The Taste of Gideon Burton’s “Salt and Blood”

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Anthology Poet Highlight 37/82: Gideon Burton, “Salt and Blood

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(My reading of “Salt and Blood”)

I like the taste of “Salt and Blood.” No, I don’t live in a coven or avoid sunlight and, although I do like potato chips, NaCl isn’t really my thing. Nonetheless, Gideon’s “Salt and Blood” makes my lyric tastebuds tingle. Hence the audio, in which I sample the sonnet’s Hopkins-spiced palette in my own tongue. Hear the lines densely-packed with sounds that spring off the tongue, as here, “that burning morning bursting hot-white call / of crimson dazzling awe,” and here, “yet He lets that peace in pieces shatter, / and what had glowed a grace-fierce fire, sputter.” Let the open vowels in the first four lines especially crack the jaw and the palate open: the “aw” of each -all word and their “hot” counterpart, the long a’s in “grey drape,” the short “a” of “dampen” and “dazzling,” the straggling, not quite assonant o’s in “morning” and “world.” Savor the alliterative interplay between the l’s, m’s, d’s, b’s, h’s, t’s, c’s, w’s, and the sibilance of the s’s.

All of this sound and tongue work in the octet creates a bit of friction that immediately gets cooled by the sestet’s opening line, which slows the poem’s speed to a more meditative pace: “Cold desert, colder night, stark sky a stone.” The phonetic combo “ol” (which also comes in line eight) further opens the palate and sets the meditative tone and pace of the sestet because the “l” seems to extend the “o,” a lengthening that carries over into “stone.” As I read it, the cumulative effect of these sounds and this move to a more meditative posture creates “[a] thirst inside a hunger,” a desire to be filled and healed that can only be satisfied as we slow down the speed of modern living, which sometimes get translated into breakneck prayers, into prayers on-the-go.

Now, mobile prayer is well and good and encouraged in scripture as the directive to “pray always.” But we really shouldn’t let it make up our entire repertoire of communication with God. We still need to “fall,” in each sense of that term: we needed to fall from God’s presence, as did Adam and Eve, in order to struggle “alone” in the lone and dreary world in order to develop our agency and independence and to be reminded that, ultimately, the communion of grace is our only means of returning “home.” And we need to fall before God, to slow down and approach Him, to worship Him, with real desire. The closing lines of “Salt and Blood” enact and encourage such slowing down with the repeated preposition in the list, which makes the mouth—and hopefully the mind—linger a bit longer on each item: “to shake, to scrape, to kneel and stutter-speak; / to taste the salt and blood of Him I seek.”

This final line not only points up our physical, mental, and spiritual experience of Christ’s sacrifice, wherein He sweat great drops of blood as He absorbed the effects of the Fall and in process extended His grace on condition of repentance. It also points up the rhetorical effects of Gideon’s poem, which speaks to the cycle of redemption even as it encourages readers’ participation in that cycle through its textual acts. “Salt and Blood,” then, becomes something of a redemptive act, a lyric offering of grace.

And its palette tastes oh so good.

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