By Mary Jo Salter
Alfred A. Knopf
108 Pages (Hardcover)
Review by Dennis Daly
Our universe provides little architecture for the internal paths of our lives. We routinely sculpt old expectations, and make things new by redesigning our days with charged up meaning and personal significance. Poets also follow this pattern, but even more so. They struggle to string together a mode of existence, often doling out praise and blame as they go. Most become demi-gods in their own minds—but not all.
In her new collection of poems, Nothing by Design, Mary Jo Salter creates her singular poetic world with a rare combination of vintage forms, wondrous music, and a very contemporary sensitivity. By her metrically adept pieces she belies her book’s title (at least as it relates to artistic creation) and she plumbs the layered, ironic depths of her subjects. Salter’s poems are wide ranging covering the lives of fellow poets who touched her, a section with some pretty funny light verse, warfare’s logical absurdity, adulterous behavior of a spouse, divorce, and a contextually astounding version of an Anglo-Saxon poem.
The introductory poem entitled Morning Mirror sets the philosophical stage. At an academic retreat of some sort, having her six o’clock morning coffee, the poet espies a bow tied man, a likely lecturer at the same conference, out for a walk by the lake’s edge. As she watches him she notices that at the same time she is being watched by a deer, which gazes at her in an unsettling but neutral manner. The poet describes her reaction to the experience this way,
I’m trying to unthink the expectations
of my given kind, to adopt another mode, a
curious but disinterested sense
of otherness. (Why is it for a week
all the deer have been either does or fawns?
Somebody knows the answer.) She wants more
from me, or maybe nothing; sniffs the grass,
nibbles a bit, then twitches: her profile high,
she bounds to the shore with leisurely, sure leaps
Salter’s irony conveys us through society’s expectations for humanity in a poem called The Gods. The poet often sits in an upper balcony of the concert hall she frequents. The patrons who sit in these seats are referred to as “the Gods” because they peer down on everyone else. But the truth is that these seats are the worst in the house. Railings impede vision. The performers devolve into ants. Even more unfortunately, the ceiling above these seats is decorated with eminent names of philosophers and artists, as well as the virtues they promoted. The poet comments,
It’s more the well-fed gods
of philanthropy who seem
enshrined in all their funny,
decent, noble, wrong
postulates, and who haunt
these pillared concert halls,
the tinkling foyers strung
with chandeliered ideals,
having selected which
Chiseling into stone;
having been quite sure
that virtue was a thing
all men sought…
Our Friends the Enemy, a poem set in No Man’s Land between the trenches during World War I on Christmas Day 1914, tells the story of an unofficial truce and a football game between the British and the German soldiers. The story is true and, of course, completely absurd: it changed nothing. But that’s not the point. The game like an artwork or a poem became a miniature universe for a time and mere mortals created the values (read BROTHERHOOD and GLORY) in that universe. Salter refers to the madness of Ajax during the Greek/Trojan war in a pretty cool opening section. Here are a few of the lines,
Were they mad?
They kicked the severed head
of the football across the frozen mud
like Ajax running wild in the field:
it was the sheep he killed
when he’d thought he’d been slaughtering
Odysseus and Agamemnon…
Reading Salter’s poem Drinking Song will drive you to drink both metaphorically and literally. It is the poet’s master work in this book. Not only does its music work as a joyous drinking song, but it also compels as a dirge of profound sadness and solemnity. Its purpose is to tell a story. The tight meter and rhyme scheme control the lines and help the poet inject her cathartic irony and outright sarcasm. Even the syntactical aberrations are wonderful and detract nothing from the literal meaning. Consider these well-wrought stanzas,
Coffee tea and morning toast,
none loved more and love was most.
Up we dressed for dinner out,
Prozac and Prosecco, doubt.
Peace in time and time to seethe,
Open wine and let it breathe.
Mix up our imperfect match:
dry martini, olive branch.
Jesus, who agreed the whore
he shall have with him always more?
Econo lodge and Scottish Inn,
vodka, orange, scotch, and gin…
Another marriage-gone-wrong poem entitled Complaint for Absolute Divorce drips its sarcastic acid onto the page, diluted only with the author’s affecting and heart-rending big-picture irony. This well done villanelle also gives the book its spot-on title. Salter seems to have chosen her form, the villanelle, for absolute control of her deep and volatile emotions. It works! She cuts her real betrayer, the as-is universe, and at the same time conveys a deep, almost inconsolable, sadness. Salter ends her poem,
…who could feel remorse?
That “Absolute” was rather fine.
A little something to endorse
the universe as is: for worse,
for better. Nothing by design.
Complaint for Absolute Divorce,
let me salute you, sole recourse!
I put my birth name on the line—
a little something—and endorse
the final word, then, in “Divorce.”
Notice also that the poem’s title in the penultimate stanza is fittingly self-referential.
Salter’s eloquent version of the Anglo-Saxon Seafarer strangely complements her contemporary poems. Or perhaps not so strangely. Faced with an uncaring, neutral world the poet makes sense of her life through art. She creates the molds and the metrics of her life: the tighter and more formal the poetry, the more control she has over her emotional material. Now she has a choice. Either she becomes the God of her own creations or she looks elsewhere for the origin of the order and understanding she brings to life. Remember the deer in her first poem, which leaps away with Kierkegaard-like surety. I’m betting the Seafarer tips us off to her decision. Listen to these lines,
The joys of the Lord can kindle
more in me than dead
and fleeting life on land.
I do not believe the riches
of this world will last forever.
Always, without fail,
of three things one will turn
uncertain for a man
before his fatal hour:
sickness, age, or the sword
will rip the life right out
of the doomed and done for.
The best praise will come after
From people who outlive him…
Salter’s artistry and technical beauty amaze each time you reread her poems. They will endure beyond this generation. This book belongs among her best. The word timeless comes to mind.