“and if we weren’t here who/ would talk about heaven”
Having a title that conjures disquieting and curious imagery, C.T. Salazar’s debut full-length collection of poems, Headless John the Baptist Hitchhiking, sparks interest in a reader before the book is even opened. To say that these poems are gorgeous is both an understatement and a simplification of what is contained within the pages. In Salazar’s book, the reader is transported into a world encompassed with juxtaposition – harsh violence and decay against the hope of redemption and a hint of dream-like beauty.
Salazar’s collection opens with “Sonnet for the Barbed Wire Wrapped Around This Book,” a poem that references blood of both the narrator and Christ:
you tight metal fist + glory your afterkiss
I saw you barbed on Christ’s bleeding head
+ knew heaven speckled us like cattle
like I could be a wound cruxing a field
Through the use of the ‘+’ symbol to unite phrases and words, the idea of the Christian cross and all the connotations it carries is summoned throughout this poem. In this way, the first poem sets an elevated and urgent tone for the rest of the poems.
As I moved through Headless John the Baptist Hitchhiking, I was struck by the way the poems return to rivers. The historic John the Baptist was known for baptizing followers in a river, yet when Salazar first introduces the reader to a river in the poem, “All the Bones at the Bottom of the Rio Grande,” the river is not a place that elicits blessings, but rather, a place of failed refuge for those who have died on the quest for a new life:
“All the bones at the bottom of the Rio Grande have finally found
a place willing to make room for them, and all the bones
at the bottom of the Rio Grande will reverse this river when
their children call.”
With these final lines, the narrator reclaims power for the dead, and points towards hope. Salazar echoes the idea of empowerment through ancestors in “Saint Toribio Romo of Guadalajara Finally Stopped Praying”
don’t let the catacombs frighten you any relic left behind is a miracle
the skull seems sinister but that could be your father
“Saint Toribio” and many of Salazar’s poems experiment with form. The use of space sometimes reminded me of the abstract space heaven occupies in the Christian mind. Salazar seems to find a flow when using the focusing power of couplets as a form for their movement in poems like “It’s Easy to Become King of a Place No One Wants to Live In,” and the loose couplets of “Self-Portrait as Headless John the Baptist Hitchhiking,” the titular poem. The poem begins:
God makes more sense this way
When blood flows from the neck, the body
looks like an uncorked bottle
but maybe this leaves more room for salvation.
It is easy to see why Salazar named the collection after this poem. The idea of losing blood to be filled with salvation, to make sacrifices, to hitchhike trying to find a way home – these speak to overarching themes throughout.
“Ode,” another couplet-driven poem, reveals an image repeated almost as often as rivers and blood – barns. The poem is actually an ode to barns, in which Salazar compares a decaying barn to the human body:
…For every inch
you sink in the earth, for every nail and horseshoe
turned artifact, there is in me iron, tin, and everything
else that both resists and promises the same gentle collapse.
The narrator speaks directly to the barn and promises “the same” collapse. In Salazar’s hands, barns become a meditation on survival, a contemplation on how the present is built on the past, how all things will eventually become ruins. I now have a new appreciation for barns thanks to Salazar’s apparent fondness for the structures.
What is also apparent throughout this book is Salazar’s love of musicality in poetry. A poem which demonstrates this particularly well, “Palinode, or Lullaby with Light and Dark,” begins playfully:
and the way
This has some sound play that begs to be read aloud. The light parts of this poem hint at the way Salazar ends his collection.
The poems in this book reclaim the dead, question the power of faith, and reveal the decay and bones which are strewn throughout the land. By the time I made it to the last poem, “Poem with Three Names of God + A Promise to Myself,” I was surprised at the hopefulness encompassed in the narrator’s promise that:
One day, strangers will drink from each other’s
cupped hands. We won’t call this a miracle.
The idea of being close to strangers and sharing such kindness as a drink from cupped hands – these images were quite powerful to consider, especially after emerging (I hope), from a two-year pandemic. These lines evoked unexpected emotions for me. At the end of this collection, water is not the river collecting bones but is held in hands and becomes something that heals and unites. Salazar further cements hope when he ends this last poem with the word “bridge,” showing that there is a way to avoid the violence of the metaphorical river, altogether.
Life is often cruel, and in Headless John the Baptist Hitchhiking, Salazar doesn’t back away from this, but he gives us small glimpses of the ways life is also gentle. In this stunning debut, Salazar asks us to consider whether salvation is worth the sacrifice. He explores the idea of balancing dark with light. Yes, these are gorgeous poems that are often transcendent, and yes, they are wrapped in barbed wire, but they are worth returning to again and again.
Amanda Rabaduex is a poet, writer, educator, Air Force veteran, and aspiring etymologist. She is pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Wilkes University, and she is the current poetry editor for River and South Review.