Book Description

In the foreword to her book-length poem Salient, Elizabeth Gray writes, “This work began by juxtaposing two obsessions of mine that took root in the late 1960s: the Battle of Passchendaele, fought by the British Army in Flanders in late 1917, and the chöd ritual, the core ‘severance’ practice of a lineage founded by Machik Lapdrön, the great twelfth-century female Tibetan Buddhist saint.” Over the course of several decades, Gray tracked the contours and traces of the Ypres Salient, walking the haunted battlefield ground of the contemporary landscape with campaign maps in hand, reading “not only history, poetry, and fiction, but also unit diaries; contemporary reports and individual accounts; survey information and maps of all kinds; treatises on aerial photography and artillery tactics; and manuals on field engineering and tactical planning.” Out of this material, through a process of collage, convergence, and ritual chöd visualization, Gray has composed a spare, fascinating, lyrical engagement with the Missing, in shell hole and curved trench, by way of amulets and obstacles. What is salient rises from the secret signs in song, like a blessing, protected from harm.


Recent Reviews of Salient



“Let me begin this review by stating unequivocally that Elizabeth Gray's Salient is a masterpiece, by which I simply mean that it is a work of the utmost poetic accomplishment. Deeply rooted in modernism, especially in terms of technique, it is also one of the most original books of poetry I have encountered in quite some time. Perhaps above all, it is a work of the uncanny, a concept we associate more frequently with prose fiction or film rather than poetry....”
Read the complete review here.

Norman Finkelstein
Poetry In Review



"An extraordinary book-length poem by Elizabeth T. Gray, Jr. that among other things finds deep poetic power in military documents from one of the supremely horrific battles of World War I." Read the complete review here.

Geoffrey O'Brien
Book/Shop



"Salient is a single-minded foray to find out where the hell you are, in the midst of a battle you can never fully see...Gray’s accomplishment is extraordinary. A vision floats up from the muck, a promise that can only ever be disclosed once we accept that all of life is a preparation for our own personal battlefield oblivion, our own interior Ypres....Salient finds the sacred, finds it and returns with it, from just past the outermost bounds of the known."
Read the complete review here.

Joseph Donahue
Hyperallergic



"Calling Salient 'a book of poetry' fails miserably to convey its emotional depth and punch. Adding the descriptor 'original' is essential, but still needs the addition of adverbs like uniquely, wonderfully, amazingly...but then I could be accused of gushing....'An exploration of a battlefield' comes closer, but neglects to express just how delightfully the author is able to explore and document the fields of Ypres: through maps, military accounts, relics, sightings, feelings...of spirits, the dead, the missing. So what about 'an epic'? Now we're getting somewhere. There's certainly something Homeric in Salient. A modern-day Iliad perhaps."
Read the complete review here.

Denzil Walton
Discovering Belgium



"By now, most of the poetry world has been alerted to and electrified by Salient...but this review is not for them. Rather, I speak here to my fellow general readers, in order to offer them sincere reassurance: you don't need to be any scholar of poetry, you don't even need to be particularly literarily-minded, to become immediately absorbed in and affected by Salient. It is a triumph accessible to, and intended for, any and all readers of poetry and literature, as well as of history, and military history. It simply works on every level...Salient is more than a 'monumental' or 'brilliant' achievement, then, though it is certainly all that. But it is also a doorway into a complex maze of horror, intimacy, the all-too real and the visionary; a maze that may seem forbidding, even terrifying, but that the reader is guided through, unalone, by a generous and accomplished hand. It is, in short, something wholly unique."
Read the complete review here.

Caleb Carr
WLA (Editor's Choice)



"The book attempts to pay a debt of a history, and yet those who must be paid are all dead. According to Buddhist texts, however, there are ways to reach them, to reach toward them, to find the lost ones. The book is an act of generosity. It is a hermetic book, but it is open. It provides guidance. I found in Salient something of a Whitman-like spirit. The poem will not let you go under. You may have to hold on with all your strength, but it is important that you make it across. The souls of so many dead in the lost terrain depend on your journey; and you, too, after all, are a soul in need."
Read the complete review here.

Jim Berger
The Harvard Review



"It doesn't sound possible: she's writing an epic about Ypres, the most savage battle of modern Western history, yet it's influenced by Tibetan mysticism? Exactly right; and Elizabeth Gray succeeds beyond all belief, beyond all expectations. At once harrowing, intimate, full of discovery and of loss, it's really almost as impossible to describe as the Odyssey, and just as brilliant. 'Guy goes home after a war, has a lot of adventures getting there.' Is that the Odyssey?"
Read the complete review here.

Amazon Review



"If Salient were fiction, I’d compare it to Sebald or the early experimental work of Ondaatje. Like them, Gray considers rather than presents history. Like their work, her consideration does not lead to a re-presentation of history but, like the chöd ritual, to a dismemberment of the self. In poetry, Charles Olson comes to mind. Gray’s individualistic approach to history is what allows her lyric voice to disappear through poetic ritual."
Read the complete review here.

Devin King
RHINO



"A remarkable work of poetry. Everything invoked is crystal-clear while yet retaining its crystal mystery. There is a magical accession to the delineation of links and relationships developing in the poem, even the physical connections (real or imaginary) when moving from soldier to soldier, woman to soldier, poet to soldier, woman/poet to lover."

Nathaniel Tarn, Poet
Author of Gondwana and The Ins and Outs of the Forest Rivers



"A labor of love applying extraordinary vision to documents of war, Liz Gray's SALIENT sharpens the details of the record, even while broadening the record's range.

Taking as her occasion the battle of Ypres in World War I (and, in a signature move, introducing elements of Tantric figuration into the textual design), Gray interweaves analytic and lyric threads -- microcosm with macrocosm, explication with implication, scholarship with song.

The patterns cross conventional lines -- time lines, gender lines, genre lines, lines of authority. Earth in the body, language in the jaw-hinge, spirit in the air -- they all occasion insight…. But Gray concludes this striking work by praying that the goddesses will do what humans never could: Just stay."

Heather McHugh, Poet
Author of Muddy Matterhorn, Upgraded to Serious, and Eyeshot



"Taking as its title a term that describes both critical insight and a devastating battle of World War I, Salient is a work of lyric investigation and recovery. Elizabeth Gray mines field manuals, trench maps, soldiers’ diaries, and officers’ reports—seeking a language that can confront the horrors of modern warfare. Addressing a guiding query—“how could one imagine this?”—Gray marries painfully precise historical accounts of the Western Front with the language and practice of Eastern protective magic. In so doing, the poet finds the “portions of this evidence which are obviously song."

Nancy Kuhl
Curator of Poetry, Yale Collection of American Literature
The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University



"With a fierce and elegant intelligence, Elizabeth T. Gray Jr. has made herself present within the most spectacularly deadly landscape in modernity, the Ypres Salient, and has found, in that place of epic annihilation, that divinities are there, and that courage is possible, and that there is a way for us all to pass through oblivion, and live. Radiant in its chill particulars, this extraordinary book-length poem is in life, of life, but also beyond life, by turns terrifying and ecstatic in the transfigurations it reports."

Joseph Donahue
Professor of the Practice, Department of English
Duke University



Discussion of Salient in context of an interview with Reginald Gibbons at TriQuarterly Online, see Events and Interviews page here.



Discussion of “The Obstacle,” a poem from Salient can be found here (via Poetrysociety.org).