Blood and Breath: Tina Mozelle Braziel's "Known By Salt".
by Lana K. Austin
WARNING: I’m a subjective reviewer. Not because I know and like Tina Mozelle Braziel, though, yes, I do know and like her. But she is a relatively new friend, so that’s not the basis of my bias. I’m inherently subjective because the poems in Known by Salt thrum inside me with a pulsing sense of truth that make them seem as if I have lived every single one of the stories conveyed. And this truth is, despite the sometimes difficult nature of it, intensely beautiful. Compellingly beautiful. This is the kind of truth that, like the salt that becomes one of the motifs in the book, not only flavors things, but is as necessary an element in our lives as blood, as breath. With such necessary truth coursing through it, Known by Salt will make every reader feel subjective, feel as if the book speaks directly to them, and no greater compliment can be given to a book.
But how does Braziel accomplish this? One way is through imagistic prowess, not just that she wields words so deftly, but that she sees so clearly. There are things that everyone else might walk right past and view as ordinary (a trailer, a house under construction, objects in the natural world), but Braziel relishes them, picks them up in her hand (or in her mind, or in her heart, or usually in all three concurrently), and turns them over and over and as she peers deeply into their every crevice to see each hidden facet. She then describes what she sees magnificently. She bears witness with words.
Many of the things Braziel sees “talk to each other.” Themes emerge. Repeated motifs snake their way through the entire book like the bodies of water that populate the poems, motifs we hear sung again and again, familiar tunes we long to sing repeatedly like all great songs: salt, water, nature, the body.
From the first poem we can immediately ascertain that as we sojourn with Braziel we’re going to see things anew. The trailers, like those described in later poems, mentioned in “Homemaking Along Lay Lake” proffer loveliness beyond the banal Jerry Springer cliché, and, dare I say, they provide epiphany, with their “dahlia bulbs” that “need to be dug and spread”, and “cucumber and squash/that bridge well beyond their beds,” “throng of willow flies” and “drift of blossoms.”
And the water. Oh, the water that ebbs and flows and rises and recedes and rises again in Known by Salt. In “On Lay Lake,” Braziel summons us back to the beginning of everything, beckons us to sing a primal song, to crawl back into the womb with, “Like a daughter who has not forgotten/ the world of her mother’s body, I know this lake, the springs/ veining her with cold, each splash/ an attempt to get outside herself.”
Then there is the body. A body. The speaker’s body. My body. Every body. Our corporeal selves are rendered astutely in Known by Salt. We go literally to the pores in “To Season,” with the utterly marvelous lines, “Now praise us, salt (you mineral),/ sing of grit, hum as you rise from our pores.” And the body continues to come alive in “Allure”:
Nude before the mirror, she scrutinizes
her sapling legs and the ant-bite swell of breasts.
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 suede bra tsk-tsks shut
between her breasts.
That’s just an excerpt from that poem, but you can hear that suede bra tsk-tsk, can’t you? You can feel your body want to sashay, too, can’t you?
There is most certainly a kind of culmination of themes towards the end of the book where we see all that’s come before coalesce. The salt, the body, the water, all of it either directly referenced or implied, all the motifs of Known by Salt, are humming in every poem in the final section, but especially in those that feature building a house, building a home, building a heart, for surely it’s all three magically blending. The “Rivering” described is very much alive and necessary like all of Braziel’s poems… necessary like blood, like breath:
When you say you will build me a river,
you sink a shovel and level planks.
I know you, your apron of nails,
the drill bits you leave scattered
around the house and yard.
Their ends are shaped like tiny daisies.
A river, you say, will make me happy
forever. And I think of our first day.
You spread my quilt in the sun.
I told you then it is all water:
the hill is wave; the field, a low pond
You said I see that now.
And now I know rivers.
How they gully, smooth rock
to stone, slick mud.
How they bed by lying down.
Explore more of Tina’s poetry (as well as that of her salt sister Ashley M. Jones) in this excellent interview by WBRC.