish, the heavens swirl with windows and webs, becoming thresholds and portals. One of my favorite poems, “Mostly I’d Like to Be a Spiderweb,” begins “because in the rain I’d look like a cracked window / without a church to belong to. You could look / through me and see the world in front of us.” The speaker seems to say: Wouldn’t it be nice if we could engage with the world just as it is? But, alas, we must continue to make meaning as we have for centuries, through religion and through nature and all of the many webs and spiders that cling to them. Ultimately, perhaps, we see ourselves best when we can allow for this complexity and not suppress the bridges that make it comprehendible.

Across the collection, Salazar is less preoccupied with the idea of creation and more absorbed with what already is—and what in creation makes sense, or doesn’t. This perspective reinforces the themes of religion in his book; religion after all is concerned with creation in its most static sense—an immutable story, to be replicated only in procreation, by extension, not imagination. Salazar examines many extensions of this creation, and his explorations are most convincing and absorbing when probing the natural world.

When the speaker departs the natural world to invoke characters from the Bible or the church more literally, the poems lose some of their focus and richness. This includes the poem from which the title is drawn, “Self-Portrait as Headless John the Baptist Hitchhiking,” which asserts “God makes more sense this way.” “This way” is headless and pouring blood: “The less of me, the less of sin.” Here, religion becomes a relationship between the speaker and the person who picked him up on the side of the road—a new creation. But somehow, I don’t buy it. The poem feels more excited about the way the speaker is pro- and re-created in ways that more closely imitate nature, albeit from a new perspective: beetles become a constellation and a berry bush becomes a person. By the end of the poem, John the Baptist has fallen away to the point that I wonder why he was introduced in the first place.

And yet, headless John the Baptist provides a figure for the potential reclamation of religion that Salazar investigates throughout. In “Triptych Just Before Mass,” a child puts a stained-glass window that he broke back together on the floor. In the reassembled window we see the speaker’s desire to reclaim the beauty of religion and return it to its origins. Across the collection, Salazar wrestles with what religions, and especially Roman Catholicism (or at least Christianity, lest I’m projecting), have had to say about sexuality and queerness. However, I don’t sense my familiar anguish in this speaker’s meditations. Instead, there is a sense of peace with the clash of religion and desire—the ways in which nature is also at odds with what it sometimes desires and ultimately gets. And the way censure can be a backhanded sort of affirmation. John the Baptist, beheaded and bleeding, is perhaps the only way the speaker can see himself represented in Christian text, but he is represented, nevertheless.

About the Reviewer

Krysia Wazny McClain is a poet, writer, and freelance copyeditor from Somerville, Massachusetts. She is a recent graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars and her poetry has appeared online in Porridge Magazine and the Massachusetts Poetry Festival’s Ekphrastic Gallery. She spends her free time organizing for prison abolition and dancing around her kitchen.