Phone Lines – Past, Present, and Future: The Poetry of Mary Jo Salter in A Phone Call to the Future

“Wake up Call” – An Introduction to Salter’s Poetry

Throughout A Phone Call to the Future, Mary Jo Salter has created a delicate architecture in the ordering of her poetry.  Sometimes this ordering strings together individual poems, as when the line “I’d never again risk drowning” in the poem “Distance” leads into the aqueous metaphors of “Alternating Currents.”   In other places, the architecture spans greater lengths, constructing a thematic chiasmus around A Kiss in Space, for example – beginning and ending the section with poems that deal with kisses.  With such a deliberate ordering to her poems (and such a provocative title), I feel compelled begin the way Salter begins: with “Wake-Up Call”

Writing in the second person, Salter addresses us with her wake-up call, implying that we must be lifted out of some deep sleep – or deep ignorance – with the reading of this poem.  Whatever that ‘sleep’ might be, the implication is shocking: we are unaware of something important, and must be rattled out of that unawareness by the poet.  In the first line of the poem, we receive our ‘wake-up call’ from the slapping of a boat against Venetian waters in a trochaic “wake up, wake up.”  This is our wake-up call; we are leaving behind something beautiful:

The water is slapping wake up, wake up, against the boat
chugging away from Venice, infinite essence
of what must end because it is beautiful,
Venice that shrinks to a bobbing, pungent postcard
and then to nothing at all as the automatic
doors at the airport obligingly shut behind you.

Salter’s “what must end because it is beautiful” takes Wallace Stevens’s well-known line “death is the mother of beauty” and reverses its causation – not that the ‘end’ makes beauty, but that beautiful things must come to an end.  We are awoken to this inevitable end before we have realized that we were in Venice in the first place.  Then, within only a couple of lines, the place shrinks into a postcard, as if to be recalled distantly from a future in which we reminisce about a trip to Venice.  After that, even that postcard disappears, and we are in a “world where everything is much the same.”  Venice has disappeared before we have realized we were there, underlining precisely why Salter calls it “Venice, infinite essence/ of what must end because it is beautiful.”  The reverberating assonance of “Venice, infinite essence,” evokes in my mind the word “infinitesimal,” suggesting an ephemeral moment, miniscule in the passage of time, mocking the infinitude we might wish to bestow upon our favorite memories.

The poem continues, with an indifferent “shrug” and a swift journey through hopes and memories, each fleeting in the moment it seems to appear.  “But you’re not going back to so much, and more and more,/ the longer you live there’s more not to go back to,” Salter tells us.  The phrase “and more and more” acts as a sort of zeugma, both modifying the “so much” we will not go back to as well as acting as an adverbial phrase, moving us “more and more” into the future, further away from these places and memories.  However we might try to linger over a single line, Salter pushes us continually onwards, with no fully stopped line since the airport doors closed upon leaving Venice.  The swift pace of the poem mocks our desire to stop for a moment, re-reading a line, or contemplating an image.  When we finally do reach another punctuation mark, it is at the end of the poem: “what you’re saying/ is Lord, surprise me with even more to miss.

With that line ends Salter’s sweeping introduction to her poetry.  Wound up in the speaker’s desire to find even more memories to enjoy lies a rather narcissistic implication – that Salter’s poetry in the coming 215 pages will surprise us with even more to miss.  Despite my skepticism, though, this line serves as a fitting introduction for the journey through time that will occur between here and the back cover.  Returning again and again to the passing of time and the ephemeral nature of things she holds dear – motherhood, love, friendship – Salter’s poetry clings to memories, weaves tales around history, and casts contemplations out toward the future.  As we begin our journey through these poems, a “Wake-up Call” provides a fitting start.  If we know we are to confront a poem entitled “A Phone Call to the Future,” then surely a call to our past, rattling us out of any would-be indifference to it, sets us off in the right direction.  I approach Salter’s final line with skepticism, but will be pleasantly surprised if she does ‘surprise me with even more to miss.’

Strangers Within and Strangers Without

When I first skimmed through A Phone Call to the Future, my eyes gravitated towards the poems from Henry Purcell in Japan.[1]  Even the title merits an automatic second glance. Henry Purcell was Baroque composer from England who never visited Japan.  Why then, would Salter place this man in such a foreign context?  Or, to put it another way, why would she place this context around a man foreign to it?  A read through these poems amplifies precisely this strangeness; as Salter reflects on her experiences as an American living in Japan, we begin to see those ‘foreign’ elements of the world both within and without our speaker.  With my own reading, I found my ‘orientalist’ impulse to find the ‘other’ in a foreign culture doubling back to strike strange foreign notes within me.  “Japanese Characters,” for one, evokes precisely this kind of strangeness.

Within the first few lines of the poem, Salter addresses the extremely complex history and linguistics of the Japanese language:

To look into a word as through a window
and address the thing itself: a simple wish,
and one calling me to a simple time –
yet when can that have been? Life before English?

Her title and her introductory remarks recall an essay by Ernest Fenollosa and Ezra Pound entitled “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry.”  In their essay, these authors make sweeping orientalist claims about the Chinese language – that its “part-of-speech-less” grammar brings it into closer synergy to the world than our inflected English, that its ideographs come closer to describing the nature of the objects they address through ‘primitive metaphors.’  Though their claims turned out to be overwhelmingly untrue, Ezra Pound’s search for “the thing itself” (正名) inspired a movement to imitate these qualities of Chinese in the second and third decades of this century.  Interestingly, Salter’s own phrase “the thing itself” echoes eerily with the words and ideas Ezra Pound used many decades before.  Unlike Pound, Salter maintains skepticism about this “thing itself,” with the word “simple” describing either a wish ‘easily granted’ or a wish ‘simple in its misunderstanding.’ Even her title, “Japanese Characters” could feasibly be an allusion to Pound’s and Fenollosa’s essay.  And yet, Salter’s title maintains an ambiguity that her precedents’ did not; she does not specify that these are ‘written’ characters, and instead her title “Japanese Characters” suggests both the ‘ideographs’ and the ‘people’ of Japan.  With all of this play in allusions and ambiguities, Salter’s poem approaches the Japanese character with intentional ‘orientalism,’ finding strangers in both her own language and in the Japanese.

In the second half of the first stanza, Salter writes:

Just as all life appears to have begun
the moment we were born, so around the sun
of native language orbit distant bodies
in atmospheres indigenously vague:
seen as through clouds, that’s Venus thickly wrapped
in idioms colorful and yet inapt,
and Saturn’s ring spins far too fast to wear.

In these lines, Salter projects the ambiguities of language upon the cosmos.  In order “to reconstruct a cosmos/ I’d grown to think long set and spoken for” Salter equates the learning of a language to the piecing together of constellations, and the naming of distant phenomena with concrete syllables.  The play between “native” and “indigenous” highlights Salter’s own position, caught somewhere between her native language and a foreign, ‘indigenous’ tongue.  Even these terms of estrangement she approaches with trepidation – in the phrase “Just as all life appears to have begun/ the moment we were born” Salter expresses feeling that we must be the creators of the languages we speak, but with the word “appear” she tacitly acknowledges that there exists some primacy of language, mapping out the cosmos in languages yet unlearned.  In the final few lines of the stanza, Salter’s poetic play reminds us that we are, after all, reading the lines of a poet who constructs a cosmos of sorts out of her native English.  In the couplet, “that’s Venus thickly wrapped/ in idioms colorful and yet inapt,” a strange sense of self-doubt emerges.  These ‘colorful idioms’ do not suffice to describe the surface of a foreign planet.  And the intentionally tinny rhyme “wrapped/inapt” rings with a hollow ineptitude when cast out toward the orbit of Venus.  In the final line of the stanza, “Saturn’s ring spins far too fast to wear,” Salter expresses doubt that any writer could satisfactorily don the ring of Saturn – or write words to resonate with that ‘ring,’ to use the other sense of her aptly chosen word.

In the following two stanzas of “Japanese Characters” Salter turns the clarity of her language upon those elements of ‘characters’ she finds least clear.  She tells us, “these characters were bound/ to do us in… Enchanted, terrified,/ at first I’d spend whole days cooped up behind/ my room’s milk-tinted glass”  With simultaneous fear and thrill, Salter closes herself off behind “milk-tinted glass” trying desperately to stare through words on milk-white paper and glimpse a realer vision of the world they describe.  By the next stanza, Salter has given up on her quest to “address the thing itself,” finally reaching the limit of ‘imagism’ – something her precedent, Ezra Pound, refused to do.  She writes: “To look into a word as through a window/ entirely clear – I’d given up that chance;/ filmed over with the past.”  Whatever forms this limitation took, whether linguistic or somehow related to “the past,” Salter articulates with ironic clarity her inability to see through the words she uses.

On the last page of the Knopf edition of this text, a ‘note on the type’ describes the typeface used in the text.  In a telling moment of acute carelessness, I mistook this note for a short biography of Salter herself.  In it, the typeface used in this text is described as one that “displays the sober and sane qualities of the master craftsman whose talent has long been dedicated to clarity.”  I thought to myself that this dedication to clarity was precisely what made the poems of Mary Jo Salter such a delight to read, presenting with utmost clarity those ideas inherently ‘filmed over’ and concealed behind ‘milk-tinted glass.’  Of course, the ‘note on the type’ has absolutely nothing to do with the writing of Mary Jo Salter,[2] but my stick to my assertion.  The relationship between language and reality often comes packaged in either the scattered thoughts of essays like “The Chinese Character as a Medium for Poetry,” or in dense linguistic tomes like those of Jacques Derrida, but very rarely does it appear with such clarity as Salter uses, somewhat ironically, to convey its ultimate blurriness.

In the second section of “Japanese Characters” Salter turns her attention to the second definition of “characters.”  In her mind, languages and people mingle with one another, creating personalities that stem from alphabets and codes that arise out of facial expressions:

[…]they keep their civic files and parallels
that (paradoxically) might better suit
the strict march of our destined-to-repeat,
typecast, upstanding roman ABC’s
whose measured zones our children (in their note-
books ruled like music staves) can fill
with nothing but the obsessive English trill.

At first, overcome with the sweeping generalizations of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ Salter describes a queue of Japanese students with strokes that minimize their individual qualities and place their image in paradoxical parallel with the Roman alphabet. This ‘pairing’ – if that’s what Salter is trying to suggest in the play of ‘paradox/parallel’ – compares the character of the Japanese with English characters.  Her sweeping generalization makes claims unfair to both of these ‘characters’ – limiting her language to “nothing but the obsessive English trill” and likewise applying that obsessive trill to the queue of Japanese students who seem to embody it.  Catching herself on a train of thought that leads to dissatisfying and unfair conclusions, Salter corrects herself in the final line of the stanza: “A mystery even when, some damp weeks later, these start to take on clues of…character.”  The ‘character’ she now refers to begins to take on individual qualities.  In the next stanza, she writes, “thousands of faces beckoned me for names,/ thousands of names for faces yet unseen.”  She catches herself amidst the stereotypes and generalizations of the past stanza, and now clings desperately for some individuality amidst the anonymity.

When she describes a bride dressed in “whiteface,” these strivings become even more confusing.  The white makeup of a Japanese bride evokes a word that rings painfully with one in Salter’s own Western history; “whiteface” resonates sharply with ‘blackface,’ the style of makeup used in dramatic stereotyping of Black Americans made popular in the minstrel shows of centuries past.  While Salter strives to match names with faces, this face comes coated in layers of generalization and stereotype.  The Japanese woman mimics the faces of white Westerners, and – either knowingly or not – also apes the Western tradition of creating dramatic caricatures of other races.  Salter’s attempt to see through ‘types’ into ‘individuals’ also falls flat.  After all, perhaps her word “whiteface” is an unfair cultural equation with which the bride would disagree.  In the final lines of the stanza, Salter voices these difficulties:

Let there be no mistaking what we are,
they seem to say, it’s chaos otherwise;
we’ll limit human types to memorize.

The diction she uses, particularly ‘types’ and ‘memorize’ evoke thoughts from the first section of the poem, relating to learning a new language.  Just as Salter failed to see through to “the thing itself” by looking through Japanese characters, here she fails to see through the “milk-tinted glass” of this bride clad in “whiteface.”  Try as she might to “reconstruct a cosmos” with a trip to a new country and the study of a new language, these attempts meet impossible boundaries.

Although Salter rarely addresses her life in Japan outside of this earliest book of poetry Henry Purcell in Japan, several of its themes create strands that run throughout her poetry.  Issues such as the freedoms and limitations of language, arise repeatedly throughout her poetic career.  In “Alternating Currents,” for instance, the dark worlds of the blind and deaf Helen Keller become illuminated as she learns the word for the water rushing into her hand from a faucet.  Issues of strangeness and anonymity likewise become thematic motifs for Salter, frequently in expressions of doubt about her own anonymity.  In “Distance,” for example, Salter projects personified qualities upon a row of houses, presumably in reference to anxieties she felt at a time when she was “half-mad.” She writes, “And the little straight-faced houses/ that with dignity bear the twin burdens of being unique and all alike.”  This “twin-burden” appears occasionally in permutations less grave, as well.  In the poem “Mr. X,” Salter recalls the phenomenon of seeing a man for the first time through eyes certain that his face is a familiar one.  Her playful description proceeds thusly:

People you loved, the waiter you saw every week
without seeing, arresting strangers re-assemble
years later in other faces and belong
convincingly there, as if they were unique[…]

Read quickly, the double vowels of “re-assemble” elide into the word “resemble” creating a comic playfulness around the face of this stranger.  Is his face a new one that resembles others? Or, like Salter humorously posits, is his face an amalgamation of parts from the ‘Identi-Kits’ used in the creation of police sketches?  The conclusions one might reach while reading this poem are not particularly weighty, but Salter’s play with crime-scene diction and elision create several entertaining possibilities for the identity of her “Mr. X.”

The issue of anonymity arises once again in the confessional poem, “Another Session.”  In it, Salter once again addresses the issue of ‘characters.’  She speaks to herself through the voice of her psychiatrist, “This is real life.  You don’t live in a novel./ People aren’t characters.  They’re not a symbol.”  Salter displays an intense awareness not only of the ways ‘character’ simultaneously obscures and reveals those it describes, but also of how the writing of characters – of both types – might result in “narcissist indifference to how other people felt.”  In such admissions, as well as her writings about Japanese characters and anonymous Mr. X’s, Salter displace an intelligent and sensitive self-awareness of the “other” both within herself and in the subjects of her poetry.

Cosmic Motherhood: Visions of Space and Time in Everyday Life

Repeatedly throughout A Phone Call to the Future, Mary Jo Salter addresses the issues of Space and Time.  The ticking hands of a clock never escape mention for more than a few consecutive poems before our author turns impulsively to a clock on the wall or projects her own clock hands onto a full moon.  In the poem “Another Session,” she even admits she has a fascination with clocks, including them in her ‘repertoire’ of themes.  Salter’s spatial, temporal concerns arise not out of the mind of a gear-head obsessed with the technicalities of an abstract philosophical world, but instead always come coupled with the sensitivity of a mother who remembers her children growing up or observes the cosmic orbits of family members at a picnic.

Salter’s ‘cosmic motherhood’ makes an appearance in the shortest poem of the book.  The poem, entitled “Lullaby for a Daughter” contains only four lines:

Someday, when the sands of time
invert, may you find perfect rest
as a newborn nurses from
the hourglass of your breast.

In typical Salter fashion, complex ideas about time emerge out of an ordinary domestic activity (breastfeeding) and unwind through an unexpected inversion of words and images.  In this poem, time proceeds first linearly, with a mother breastfeeding her daughter.  Then, this time inverts in “the hourglass of your breast,” as it becomes cyclical, generational, coming to a perfect rest in the rhyme of “rest/breast.”  The poem does not leave much room to be discussed or contemplated upon.  Unlike the poems of, say, Elizabeth Bishop, which almost always unwind in a string of uncertain “or” clauses, here Salter’s poetry makes a declarative statement with no extraneous possibilities provided.  Its ambiguity, and the related qualities that make it an interesting poem, stem from its unexpected inversion of temporal norms.  The metaphor of breast as hourglass inverts as the generations turn.

In the poem, “Reading Room,” Salter engages with her surroundings in the Mount Holyoke College library, trying to decipher just what they are telling her, and whether or not their advice is of any use. “Even those mock-Tudor stripes/ have come to seem like unread lines./ Oh what I haven’t read!” she exclaims.  One might imagine the tongue-in-cheek response she would receive from a more cynical reader of books, such as Philip Larkin: “Get stewed:/ Books are a load of crap.” [3] Salter’s dilemma is a legitimate one, though.  Even though one certainly could not (and probably should not) read everything ever written, Salter has confronted an impossible paradox: our time is limited, but our world is not.  The delirium of Salter’s mindset turns comic in the following stanza, when she tells us that the room “leans as if reading me.”  The statues buttressing the windows around her lean in, scrutinizing her actions, but she cannot decide whether they are ‘gargoyles’ or ‘guardian angels’ – terms that share their forms as well as their first syllables.

In the next stanza, Salter writes,

In their arch, archaic silence,
one can’t help but hear a
mandate from another era,
and all too easy to discount
for sounding quaint

Aside from the nice rhyme of “hear a/era” that echoes in those lines as if in a large archway, Salter plays with the ‘arch’ syllable as well, duplicating the letters, but altering the sounds between “arch” and “archaic.”  The parallel between those words raises a set of questions about their meanings.  The ‘arch’ of archaic refers to something old, while the word ‘arch’ evokes in tandem both the physical archway as well as the prefix ‘arch-’ as in ‘arch-angel.’  Though Salter seems to approach each of these possibilities with a lighthearted playfulness, a deeper religious and temporal gravity swims beneath the surface of her diction.  When she states that such a mandate is “all too easy to discount/ for sounding quaint,” she tacitly acknowledges that it might be something we should not so off-handedly discount.  Likewise when she wittily quips that these angels’ air of knowing “mainly comes by virtue/ of there being less to know back then,” her choice of the word “virtue” hints that perhaps some valuable tenet does lie behind the ridiculous façade of these statues’ faces.

In the last few stanzas of the poem, Salter confronts the central paradox that lies behind the judging stares of the guardian angels that surround her: “So little time to learn what’s worth/ our time!”  The angels point her simultaneously toward action in the future and duty in the past. Meanwhile, in the present, she contemplates “the paradox of Time that is forever running out.”  All these possibilities circulate with the ceiling fans and the hands of the timepiece in the pulpit. “Nobody in the pulpit/ but for the built-in oaken face/ of a timepiece,” she tells us, playing on the double meaning of “face” to suggest an “oaken” seriousness in this priest of time.  His message is unclear, even paradoxical, but this temporal priest seems to be the only one Salter takes truly seriously.

In “The Moon and Big Ben” the face of the timepiece appears again, this time both on the surface of the moon and on the face of Big Ben, as the former swivels around the latter, mocking his seriousness and linearity.  The poem characterizes these two entities as if they were a married couple, baffled at one another’s strange habits of thought.  The same play she used in “Reading Room” appears once again as she describes Big Ben’s “measured face.”  I feel a little bit uneasy about a poet using the exact same pun in two poems, placed in proximity to one another, but I suppose I cannot be too picky about them, with the vast presence of personified clocks throughout her poetry.  The moon mocks her husband’s “imperial notion of direction,” only to be countered by her counterpart’s stately retort: “the serial,/ progressive sequence of events/ has, he booms, consequence.”  The metrical buildup in that final line creates a dramatic buildup, from single hard stress, into the iambic “he booms,” and then makes a comic release in the dactylic “consequence.”  In remaining lines of the poem, Salter’s side of the debate becomes clear.  Big Ben, already sufficiently mocked by the comic melodrama of his assertion, fades out of the spotlight, as the moon “whispers in his ear/ the limits of the linear.” The poem comes to a close with the moon cycling around her stately partner, the playful counterpart to his serious linearity.

Playfulness runs rampant through the poem, with a rhyme scheme that proceeds in AABB, CCDD, right up to the final rhyming couplet. Sometimes these rhymes are particularly comic, such as the pairing of the lines “a daily mirror of the Times—/ the catalogue of crimes”, playing on the name of the newspaper, the crimes described within, and on the insidious nature of the linear time that reads across the face of Big Ben.  In another example, Salter pairs the lines, “Well.  It is an ancient dial-/ectic, and it may take her awhile.”  To my ear, this rhyme seems a little bit forced (perhaps comically so) in order to highlight Salter’s ability to squeeze in effortless references to the parts of a clock while maintaining a philosophical ‘dialectic.’  Were the line placed in a more serious poem, I might meet it with a more serious scowl, but because it is placed in such the context of such a bizarre and humorous meeting of clock and moon as husband and wife, I’m willing to laugh at it lightheartedly.

As I said before, Salter’s games with space and time arise intermittently throughout her entire poetic opus.  These games are as varied in their tones as they are in their subject matter.  “Lullaby for a Daughter” melds contemplation into motherly love, while a mixture of fear and mockery toward the passage of time make for an uneasy sort of comedy.  “The Moon and Big Ben” has its own tone as well, melding a philosophical dialectic into a witty repartee between husband and wife. Sometimes timepieces arise in minor roles of her poetry as well. In “Trompe L’oeil” for one, Salter finds a sort of ‘broken clock’ in the painted shadows on painted shutters in Genoa, remarking, “Who needs to be correct/ more often than once a day?”  Her seemingly innocent rumination sparks an inquiry into just what is “real” and what is “play.”  In the final stanza of the poem, she turns this line of thought toward her own poetry, remarking that the silent “l” in “l’oeil” acts in much the same way as this shadow, stuck in time, right only in “play” or otherwise once a day.

In “Beach House, Space-Time” Salter’s fascination with space and time declare themselves outright, not leaving any doubt to the themes that will inhabit the lines within.  Of all her ‘metaphysical’ poems this one most reminds me of Wallace Stevens, perhaps because of they way it effortlessly blends cosmic ruminations with the setting of a beach house, as so many of Stevens’ poems seem to do.  Unlike Stevens, though, Salter weaves her abstract ruminations about the time, the cosmos, and how we write about them all into a sense of comic self-doubt and sensitive empathy.  After playfully exploring the possibilities of ‘fishnetting’ coming from the Fifties, and ‘slapdash marinade’ existing as a singular moment in time, Salter reveals her own self-doubt in the line, “And what does that signify?”  Acknowledging the ridiculousness of her cosmic games in their everyday setting, Salter accompanies them with this touch of sarcastic skepticism.  Finally, in the last lines of the poem, she turns away from lengthy abstractions springing out of ordinary objects, and turns toward, “as good a place to start/ as the stars, or the heads of people/ still asleep upstairs.”   For Salter, the most interesting ruminations about space and time inevitably turn from the ‘stars’ to her family.  Like in “Lullaby for a Daughter,” even Salter’s obsession with timepieces inverts to provide a sensitive meditation on motherhood.

‘Salterisms’ and Other Comments on the Style of Mary Jo Salter

While reading the poetry of Mary Jo Salter, I found myself grasping for something to critique harshly.  After all, surely I must demonstrate my prowess at reading poetry by occasionally finding something distasteful in it. (Right?)  This task, however, has proven difficult.  Each time a pun rings in my ear with dissatisfying sappiness, I think to myself, “Aha! I’ve finally got you doing something distasteful, Mary Jo Salter!”  Upon careful contemplation, though, these ‘distasteful’ puns generally spark intricate and delightful trains of thought.  After reading them and rereading them several times, I find that the ‘dissatisfying sappiness’ I first felt often transforms into pleasant contemplation.  These puns occur so pervasively throughout A Phone Call to the Future that I began labeling them ‘Salterisms’ as I scribbled notes in the margins of my text.  Such a term most certainly violates a multitude of standards for the vocabulary of poetry criticism.[4] And yet, Mary Jo Salter has such a distinctive style of pun that I feel compelled to address the issue.

Several of these puns have already arisen in the passages above.  In “The Moon and Big Ben,” for example, the rhyme of “awhile” and “dial-” from “dialectic” first struck me as the sort of groan-eliciting pun one might expect to hear in the punch line of a bad joke.  After reading the poem over, though, I find that it fits in with the general playful melody that runs throughout the poem, and if it does have a ‘groan-inducing’ effect, it is of the kind that highlights the ridiculousness of marital strife between the moon and a giant clock.  Salter’s puns almost always take a similar approach, hiding a word inside another word nearby, and then playing on the multiple meanings of that word.  The play between “arch” and “archaic” in “Reading Rooms” takes precisely the same approach to puns, delivering an even more complex multiplicity of meaning.  In yet another example, the poem “Dead Letters” utilizes the play between “send,” “tend” and “tenderness” to explain the growth of Salter’s sorrow over her mother’s death.  She writes: “and granted time to tend/ a growing tenderness, I send// more letters, Mother – these despite the answers you can’t write.”  In examples such as this one, Salter’s ‘pun’ is anything but comic and certainly not ‘sappy.’  Rather, such a pun highlights the interconnectedness of growth, grief, and the writing of letters.  In my ears, a more somber sound rings out of all these puns and rhymes as well: “end.”  No matter how many letters she might write, and no matter how she might try to “tend” her “tenderness,” the inevitable “end” of her mother’s death lurks beneath the surface of these actions.

*          *          *

Another consistent theme in Salter’s style arises in her virtuosic use of forms to mirror her subject matter.  In the same tradition as John Hollander’s “Swan and Shadow,” her stanzas frequently mirror the subject matter they discuss within.  In “Young Girl Peeling Apples,” the five line stanzas each unravel like the apple described in the poem.  “It’s all/an elaborate pun:/ the red peel of ribbon/ twisted tightly about the bun/ at the crown of her apple-/ round head” writes Salter.  The red ribbon of the girl’s apple-shaped head peels off while the girl peels an actual apple in a “spiral/ of making while unmaking.”  These lines might take on a perfectly ordinary tone, if it were not for the fact that each cluster of five lines gravitates into a circular shape, with one or two ‘peels’ of lone lines trailing off on the left or the right.  As it is, the poem is not one of her strongest in the collection, but it gains a memorable quality by the merit of its unraveling stanzas. (Who has ever seen a stanza unpeel like an apple, after all?)

In “Poetry Slalom” Salter’s use of form to mirror subject matter reaches its peak in the entirety of A Phone Call to the Future.  The poem arose out of a misreading, as Salter described in a reading at Amherst College earlier this year.  When reading the newspaper, she mistook the phrase ‘Poetry Slam’ for ‘Poetry Slalom,’ and decided that the latter fit her tastes much more than a ‘slam.’  For much of the duration of the poem, Salter elaborates on precisely why this ‘slalom’ seems better suited for her.  “The solemn, no-fuss/ Olympian skill/ in skirting flag after flag/ of the bloody obvious,” she describes her ‘slalom.’  Meanwhile, her words fit into a stanza that skirts in slopes down the page, recreating the solemn slalom in its own serious undulations.  Her rhymes echo this process of evasion, with rhymes that do not quite fit into a steady scheme, but rather skip between “slalom/solem” rhymes, “thrill/skill/downhill” rhymes as well as “no-fuss/obvious” rhymes, as if dashing back and forth between flags on the left and right end of a ski slope.  The rhymes do not fit a constant scheme, but also avoid repeating each other in couplets.  Perhaps Salter takes deliberate care here to distinguish her ‘slalom’ from the practice of ‘slam’ poetry, in which authors frequently pile rhymes and alliteration haphazardly atop one another in cataclysmic chaos.[5] In fact, her slalom does not even come close to resembling ‘slam’ poetry, whose form places more emphasis on the vocal art, whereas Salter’s ‘slalom’ brings rhymes and visual slopes into harmony with one another.  I will reproduce a few lines in their original shape to illustrate this visual art:

that solemn, no-fuss
Olympian skill
in skirting flag after flag
of the bloody obvious;
the fractional
while speeding downhill,
at the key
in a sort of whole-
body trill:

Just as “flag” meets its rhyme in “lag,” the line meets a fractional end-stop in the comma that holds “lag” in isolation from the rest of the poem.  In that instantaneous ‘moment’ (also in a line of its own) before the poetry once again gains momentum and dashes downhill, we literally linger on the syllable “lag.”  In the final few lines of the poem, Salter describes precisely the method that produces the most pleasant poetry for her: “the note repeated,/ but elaborated,/ more touching and more/ elevated/ for seeming the thing/ to be evaded.”  As if she knew these lines would be swept back up by her critics in order to praise her style, Salter expresses her own satisfaction with the method of seeming to evade what one wants to say all along, only in order to make it even more satisfying when that final syllable is spoken, that last connection made. In her rhymes, which seem so effortless throughout Salter’s poetry, she matches up those moments most ‘elevated’ with their counterparts to be ‘evaded.’

Even Salter’s puns, I must admit, almost always hold true to this tenet she proclaims.  Perhaps, when I originally reacted to some of them with a feeling of slight repulsion, I was prepared to deal with them as the bad punch lines they might resemble on the surface.  And yet, the section above should make clear, the playfulness and effortlessness of Salter’s rhymes and wordplay only enhance the effects of the associations she makes.  Indeed, her poetry seems “more touching and more/ elevated/ for seeming the thing/ to be evaded.”  In this respect, her poetry brings to mind some of the best work of Richard Wilbur – himself a pioneer of unforced play effortlessly springing into thoughtful connections.[6]  In “Mind,” Wilbur’s poetry creates a ‘slalom’ of its own, as a bat flutters about clumsily in a cave, representative of the mind, searching for new passageways in the dark.  In the final stanza, he asks, “And has this simile a like perfection?/ The mind is a bat.  Precisely.  Save/ That in the very happiest intellection/ A graceful error may correct the cave.”  In the double caesura of the second line, the bat seems to stumble “against a wall of stone.”  Yet, unlike the cave around the bat, our minds adapt to our errors, creating new passageways as we clumsily, playfully, flutter about.  In her best poetry, Salter enacts precisely this kind play, with “a kind of senseless wit,” to use Wilbur’s phrase.  Though some of her puns first seemed senselessly witty to me, they almost always battered against a cave wall somewhere in my mind, ‘correcting the cave’ with her ‘graceful errors.’

Phone Lines – Past, Present, and Future

As in the poems described immediately above, Salter frequently attempts to mirror a poem’s subject matter with its form.  As she described in her reading at Amherst College, her forms also frequently attempt to bring an idea to unfurl in the reader’s mind just as it did in Salter’s own.  In “Alternating Currents” for example, the characters Alexander Graham Bell, Sherlock Holmes, Watson, and Hellen Keller all make alternating appearances, each flowing with various currents (Electricity? Water? Phone Lines? Language?).  By the final line of the poem, “From a drop of water,/ a single word, a Niagara/ untangles in their hands.”  The poem ends with a crescendo of imagery, blending together each of these ‘alternating currents.’  In an interview on her publisher’s website, Salter reflects on her feelings as she finishes writing a poem.  First, she says, she rejoices that she has finished it.  Then:

“The second thing I usually feel is elation that the poem is a good one. I don’t see how you can go on as a writer if you don’t allow yourself this brief luxury of elation. Usually, no more than 24 hours after I finish a poem, I begin to feel all too aware of its limitations.”[7]

Whatever her eventual opinion about “Alternating Currents” (and I imagine she must be proud of such an imaginative and carefully crafted poem), in the final line, when a ‘Niagara untangles in their hands, one can imagine Salter jumping with glee, intensely satisfied at the ‘Niagara’ that has unfolded in her hands.

Throughout “Alternating Currents,” as the title suggests, various lines of conductive current arise, making connections across vast breadths of history and distance.  As Salter brings these connections to a rapid-fire conversation between the parties involved, she writes: “So let them, on my tangling lines,/ call the overloaded switchboard for souls they’re linked to, all at once,” acting as a genius operator with switchboard connections to draw across time and space.  In the poem A Phone Call to the Future, Salter once again steps up to this switchboard, crossing telephone lines between the 1950’s, the present, and the future.

A poem that leaps back five decades into the past, A Phone Call to the Future comes to the reader in the present tense, almost entirely in the present tense.  Aside from a few explanatory lines that require the past tense (i.e. “This was the Fifties”[8]) Salter writes entirely in the present tense, and mostly in the second person.  This choice of voice and tense places the reader into “the story that looks least believable” – the fiction of the nine-teen fifties.  Salter infuses the poem with endless wit, remarking again and again on the strangeness of corded phones, televisions without remotes, and ovens that needed to be pre-heated for an hour.  In the end, Salter cannot but give in to the strangeness that overwhelms her memories: “They’re Martians, all of these people,/ perhaps the strangest being the most recent.”  The anonymity of poems like “Japanese Characters” and “Mr. X” once again rears its head, this time casting strangeness upon characters in time.  These ‘Martians’ appear in Salter’s own mind and memory. This strangeness takes on even greater implication when we go back to the lines “I can revisit evidence, hear it ringing./ My life is movies, and tells itself in phones.”  The strangeness comes not only from without, but from the ‘ringing’ in Salter’s own mind.  Thus, the anonymity is both external and internal, as it has often been in this volume of poetry.  The ringing of phone lines echoes with the ringing of rhymes and the connections to memories and acquaintances in Salter’s “overloaded switchboard for souls.”

Near the end of the poem, Salter sighs in regret: “Of course, such a projection,/ however much I believe it, is sentimental – / belief being sentimental./ The thought of a woman born/ in the fictional Fifties.”  Salter uses the appellation “sentimental” for the type of tone she employs in looking back at her memories and contemplating her future.  For once, in all 217 pages of her poetry, I would disagree with her choice and suggest another word.  Though mine would tarnish the humble self-doubt that Salter employs, I would use the less pejorative word “sensitive.”[9]  Salter’s ruminations about strangeness, anonymity, and inhumanity are nothing but “sentimental” in my mind.  They are sensitive to the passing of time, never losing sight of those confusing terms, “humanity” and “inhumanity,” with all the paradoxical sameness and uniqueness they imply.

Concluding Remarks

To answer the question, “Will these poems be read in, say, 25 years?” I reply with a resounding “yes.”  Of course, I can make no guarantees of what the critical canon will and will not accept into its body of highly praised and anthologized poetry.  On the other hand, I can guarantee that at least one reader will be reading these poems again in 25 years, should he get the chance. The enormous sense of tastefulness in Salter’s poetry, coupled with her ready confession of all her faults, makes Salter’s poetry humble enough not to sound any sour notes of self-satisfaction (at least in my ear).  At the same time, the enormous skill that melds thoughtfulness into flippant rhymes and ‘evasive’ puns makes her poetry number among the most vigorous and invigorating intellectual exercises I have engaged in recent years. Without a doubt, I will continue to read A Phone Call to the Future, as well as any future work from Mary Jo Salter, in the hope that she will “surprise me with even more to miss.”

[1] I am a student of Chinese who studied abroad in China, so this interest should come as no surprise.

[2] Unless, of course, the publisher chose it and the accompanying description in order to highlight these particular qualities in Salter’s poetry. But this possibility is quite questionable.

[3] This is the concluding line of Philip Larkin’s poem “A Study of Reading Habits.”

[4] For one, Salter does not hold a monopoly over the clever use of antanaclasis or paronomasia.  To conflate these terms with her name would be akin to calling repetition of words in Wallace Stevens’s poetry “Stevens-isms” or the elaborate metaphors of Donne’s poetry “Donne-isms.”  These devices are characteristic of each of these authors’ styles, but not definitive of them.

[5] This is not to imply that there is no skill involved with the writing and performing of slam poetry.  In fact much of it seems to require quite a bit of careful craft.  Salter simply prefers her ‘slalom’ to the intense repetition required in the extended anaphora of ‘slam’ poetry.  For an extreme example, see “Slot Machine” from Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Café in which the words “cherry orange lemon” appear in various permutations for over thirty consecutive lines.

[6] In fact, Salter cited Richard Wilbur as one of her foremost influences in her reading at Amherst College this year.  Her admiration for his style comes as no surprise when she writes “Poetry Slalom.” It seems to me almost as if “Poetry Slalom” could have been written by Wilbur himself, had not Salter written it first.

[7] Interview, taken from Poets on Poetry: Mary Jo Salter, via the website

[8] But even in this example, in which the past tense seems necessary, Salter chooses to use the pronoun “this” instead of “that” bringing the distant past into proximity with the present and the future.

[9] I would not suggest a different word for use in this poem. I simply object to Salter’s claim that her insights are merely “sentimental.”


About T Anderson

I am a graduate of Amherst College. I taught for a year in Harlem and now teach in Brooklyn.
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