By Paromita Sengupta
Title: Salt and Sorrow
Author: Dustin Pickering
Publisher: Chitrangi, 2016
Paperback: 36 pages
Dustin Pickering’s Salt and Sorrow is a deceptively “thin” book of poems. The depth of meaning contained in this book belies its physical boundaries. Taking up basic questions that have perhaps at some point troubled every thinking human being, Dustin’s poems traverse through the landscape of love, hope, truth, beauty, anger, disillusionment, patience, and suffering. Dustin, who juggles roles as a poet, publisher, and artist in a variety of genres, is known to have explored themes such as aesthetics, mysticism, philosophy, German Idealism, modernism, science, psychology, and abstract art in his poetry. Salt and Sorrow is no exception: the poems in this collection not just explore but scourge human consciousness. As Dustin states in his foreword, the poems were written with the idea of “bringing out the God of the Bible” – a challenging task he admits, but nevertheless takes up the challenge head on and the result is a group of poems that seeks God by way of reason and innate moral intuition. Informed by Christ’s humanist ethics, these poems portray Jesus as the incarnate fusing of humanity with the divine – humanity in the image of God. Dustin’s first full length book, The Daunting Ephemeral, attempts to capture spiritual language and put it in a humanistic light. His second book, The Future of Poetry is NOW: Bones Picking at Death’s Howl, by his own admission, comprises of poems that are “a revolt against fate, and a cry of anguish.” Salt and Sorrow takes forward the exploration of spiritual concerns.
Salt and Sorrow, like the other books of Dustin, is refreshing because it is, in some sense, old-school. Old school in the sense that it goes back to tackle fundamental questions about life and living, love and longing, truth and god. It negotiates “universal” questions in an age where literature has largely come to be a medium of protest, while aesthetic concerns are often relegated to the back seat.
In an interview with Adam Levon Brown, when asked why he writes, Dustin replied,
I am compelled by despair, conflict, injustice, and the sensation of pleasure and relief writing gives me. Something deep within me holds a truth that is inexplicable and impossible to define, so I try to find the words in my poems.
In the same interview he also said: “I note that I am a humanist—not necessarily an atheist, but a sincere admirer of the works of culture and science, and am empathetic seeker of wisdom.” The various poems in Salt and Sorrow take up Lucifer, the Holy Spirit, Sarah, Joseph, Adam, Jesus, and the Garden of Eden and see them in a new light. In the poem, “Hungering for the Solace”, Dustin refers to his favorite poet Milton’s magnum opus Paradise Lost: “Paradise, though lost, will one day be found.” While some poems ask questions, some others seem to provide answers. For instance, the question he asks in “I ask in Grief”: “I ask in grief, how I should live”, is answered in another poem “Garden of Triumph”:
What the tempter did not know/ is that being shunned from the Garden / worked out best for us./ Our suffering made us obedient finally,/ and we held hands as worship. (32)
The last two lines quoted above are of direct relevance to the title of the book “Salt and Sorrow”. True sorrow or suffering is that which changes us, reforms us. 2 Corinthians 7:10 says: “For the kind of sorrow God wants us to experience leads us away from sin and results in salvation. There’s no regret for that kind of sorrow. But worldly sorrow, which lacks repentance, results in spiritual death.” Repentance is more than just being sorry. The Bible has many instances of people who were sorry, but they weren’t repentant. For example, a hardened Pharaoh admitted his sin. In Exodus we read, “Pharaoh quickly summoned Moses and Aaron. ‘This time I have sinned,’ he confessed. ‘The Lord is the righteous one, and my people and I are wrong’” (9:27). Yet, in spite of such a confession, the Pharaoh goes on to consciously sin against God and His people.
Again, in 1 Samuel 15:24, an insincere king Saul is seen to admit his sin, “I have sinned. I have disobeyed your instructions and the Lord’s command.” Again, the rich young ruler who came to Jesus to ask how to have eternal life, after getting an answer from Jesus, goes away sorrowful but not repentant. These people were experiencing what the apostle Paul called “worldly sorrow, which lacks repentance, [and] results in spiritual death”.
But Dustin’s book is not just about ‘Sorrow’, it is as much about ‘Salt’. It would be pertinent to recall the significance of salt in Christianity. Salt was of great value in the ancient world. Roman soldiers received their wages in salt, the Greeks considered salt to be divine. The Mosaic Law required that all offerings presented by the Israelites contain salt (Leviathan 2:13). Matthew 5:13 records, that when Jesus told his disciples that they were “the salt of the earth”, they understood the metaphor. While it is true that today the universal importance of salt is not as readily apparent, the mandate that Jesus gave to his first disciples is still relevant and applicable to His followers today.
Theologians have interpreted the meaning of “salt” in Matthew 5:13 variously: while some have said salt represents the purity of the justified believer, others say that the flavoring properties of salt imply that Christians are supposed to add divine flavor to the world. Some have interpreted that Christians need to sting the world with rebuke and judgment in the very same way salt acts on an open wound and thus cures it. There is also the view that, as salt, Christians are to create a thirst for Christ. Some theologians have drawn attention to the preservative nature of Salt: this group suggests that Jesus meant that disciples were to serve as preservatives, stopping the moral decay of the sin infected world. The salt analogy will be better understood if we look at the second half of Matthew 5:13 which states: “But if salt loses its taste, how would its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trodden underfoot by men.” This seems to suggest that Jesus did not say that we can lose our salvation; He only said that we can lose our saltiness. This perhaps means that by allowing disobedience, carelessness and indifference to rule our lives, we have become contaminated salt and have lost our saltiness. Man must confess his sin and let the Lord restore him. It is this last idea that finds vivid expression in poem after poem in the book. Dustin receives, interprets, and questions the idea of salt and saltiness. I would like to quote a few very significant lines from some of the poems:
I want the light in me to fasten its army,/ and beat the choir of virtuous ones/ into the pulpy ground. (17)
“Hungering for the Solace”
Paradise, though lost, will one day be found. (21)
Do others see my weakness?/ Do I understand the weakness of my / brother?
Should I life his spirits? Should I speak? / What will I say? Do my words bring him/ satisfaction?/ Are my arms enough to reach him/ and share the joy of inspiration? (35)
“The Last Sigh”
I am left with my heart’s upward yearning./Such salt is worthless without bitterness./I must be filled for the pulp to satiate my/spirit./In the depths tears and sighs/ Fall deeper into the dark. (36)
Almost all art forms have always grappled with basic questions about life, good, evil, sin, suffering, and sorrow, and of course death. While some seek answers in worldly contexts, others try to do so in metaphysical terms. In Salt and Sorrow Dustin chooses the latter. All the poems pertinently bring out the dilemma and questions that harrow the human soul. They all talk of doubts and disobedience. The poems from which I have quoted above are only indicative. One has to indeed read all the poems to understand Dustin’s ideas and visualizations. Salt and Sorrow, as I started by saying is a deceptively “small” book of poems. Exploring the boundless human soul, the poems have the capacity to haunt the reader and become a part of the reader’s very being and consciousness.
Dr. Paromita Sengupta graduated from Presidency College, Kolkata (1999) and earned her Master’s Degree (2001) and PhD (2009) from the University of Calcutta. She is currently serving as Assistant Professor and Head of the Department of English in Sovarani Memorial College, West Bengal, India. Her Teaching Areas are Milton, Shakespeare, Restoration Drama, Jane Austen, Indian Writing in English, Nation Theories and Gender Studies. Her Research Interests are in the areas of Postcolonial Studies, Nineteenth Century Indian Writing in English, Gender Studies (particularly Motherhood), Nation and Identity.
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