James White’s book, The Salt Ecstasies, first appeared in 1982. A new edition was published by Graywolf Press in 2010, augmented with a superb fourteen-page introduction by Mark Doty.
Born in Indiana in 1936, White and his generation matured in a world before Stonewall and marriage equality. Doty describes the speaker in White’s poems as “overweight, desperately lonely, grateful for whatever scrap of joy and affection sex will bring him.”
While the poet’s unhappiness seeps into every poem, there are passages of love and connection.
In The First Time, he describes a memorable encounter.
We’re bunglers when it’s really good:
bow legs, pimply backs, scrawny chest hair,
full of mistakes and good intentions.
His poems are filled with the details of working class life, as in Making Love to Myself.
After work when you’d come in and
turn the TV off and sit on the edge of the bed,
filling the room with gasoline smell from your overalls,
trying not to wake me which you always did.
He’s often suggestive, without being explicit. In Summer News, White describes a tender encounter.
He undresses me, telling me how tired I am,
that friends have brought me their truths all day.
He seems as beautiful as I wish my life was
in the boiling light of our slight sweating.
In my favorite of his poems, Skin Movers, he finds deep joy in the mere presence of another.
How still we are in sleep
as though morning holds its breath.
Our bodies rinsed with light
like soaked birch.
Skin Movers ends with a moment of transcendence.
Good love is like this.
Even the smell of baked bread won’t make it better,
this being out of myself for a while.
The corrected galleys for The Salt Ecstasies were on White’s bedside table when he died of heart disease in 1981. In Mark Doty’s estimation, “his consideration of desire and loneliness reaches beyond any categories of identity.”