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.
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.”
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.
Professor of the Practice, Department of English