At the end of this blog is a list of poets born during the 1950’s who have made an impression on me so that I try to buy their books and follow their careers. Not all of them are equal in my esteem but all of them are worthy to be read, to be listened to, to ponder. The oldest approach 66 or 67 years of age and even the youngest are in late mid-career. Some have faltered; some have already accomplished an astounding body of work. It’s time to begin a provisional review of their works and I look forward to a good deal of reading and catching up on some careers.
Today (August 15) is the birthday of Mary Jo Salter—who has a magnificent body of work. My love of her poetry began when I found a memorable poem in The New Yorker, or The Atlantic or Poetry or The Kenyon Review and reread it. And started looking for her name (before we had search engines). I found her first book, Henry Purcell in Japan (when a mid-sized city had at least one book-store with an excellent poetry selection) and purchased it. I have seven of her books now.
Salter is very good at travel verse, comic verse and domestic verse. I love her series about being pregnant in Japan (by the way, I have no idea if they are spoken by narrators or reflect her own experience), about visiting Iceland, and about domestic life with children. She writes beautifully about some of the disaster spots of our world—Hiroshima, Chernobyl, TWA 800 near Long Island, and shipwrecks and other catastrophes that become tourist destinations. If there is a flaw to her comic verse, it is the understandable tendency to be a bit arch (perhaps she’s waving to another baby of August 15, Julia Child, a Goddess of Domestic Archery).
I like Salter’s preference for strong form, allusion, and grounding her poems in specific times and places. Each one is a story—from a minor glance at a spouse’s fondness for Myrna Loy to a ping-pong table: “unsporty, unoutdoorsy / and sseriously unlikely / to reform out habits much” in a section called “Light-weights”.
Salter’s scope is extensive: from birth to death, from parenthood to divorce, from brownie troops to tombstones, from Netsuke to breakfast. Her poetry never disappoints me AND in many cases has given me words to live by.
Let’s get more specific: “Dead Letters” refers to somebody who receives letters addressed to her recently deceased mother. The poem begins with a comic concept: that of course the dead will continue to receive Junk Mail; that the Publisher’s Clearing House will continue to dangle the promise of millions, that “a host of worthy causes vies for your attention”, the misery of cleaning out the closets of the dead; the ruminations about the process of death, the steady excoriating march of chemotherapy, memories of splendid times, and then learning to live with the reality of death and knowing that we, too, are next on the list of dead-letter senders. The end of the poem is, perhaps, the most deeply piercing: the poet reflects on a philodendron her mother had given her:
“And yet it intertwines
Forever, I perceive, your life and mine,”
“You too were one to note
Life’s artful correspondences:”
“Dead Letters” and “Elegies for Etsuko” have helped to guide me through my own losses and mourning: Salter has the gift to put into words that we can grab onto and use in the messy business of collecting a warm living person into a series of memories that keep on refining themselves with the years.
“Elegies for Etsuko” is a long poem about the suicide of a young friend at age twenty-eight. In 9 segments which range from a villanelle to free verse to elegant quatrains, Salter very specifically circles around memories of a good friend and the way memories are transformed by death and even more specifically rarefied by suicide.
In the volume “A Kiss in Space,” the poem “Alternating Currents” alternates between the worlds of Helen Keller, Alexander Graham Bell, A. Conan Doyle, and Sherlock Holmes and his own Watson. Every stanza is a tour de force and the words “alternating currents” have many denotations and connotations. The poem is a tribute to and an expansion on the idea of a “drop of water” which is what Annie Sullivan uses to get the attention of the young Helen Keller .
Salter writes about the “craft of authorship:”
so let them, on my tangling lines,
call the overloaded switchboard
for souls they’re linked to, all at once:
Keller and Sullivan, Conan Doyle
and Watson, Bell and Watson, the two
“Alternating Currents’ is a magisterial miracle of verse and while it is all Salter, it also partakes of the long poems of Anthony Hecht, such as “Venetian Vespers” and “See Naples and Die”. (By the way, I think that Salter follows the line of Hecht in brilliancy and sheen and the ability to juggle, Hamlet-like, wit and death in the same speech).
The six poems that make up the “Icelandic Almanac” section of Salter’s volume, Sunday Skaters, are magnificent. Could they be a tribute to Auden’s and MacNeice’s Letters from Iceland? Absolutely; Salter mentions them both in other places. And does the Nora here end up being the subject of an elegy in a later book? Always concerned with the intersections of art, beauty (both natural and hand-created), and memory, Salter asks:
Why has Iceland no Tiepolo?
World’s most ambitious clouds, and no
Portraitist to do them justice;
The answer might be that life gets in the way of art:
A local woman explains that:
“When you have to watch your footing, you don’t look up;
when the weather’s treacherous, and life’s a stguffle,
neither the clouds nor the land is beautiful.”
Part of the pleasure of Salter is her allusiveness and her scope:
“For I will consider my kitten, Herb” and “Brief Candle”.
Does “Madama Butterfly” from “Libretto” become more poignant from the earlier “Elegies for Etsuko”? Who doesn’t live with “Persons from Porlock?” It’s also fun to know that when somebody like Barbara Stanwyck or Renoir or Debussy comes up, we will have a new way of seeing old faces.
I’ve saved a particular group of poems for special consideration: When Salter writes about figures from the past, as in “Alternating Currents” she transforms them for us—and always for the better. “Voice of America (Joseph Brodsky) and “Lost Originals” (William Blake) are superb. “Crusoe’s Footprint” leads us to the footprints of Elizabeth Bishop, W.H. Auden, and the Robinson poems by Weldon Kees. “Two American Lives” looks at “The Hand of Thomas Jefferson” and “Frost at Midnight” (an allusion to Coleridge) about Robert Frost. Salter writes elegantly about Amy Clampitt in “Unbroken Music”.
Finally Salter has done a magnificent translation of the Old English “The Seafarer”.
I have been stingy with my quotations because I am fearful of violating copyright law. But I will give you an example of a poem that is already on the Internets:
“Two Pigeons” is a closely observed look at the behavior of a most pedestrian pair of birds. It’s worth reading because it makes us look at pigeons differently and it asks us to look more closely, to notice more precisely:
“but when they resume
their places, the shift
is one only a painter
or a barber (prodding a chin
back into position)
would be likely to notice.”
Salter is both witty and wise; she is unpretentiously and deep. She is a painter and a barber. She does not expect her readers to have a Ph.D. or an M.F.A. or a master’s in metrical prosody. She is a poet for our days, for every day. Welcome her into your life; read a poem or two! The theme of my own life is that art is my only defense against utter hopelessness. Salter’s work has been around my house for over 30 years. She will make your life better, quite simply: and how many people can offer that?
Rita Dove, Paul Muldoon, Dana Gioia, Linda Gregorson, Annie Finch, Edward Hirsch, Mary Jo Salter, Carol Ann Duffy, Alice Fulton, Harryette Mullen, Jo Shapcott, James Richardson, Helen Dunmore, Gjertrud Schnackenberg, Mark Doty, Medbh McGuckian, Rosanna Warren, Bruce Bond, Mary Ruefle, Henri Cole, Dean Young, Amy Gerstler, Robert Wrigley, Cynthia Zarin, Lucie Brock-Broido, Tony Hoagland, Alan Shapiro, J. Allyn Rosser, Tim Seibles, Leithauser—Hailey and Brad (no relation); Franz Wright, Ian Duhig, Brenda Hillman, Thylias Moss, James Longenbach, Dorianne Laux, and those I cannot recollect just at this moment.