The Magazine

Poet of Reason

Mary Jo Salter rewards her readers with clarity and wit.

Sep 15, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 01 • By WYATT PRUNTY
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

A Phone Call to the Future

New and Selected Poems

by Mary Jo Salter

Knopf, 240 pp., $26.95

Mary Jo Salter's A Phone Call to the Future gathers work from five previous collections and adds 18 new poems. Title notwithstanding, this book is as much about the past as it is the future. Among Salter's new poems, "Lunar Eclipse" is written in memory of Anthony Hecht; "Costanza Bonarelli" is an account of the 17th-century sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini's art and romantic jealousy; and "Geraniums Before Blue Mountain" is a meditation on the German Expressionist August Macke.

Many of the poems in Salter's earlier collections deal with art, parents, children, her husband, the poet Brad Leithauser, plus various friends and acquaintances. The calls placed by her poems, therefore, are not just to the future but to the past and to a large circle of friends and family members.

The call, we should remember, is opposite to the cry. The call is made to others; the cry, however expressive, is not. A Phone Call to the Future is to be distinguished from the self-elaborated cries made by some of Salter's contemporaries. In contrast, Salter's poems are characterized by their conversational tone and meticulous description, and governing these is argument.

Although Salter is frequently included among the New Formalists, a distinction must be made here as well. She has been anthologized with these writers, and certainly she is adept with a variety of forms; but another trait is more important. The formal property most distinctive in Salter's poetry is reason, and her emphasis on this coincides with her use of the plain style. Salter's poems are intended for
others, and she carefully avoids obscuring communication with emotion.

"Another Session," from Open Shutters (2003), comprises 10 sections, 10 sonnets. Here there is ample evidence of formal control, but most powerful is the thoughtfulness by which the speaker recounts her story. She has received help from a therapist, but over time the therapist was the one who faced the greatest difficulty. The poem gives its account. Help was sought; help was received. Professional discretion and distance were maintained; the sessions ended.

Much later, one Christmas Eve, the speaker learns the therapist has died, when she discovers his name while reading the program's "Flowers in Memory of" during what is perhaps her one trip to church over the course of the year. It turns out the therapist was a member of the congregation. The last meeting with him concluded this way: "I thanked you for everything. You shook my hand." And the poem itself ends with that line, but for the speaker, news of the therapist's death extends matters.

Salter realizes not just the vulnerability of someone in authority, but also raises the question of proper exchange. What were the terms here? The therapist is thanked for "everything," but that could range in meaning from zero to--well, everything. The relationship ended with a handshake, but if anything, that seems even more conventional than thanking someone. The pathos in all this rests between the healing work of the therapist and the impersonalism that accompanies such a process.

Nothing bad, only the understated, gently ironical reserve of clinical practice. The poem reveals a one-sidedness to such encounters. On another level, however, it proves that much more than just one side is in play.

With Salter, the subject of exchange appears in many guises. "Roses and Mona Lisa" disturbingly recounts a woman and small boy on the subway in New York, taking the train to Brooklyn. The woman, balancing fresh roses between her feet, is immersed in an art book. She is reading about the Mona Lisa. The boy is playing a small "video game of some sort." When he disturbs the woman she hits him across the mouth. The poem ends with a troubling comparison between the boy's smile and that of the Mona Lisa:

Raising her arm, but not her gaze, she whacked him

hard on the mouth. In time a mysterious

smile had crept over him, almost as if he'd

grown to expect it.

At another point on Salter's spectrum is the street artist in "The Rebirth of Venus," who reproduces Botticelli's Venus with chalk on a sidewalk even though he knows that rain is coming and all will be washed away. This contrasts with that other art lover, the woman on the subway who reads a book called Mona Lisa and strikes the child who interrupts her. But that action is not as violent as Gianlorenzo Bernini's, who sends a servant to cut and scar permanently the face of his mistress, Costanza Bonarelli, because she has taken another lover.

Each of these poems dramatizes an individual's character. The street
artist celebrates a great work of art, not in terms of himself but of the ideal found in the original, while the woman on the subway dramatizes a quite different character, as does Gianlorenzo Bernini. What the reader gathers from these examples, as from the example of the therapist in "Another Session," is a sense of human limitation. Awake to one issue, we can be sound asleep to others. Perhaps closest to Salter herself is the street artist who sees the prospect of rain but does not stop.

Much of Salter's poetry yokes lyricism and wit in a way that dramatizes longing and reserve. "Trompe l'Oeil" opens this way:

All over Genoa

you see them: windows with open shutters.

Then the illusion shatters.

But that's not true. You knew

the shutters were merely painted on.

You knew it time and again.

The claim of the painted shutter

that it ever shuts the eye

of the window is an open lie.

The description here turns into wry commentary on convention and expectation. Meanwhile, "Absolute September," from A Kiss in Space (1999), captures the subtle emotions that accompany another kind of expectation, the end of summer. Much of the poem's power derives from its understated tone. Here Salter reveals the touch of her teacher, Elizabeth Bishop, especially Bishop's "One Art." That poem opens, "The art of losing isn't hard to master," and Bishop's rhyming word is "disaster." Salter's repetition of "hard" and the fact that she opens with the same rhyme, "September," "harbinger," "harder," frames matters in an echo of Bishop, before the poem sets off with its own contribution to the subject of loss.

How hard it is to take September

straight--not as a harbinger

of something harder.

Merely like suds in the air, cool scent

scrubbed clean of meaning--or innocent

of the cold thing coldly meant.

How hard the heart tugs at the end

of summer, and longs to haul it in

when it flies out of hand

at the prompting of the first mild breeze.

It leaves us by degrees

only, but for one who sees

summer as an absolute,

Pure State of Light and Heat, the height

to which one cannot raise a doubt,

as soon as one leaf's off the tree

no day following can fall free

of the drift of melancholy.

Delivered with the wit of summer leaving by "degrees" is Salter's quietly reasoned observation about coping with mortality. We feel our existence to be "absolute," just as we know for us time is opposite to that. The rhyming of monosyllabic "tree" and "free" with the polysyllabic "melancholy" is typical of Salter's lightening the auditory effect just as her argument becomes most pointed. There is a tactfulness here to be praised. It dramatizes the poem's argument without distracting from its subject.

"Executive Shoeshine" and "Musical Chair" are two meditations among the new poems that focus on how we react to limitation. Both poems end by gathering description into figure. The executive in the airport, grounded by weather, is getting his shoes shined while he waits. Outside, the wings of the planes are being de-iced.

Salter asks, "Could" the businessman "strike us a deal with the weather?" Then she returns to the shoeshine, with more wordplay (she enjoys puns): "The man hunched below him polishes / one wingtip, then the other." Puns appeal to Salter because they match objects in the world even as they dramatize the limits of the world's rational order. They are a kind of shrug that fuses the competing responses we often have to experience: a feeling of conclusiveness amidst contingency.

"Musical Chair" also deals with our response to limitation. The little boy taking part in a game of musical chairs perceives his best chance is not to wander far, finally not to get up at all. Three-year-old Pete, "who any actuary would pronounce / likely to have the longest time to live / of any of us," endearingly, comically, and a little sadly turns "the most conservative":

His mother nudges, tells him to be polite

to the other children. "Come on, Pete, let's dance--"

But he won't budge. His feet pinned to the ground,

he looks down from the hill to where he swam

today, in a pond now deepening to a shade

that looks like bedtime, that looks like the dark place

you hide in under the covers, when afternoon--

such a happy, happy one--is gone, and he

will not be unseated.

Pete could give it a few more years, but who will not understand the way he feels?

Mary Jo Salter's humor complements her reason. The quiet skepticism of her vision is balanced by an imagination that lives in others,
frequently in the endearing foibles of others. Wit, humor, melody, narrative, and argument are just some of the means by which Salter's poems reward their readers.

A Phone Call to the Future is an impressive example of how much meaning there is for both parties in a call. This is a call worth taking.

Wyatt Prunty, Carlton professor of English at the University of the South (Sewanee), is the author, most recently, of Unarmed and Dangerous: New and Selected Poems.