Poet of Reason
Mary Jo Salter rewards her readers with clarity and wit.
Sep 15, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 01 • By WYATT PRUNTY
Each of these poems dramatizes an individual's character. The street
Much of Salter's poetry yokes lyricism and wit in a way that dramatizes longing and reserve. "Trompe l'Oeil" opens this way:
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.
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":