Lyric Passion

Poet and teacher Ralph Salisbury's new collection

WAR IN THE GENES by Ralph Salisbury. Cherry Grove Collections, 2006. Paperback, $17.

All of Ralph Salisbury’s books have an anti-war theme, he said, and many are inspired by travel. In this book of poems he creates a lineage that goes all the way back to the invasion and occupation of the New World by the Old World. Traveling in Southern Mexico, Salisbury wrote poems that time-travel from the present to the historic past and forward again to the invasion of Iraq. He will read “enough to indicate the flow” from each section in War in the Genes at 7 pm on April 11 in the Knight Library Browsing Room.

The first poem in the collection, “A Coastal Temple Ruin, 1992,” speaks eloquently to Salisbury’s concerns:

Surf echoing Spanish cannon, or Aztec drums
summoning centuries of slain,
victory-regalia petals proclaim sun
ascendant, while rainbows wing
from nests, to split banana beaks and sing
aeons-extinct sea-verge-ecology ancestries,
clouds, roots, fragrance, fruit
offering survivors of war in the genes more
than invaders took
and defenders gave
their lives trying to save.

In the title of his new book, Salisbury isn’t referring only to his personal genetic history, although writing poetry might come easier to one who is the son of a Cherokee storyteller, singer father and an Irish American mother with a knack for story-telling. The title refers more succinctly to Salisbury as a 17-year-old enlistee in the Army Air Corps during WWII. A self-described “dumb farm kid,” Salisbury intimately understood the deadly violence of the term “firestorm.” As a 20th century warrior, he was trained as machine gunner and flew in B-24 bombers to fire-bomb Tokyo.

Ironically, during his army years Salisbury was around men who had gone to college, including a middle-weight boxing champ named Harold G. Wells. “They read good books,” Salisbury said, “not just trash.” He learned to love poetry and started writing during his last six months in the service. When the war ended, Salisbury, like thousands of others returning home from the war, enrolled in college on the G.I. Bill, one of the most democratizing educational policies in the country’s history, second only to free public schools in its widespread influence.

His writing teachers at North Iowa State Teachers College encouraged him to transfer to the University of Iowa, where he did his undergraduate and graduate studies “just an hour’s drive” from his family farm. He said he could rest his boots under his mother’s dining table every weekend to decompress from the heady schedule at Iowa, where he studied from 1948-1951 alongside Flannery O’Conner.

“I was a student of Robert Lowell at The Iowa Writer’s Workshop,” he said “Earlier he had gone to prison for refusing to serve [in the military]. I admired him so much.” So when the Air Force tried to get Salisbury to fight in the Korean War, he refused. Instead he went to teach at Texas A&M in College Station, Texas, which was not a haven but a “proving-ground” for the young poet’s ideals of pacifism and racial equality. “I learned to speak to a whole roomful of angry people,” he said, in these days before the civil rights movement. “They wanted to lynch me for being a n***** lover.”

Being professor emeritus of the UO now means he gets a free parking sticker, Salisbury said with characteristic humor. He first came to UO as a visiting writer after Northwest Review published a story and the New Yorker a poem. When he had to choose between Oregon or teaching “within 30 minutes of downtown Manhattan,” Salisbury said he looked at this beautiful place, said yes, and has never regretted the decision. He taught at Oregon from 1960 until his retirement in 1994, and was editor-in-chief of Northwest Review for six years. His work has appeared in numerous magazines, literary journals and anthologies. He has two books of short fiction, including The Last Rattlesnake Throw (University of Oklahoma Press, 1998) and eight books of poetry, including Rainbows of Stone (University of Arizona Press, 2000), an Oregon Book Award finalist.

Salisbury lives in Eugene with his wife, poet and writer Ingrid Wendt, and is the father of three grown children and grandfather to two boys and a girl. He dedicates War in the Genes to Ingrid, his wife of 37 years, a “splendid poet and worker and defender of the human race.”

Native American poet, novelist and critic Paula Gunn Allen writes of her former teacher: “Salisbury writes out of the passion, rage and lyricism that mark the Native American spirit in these blasphemous times. War in the Genes is a testament to five hundred years of occupation. Well done.” I couldn’t say it better myself.

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