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Review of Christopher Salerno's The Man Grave

Updated: Apr 5, 2022

By jim bourey

Persea Books

By Christopher Salerno

A few years ago, I attended a workshop run by Christopher Salerno. At one point he said (and I’m paraphrasing a bit here) that a successful poem should hit the reader in the mind, the heart, and the gut. The forty-five poems in this fine volume are all mightily successful. Some throw stronger punches to the heart, or the gut, than others. And some ask the reader to do a little bit of mental work to achieve that mind smack. But the sheer beauty of the language, the personal epiphanies that translate to universal realizations, and the masterful craftwork make this collection eminently readable and a natural choice for reading again and again.

The Man Grave is divided into three sections – We Always Were the Dying Type, Deathbed Sext, and The Heart is Wet, You are Only Sick. This collection is about family connections and breaking free of some of them. It is also about manliness and how damaging some of the concepts of masculinity can be, fostering violence and cruelty and lack of understanding. And this collection is also about dealing with medical challenges; some life-threatening and some life fulfilling. There are three poems titled IVF, each dealing with aspects of the difficulties and remedies involved in conceiving a child with a specialist’s help:

……………...I’m here to account for

those wobbly or frail sperm that veer

like the shopping cart with a shitty wheel

These lines sit guiltily right in the middle of what could have been a long joke of a poem. But the narrator’s voice seems to drop on the page into a tone of many mixed and conflicting emotions, creating layer upon layer of pathos without a hint of wasted sentimentalism, until the reader is completely engaged in what is, ultimately, a very personal and private story. Each one of these three poems has the same qualities.

This collection digs into false masculinity; how it is formed from one generation to the next, how it is revealed to one’s self-awareness, how it can become a burden, and finally, how it can be shed. Each poem confronts an issue or emotion. Each personal revelation adds a bit of knowledge that helps us understand the failed perceptions of manhood. In Beta Male Notebook a simple couplet forms a question that metaphorically illustrates a large part of this book’s search:

Question: brother, was that you weeping in your shed this morning

or were you overcome by varnish fumes?

And then, the final line of this poem:

Has the past been talking to you? Show me where you’re buried.

This collection builds a case against old concepts. But it does more. There is humor here, and anger, and disappointment, and regret, and real love. And even more than all this, there is an example of a deep understanding and flawless execution of the craft of modern poetry. The surprises in line breaks are a joy. The changes in individual lines are also surprising in a more subtle way, as in these few from the opening poem Headfirst:

…… I hadn’t yet found out

about the body or velocity

or what a wound is, and how some bruises

flower, spread like steam on the mirror

blurring all beauty. My mother

says the ‘80s were terribly rapey.

This is a book that should (could) be used in school courses from creative writing to psychology to modern ethics to family living. It is wonderfully poetic and very, very interesting. It is also deeply moving. It will sit proudly on my shelf of frequently-read books.

jim bourey is a poet from the northern edge of the Adirondack Mountains, formerly from Delaware. His chapbook, Silence, Interrupted, was published by The Broadkill River Press in 2015, and his collection The Distance Between Us was published by Cold River Press in August 2020. A collaborative collection with Linda Blaskey is forthcoming from Pond Road Press. His work has also appeared in Gargoyle, Broadkill Review, Mojave River Review, Rye Whiskey Review, and other journals and anthologies. He is a contributing editor for The Broadkill Review.

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