It Begins in Salt by Natalie Meisner

Like the turning tentacles on its cover, Natalie Meisner’s It Begins in Salt begins with the eponymous poem, “It Begins in Salt,” which opens with “It begins in brine / many things do at the easternmost spit / the great split lip of the Atlantic.” This insistence on origins, the genesis of many things from geography, biology, and history preoccupies Meisner’s free verse where sounds are the salt of earth and sea in the mouth of the Maritimes. Her salt of sound preserves verse: the initial alliteration opening to all the short “i”s that shore up the Atlantic as it enters the St. Lawrence, which correspondingly penetrates the ocean at its mouth. For every birth pang, the sensual pleasures and saline solutions: “where tears are the best drink / to slake your thirst / a fleck of green fire.” For every hard “k” sound, a gentler sibilance: “odd sentience sparked / under a soft moist blanket / of seaweed bubbles.” The fleck of fire in Meisner’s belly burns with a hard and soft gemlike flame.

            Birth of brine, and brine of birth entwine “in my mother’s belly, on the sea shore / hatched in sand so fine / it purrs under your hand.” Synaesthetic touching sounds and sounding touches flow through the lines. Amidst the “lonely bleat of fog horns,” the poet is conceived, “forged & cured / single-celled life.” Meisner favours the curve of the ampersand, as in her conjunction of “breath & breach.” Moreover, her ampersands imitate the swirl of tentacles on the cover that reach out to the swimmer in saltwater. The poet is “cured” or preserved in verse: “refracted through water / mother rolled along the sea bottom.” In that maternal element, Meisner immerses herself and her reader to conclude with a voice in the surf: “Your bones will win rest / you’ll be held, heard, warmed, fed / & there will be moments.” The poem ends with the surf surfacing and repeating the opening lines: “sweet sun dusking your face / in the arms of a lover, a friend / it begins in salt at the easternmost spit / the great split lip of the Atlantic.”

            Meisner is a playwright, which accounts for the drama that shares the stage with her maritime and maternal lyricism. The octopus design in the text highlights curves, waves, and the contortions of ampersands – a suction of salt beings and beginnings. Domestic and dramatic settings inform the last poem in the collection, “The Light Hasn’t Had Time,” which is a dialogue between mother and son, complete with stage directions. The setting of this poem includes “mundane magic, gritty realism,” as mom and son discuss astronomy in a scientific vein until the very end when the lyricism of a star takes over. Mom says, “Any star in the universe known or unknown – it might still be there, it’s just that from where we stand, the light hasn’t had time to reach us yet.” And the final stage directions await a curtain and its call: “The lights don’t fade. The scene plays to infinity, but we move on now to other things.” Those other things are her salty heart, gritty realism, and the reach of stars and sea that pervade her poetry.

            In many of her poems she brines anatomy, emotions, eroticism, wit, rage, and tough vulnerability. Generations pulse through her, from her mother to her own children. “Saltfishhome” begins and ends with “pungent” – its sound reinforcing its smell in aural-olfactory resonance. “Pungent sunlit triangles / caramel flaps of open muscle.” Those initial trochees waft across clothesline and town, opening the verse’s muscle. Tangled l’s of geometry and taste prepare for the tongue: “fish salt so it stings your tongue / split open at the spine.” Moreover, no periods at the ends of stanzas accentuate run-on lines, suitable for her maritime flow, enabling strategic consonants and vowels to pace her rhythm: “to cure on the clothesline / in the sun, like me they zigzag / through backyards / stitch the town together.” Her lines zigzag, stitch, cure, and shore up memories of a score of years. The painted houses and fish shapes linger: “I still feel the burn / slat fish fly blown pungent / a dory drifts unmanned / at my core.” From cure to core, “Saltfishhome” is another beginning of the poet’s life, her bittersweet return to origins.

            “No Shame” returns to those gritty origins in details of her mother’s life. “Some nights I have restless dreams / of my mother’s shoes: / brown leather, soft, sensible.” Her work shoes grip the earth and absorb the sound, much as her daughter’s poetry performs a similar function. Mother and daughter are no-nonsense salt of the earth, as mother takes on menial work that others can’t or won’t do, “no shame of any kind.” The two unite through ampersands, words, work, and lines repeated in a poem’s pattern: “no shame in the words / stitched on her mind’s eye / in how she cared / for them and me.”

            Domestic details recur in “Bottom Drawer” as lines begin to shift and shape, culminating in “Thump Bump” with its heart-shaped pattern. The second section of poems moves from maritime beginnings to settling on the prairies, a bi-regional Canadian biography. Salt preserves and flavours her verse, while an undertow tugs at her rhythms and emotions. “That Lump” is about the funeral of her young cousin: “harsh salt finds me / provinces away.” That salt accompaniment, “frozen in prairie slush,” emerges in “harsh” and “slush.” From vast distances and the universe disordered, she returns “home home to lick our wounds / pour salt, scattered as we are superstitious / from sea to shining sea.” Her aunt, mother of the dead cousin, can’t breathe because “that lump is in your heart.” The lump of salt is harsh and heart-shaped, while thump and bump are at once poignant and pungent.

            “The Salt You’re Worth” continues in the saline vein of sibilance: “Don’t fight the swell / split bottom lip / sweet salt taste.” Corrosive as well as curative, salt has the power of metaphor, which swells and splits tenor and vehicle, literal and figurative. Swell, split, and slip belong to an internal seascape of a maritime mind. All those “s” sounds tease the tongue and ear, as the poet invites us to “give in / as your own blood fills your mouth.” Salt is all-encompassing, pervading each sense since body and surroundings are filled with it: “to the eye watering smell of salt fish / ripe hanging on every line.” Fishing lines intertwine with lines of poetry, short “i” sounds alternate with long “i” sounds to create an atmosphere of “the salt baking long silent days.” Although the poem consists of a single stanza with only one end-line stop, the phrase “give in” controls the sense and progression of the poem: give in to the smell of salt fish, “give in to the small splinters / rope leaves in your hands,” and a final give in to salt. This abandonment or relinquishing is a given, just as the rope and line belong to the tiny cuts of writing: “trust one knot to hold / for everything.” If “myth scours us clean,” then Lot’s wife is invoked in “plenty salt pillars / look back on.” That salt sacrifice is worth it “to the only rock we eat.” Meisner’s mythologies add an extra dimension to the beginnings and herstories of salt.

            Between alternating accented and unaccented syllables, and long and short vowels, the poems capture tidal rhythms. The “in” within “begins” and “brine” invites an involuted sound system for the voice in the surf. “The Poem Wants” hints at desire in meta-poetics: “the poem is connecting the dots & the poem / just wants to be / with you / right now.” That connection between reader and writer makes the poetry doubly appealing. Her readerly and writerly relevance appears in “The Fold,” which begins in “the low light of the plague’s / second winter” when she unfolds a map in relief: “fold here, how do I draw, / in the wet sand before the tide.” The poem ends in a primordial and prophetic way, as in much of her poetry: “my line how do I write / a love letter to the future / that is not also / a ransom note.” Meisner draws lines in the sand that are washed clean with each passing wave. In “My Sons’ Breathing” she continues to enlist salt in tears on her pillow, as she listens to their breathing, “tide in tide out.” Tied together, her ins and outs form part of “this needful insistent life pulse.” Life begins and ends with salt pulse, watermarks that linger on the page of a mer-person. Micheline Maylor’s fine mind and attentive ear continue to attract talented voices, such as Meisner’s, to Frontenac House.

Natalie Meisner is a poet and playwright from the Mi’kma’ki /South Shore of Nova Scotia and Calgary/ Mohkinstsis 5th Poet Laureate. She is a wife, mom to two great boys and a Full Professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta.

  • Page Count: 88
  • Binding: Soft Cover with flaps
  • Year Published: 2023, Frontenac House
Poetry Editor

Michael Greenstein is a retired professor of English at the Université de Sherbrooke. He is the author of Third Solitudes: Tradition and Discontinuity in Jewish-Canadian Literature and has published widely on Victorian, Canadian, and American-Jewish literature.