The janitor asked me how
to pronounce the creature’s name
& I said salamander for him.
He looked at it on the screen
and I looked at him.
Slide your legs into its tail I said.
I can’t he said as he did.
Dish your guts there into its cavity
of guts, I can’t he said (manifestly untrue
for he did so). Mash the thing’s
name and yours I said together into
that irreversible hole I know you keep
And he did & it broke over his face
& flowed, water from the earth,
I can’t, I can’t, he said.
-- Jon Woodward
I admire Salamander’s economy of language and action, and the strategy of its development. So much happens, so surprisingly, in such a small space.
The title, the name of a garden-variety creature, sets me within a frame of natural reference; and the poem opens with a seemingly ordinary encounter. A janitor asks a question of the speaker: “how to pronounce the creature’s name.” So right away there’s a dialog between the janitor and the speaker, but also, between the salamander as a living, bodily creature, and its “name.” And then it turns out it’s not a living creature – it’s a picture on a screen. From there the poem rapidly morphs into a surreal fable, fraught with surprise and violence.
The speaker knows something odd and terrifying about the janitor that the janitor himself doesn’t know –- “that irreversible hole I know you keep.” One reason the poem is so frightening is that we are in the janitor’s position, not the speaker’s. There’s an unusual reversal in the poem’s use of first and third person. We would normally identify with a speaking “I” rather than with a more distanced “he” – but here we identify not with the coolly sinister speaker, but with the hapless janitor commanded to undertake a literally gut-wrenching action. The speaker orders the janitor to slide his legs into the creature’s tail, and “dish” his guts “there into its cavity // of guts” – a violence I feel in my own guts. The speaker controls the narration, and also controls the janitor.
Throughout the poem there’s tension – a ind of slipperiness – between animal creatureliness (including the janitor’s) and its opposite, the realm of signs: not an actual salamander, but its digital image; not the creature, but its name. But neither nominalism nor virtual reality protects the janitor, who is violently merged with the salamander in a frighteningly physical way. “Mash the thing’s / name and yours I said together”. The impossible mashing occurs (“he did”), and it is not nominal but physical (“it broke over his face // and flowed, water from the earth”). The poem ends with the unlucky janitor’s cries of protest -- his refusal to believe he can do what he is ordered to do and does do: “I can’t, I can’t.”
I’ve pointed to a few poetic strategies. But in the end, I feel the poem’s power remains mysterious – a little out of reach of any words but its own.
-- Patricia Carlin