Review by Alycia Pirmohamed
Tina Mozelle Braziel’s debut collection, Known by Salt (Anhinga, 2019), is an invitation. The opening poem, ‘Homemaking Along Lay Lake,’ unlocks the door to a trailer in Alabama. It is a beckoning, where Braziel repeats the phrase ‘home is made…,’ allowing readers to, implicitly, become a part of the making.
This poem is deliberate in its framing. It directs the eye to ‘watch that sunburnt kid,’ and then softens this direction with precise image:
She dips paper boats in motor oil,
drops them in the lake to see them spin in ever-widening circles.
It is the relationship between such specific imagery, exact and inarguable, and the reader’s ongoing involvement in the construction of home, that heightens this poem’s questioning: what, exactly, makes a home? And whose hands are the hands that make it? Braziel’s images, although clear and symbolic of a particular time and place, become entwined with readers’ own imaginative crafting. As a result, readers enter the rest of the collection having helped create the context for what comes next.
This investment pays off, the effect being that subsequent poems work within an agreement between reader and author — an agreement that the landscape is recognisable to both, that readers were present in the action of making. In this way, later poems, such as ‘Known by Salt,’ speak to us as if we have been at the same table all along… and in a way, we have been:
Instead of sugar, salt spangles my grapefruit halves,
cream of wheat, grits. Always salt on watermelon.
I get looks, questions for salting before tasting.
A habit of my father, his father and brothers.
‘Known by Salt’ reaches beyond the physical act of making, beyond the garden beds and rice cookers, objects that are symbolic of domesticity, landing instead at something difficult to grasp. It echoes with the phrase ‘Home is made…,’ and so feels directly in conversation with ‘Homemaking Along Lay Lake.’ In this piece, Braziel articulates her own image within the remembrance of her father, texturing our notions and ideas of home as something that is not only physical, but inherited:
Ironworkers, their jobs demanded salt,
offered in capsules that they never took.
The day I was born, my father cut
from the cartons the Morton salt girl
for me, his first born, a girl
Known by Salt, the winner of the 2017 Philip Levine Prize for Poetry, weaves together four parts that stress particular moments in time. Readers are guided chronologically through memory, following a loose trajectory from childhood to womanhood. It is this narrative arc that drives the collection forward, and each poem — or even more broadly, each of the four parts — layers the one that came before. It is a collection that accrues, recalling again and again, the first born girl; recalling, always, its salt.
Because Known by Salt follows an overall arc, it is tempting to settle into its linear narrative. However, throughout the collection, Braziel gifts us with astonishment and surprise by surging into long, sequence poems; they continue to explore the book’s central themes of home, family, and the natural southern landscape, but do so impressionistically. These poems pull the logical progression off-kilter, creating room for surprise within what are arguably the collection’s most lyrical moments. It is in these poems, crafted to reveal in quiet succession, that perspective is manipulated just slightly. They cut through readers’ expectations, and new ways of seeing Braziel’s world unfurl.
‘On Lay Lake’ is the first such sequence in the collection. In its return to the landscape of Lay Lake, it resonates with the familiar. This sense of familiarity serves as an anchor as the poem curves in and out of perspectives, as it cascades from one voice to another, much like the winds and bends of the river central to its imagery. We begin with section ‘1. Swimmer,’ and in just four couplets, Braziel aptly captures the considerations of family and heritage explored in previous poems in a new approach. She begins with an elegant comparison between mother and lake, a reminder that in Known by Salt, Lay Lake, and more broadly, the natural world, are as fiercely connected to home and origin as a daughter to her mother’s body:
Like a daughter who has not forgotten
the world of her mother’s body,
I know this lake…
However, it is the ending of this section that feels sharpest in its articulation of the book’s driving themes:
I know her wavering reflections ask:
is this how sky looks in that tree,
is this how still your home sits.
In these three lines, we are pulled back to the Morton salt girl, to the concept of home as what is inherited, through the careful image of reflection — just as Braziel constructed herself as a reflection of the ironworkers, of her father, of the Morton salt girl in ‘Known by Salt,’ here, the lake reflects the image of a withstanding home.
‘On Lay Lake’ takes advantage of its sequence form by assuming different perspectives: ‘2. Dissenter,’ ‘3. The River,’ ‘4. Former Farmer, Now Trailer Park Owner,’ and ‘5. Fisherman.’ This method allows Braziel to reach beyond the voice of a daughter, and deepens our understanding of the poem’s setting. The overall result is a lush, striking, living portrait of the lake — a poem that moves confidently in its fragments. It also opens up the work as a whole, allowing it to move beyond daughterhood, and preparing readers for later parts of the collection.
Known by Salt shifts in its second section, titled Allure. The temperament of the collection changes, the book charging forward with a different language — one textured with the lines of a body, and active with different relationships and interactions. It soars right into the ‘grit’ of being a woman, and illustrates what that looks like throughout generations. Even so, part two is strung with the tones of the child at Lay Lake, and it is apparent we are crossing a border from childhood into womanhood, living completely within Braziel’s timeline.
Part two opens up with another sequence poem, also titled ‘Allure,’ which creates a formal tether to ‘Along Lay Lake.’ However, the section break also suggests new territory, and ‘Allure’ takes full advantage of the pause it creates. The first stanza is compelling especially in how it alters the tone of the collection:
Nude before the mirror, she scrutinizes
her sapling legs and the ant-bite swell of breasts.
‘Allure’ is one of the major examples in the collection where Braziel’s keen sense of storytelling thrives. The first section of this poem follows the character, an exotic dancer, as she dresses before a performance:
She fingers the gold sequined thong,
then steps into it the way she’d cross a low wall.
Sliding into heels, she grasps her hips.
Sashay, she thinks, sashay
like the harried Bugs Bunny sways
until Elmer Fudd goes walleyed.
The third-person point of view positions readers as observers, and therefore, the woman as the observed. This move is poignant, central to the constructed narrative, but also just slightly uncanny, our gaze dressing rather than undressing. The first two sections of “Allure” employ this strategy, as well as different elements, to suggest danger and discomfort—in both, the woman is compared to Bugs Bunny, a creature hunted by Elmer Fudd. Braziel masterfully wields metaphor, accentuating this tone:
She must be a lithe rabbit now,
swift to elude, twitching her hips
until each Elmer Fudd changes
from a hunter with a gun
to a hunter without one.
The last section of ‘Allure’ changes perspective. Unlike the other three, it is written in the first person, and in this choice is a sense of empowerment, a reclamation of the woman’s body. She is the most active, has the most agency, because the men, although present, recede into nothingness. Instead of Elmer Fudd, the hunter, they are repositioned as ‘shy’ and ghostly. They are silhouettes, gone just as quickly as they appear, the head of a bodiless man on a dollar bill:
In silhouette, men lift pints of beer.
Those shadows never reach me.
I see a guy’s eyes only if he stands by the stage,
holds dollars at his chest, shy boy offering a bouquet.
As a whole, Known by Salt is crafted like an echo. Braziel begins with homemaking and ends with homebuilding. The poems arc back just slightly, creating tension in how they move forward linearly, and then circle inward again, beautifully recalling a sense of inheritance. And, just as Known by Salt began with figuratively questioning what makes a home, the final sequence in the collection, ‘Hydrangea Ridge,’ ends with Braziel’s own hands as an answering:
With chainsaw and sling blade, we felled pine and hickory,
slung away brier and poke. Together we string our squarings.
Dig in with auger, rock bar, and shovel.
This collection is a stunning portrait of the American South. But more than that, Known by Salt is a generous glimpse into how place, memory, inheritance, and joy work together to make a home. It is both a realisation and a reassurance that home, and even homeland, are always changing, much like the autumnal poem Braziel ends on:
And when the leaves turn brilliant
orange and scarlet, may their turning
from their branches be the mind shifting,
covering new ground.
Alycia Pirmohamed is the author of the chapbook Faces that Fled the Wind (forthcoming, BOAAT Press), and the winner of the 2019 92Y Discovery Contest and 2018 Ploughshares Emerging Writer’s Contest in Poetry. Her poetry has recently appeared, or is forthcoming in, The Paris Review Daily, Prairie Schooner, The Adroit Journal, The London Magazine, Gutter Magazine, Poetry Book Society, and others. Alycia received an MFA from the University of Oregon and she is currently a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh. Find her on Twitter @a_pirmohamed and online at http://www.alycia-pirmohamed.com.