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
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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.