Nothing By Design
Mary Jo Salter
William Carlos Williams was right when he said that a poem is a "machine made out of words," but he neglected to say that it is an infernal machine most likely to blow up in your face and leave you looking like Wile E. Coyote, all seared and singed.
If writing a good poem was almost an impossibility before, it became even more so early in the 20th century, when free verse began to dominate. To reverse the so-called Assassin's Creed, when everything is permitted, perhaps nothing is true. And, finally, to make things even more bleak: If other genres of literature have lost their readers, it is infinitely worse for poetry.
And yet . . .
Amidst this seeming grimness, even here in Baltimore, we are lucky to have masters of the craft toiling away like genius cobblers repairing shoes, using luminous stitches few will ever see. Among these, Mary Jo Salter is almost in a class of her own, bringing together erudition and wit in a way that makes verse feel essential.
Her new book, Nothing By Design (Knopf), her seventh, is every bit as vibrant as her first, Henry Purcell in Japan, with which she announced her voice to the world in 1985. Nothing by Design maintains the formal elegance and wittiness that Salter has been known for, along with the hard-won resignation of experience, making middle age beautiful.
"Bed of Letters" is the section of the book that feels most exquisitely hard-won. One wonders if Salter was thinking of the Raymond Carver short story "Gazebo" when she named one of the most powerful poems in the section "The Gazebo." In that story, Carver writes of the couple Holly and Duane as they drink whiskey while talking through the end of their relationship, one in which every important decision was made with alcohol. The woman remembers seeing an elderly couple early in their relationship, imagining that they would one day be that couple. While Salter is worlds away from Carver, it was impossible not to recall that sensation as her poem ends, "I see him smiling. He asks how I am./ He's wrapped in a towel; he's been in the pool,/ he's dripping on the floor, we chat,/ we're the luckiest people you've ever met./ But it's December. And the dripping now/ is the sound of melting icicles sharpening into knives."
That devastating dripping, followed by the seemingly light but also slyly haunted "Drinking Song"-which I must have read aloud two dozen times to whomever has happened to be in my house over the last couple months-perfectly demonstrates the sense of the permanence of actions that come with age, only after we see consequences, the sense that we never truly know how happy or miserable we were until we know what follows. "He lay with me upon a time,/ sweet it was and lemon lime./ Wedding ring and ringing bell,/ Champagne was it never hell," is how "Drinking Song" begins. By the end, we've gone through a series of drinks (and some prescription drugs) until we reach the final stanza: "In my mind the slipping gears./ In our come-cries down the years/ sometimes was love not sublime?/ Another round, and hold the crime." This movement from the sweet first blushes of love in bed through the recalled "come-cries" from the end-either of a relationship or even life-is both devastating and charming.
Other poems hold the crime entirely, striving simply to charm, especially in the section "Lightweights," which, one imagines, is born out of Salter's profession both as a professor in Johns Hopkins writing seminars and as an editor. "T.S. Lightweight and Ezra Profound" consists entirely of this bit of literary history surrounding "The Wasteland"'s birth: "Give Ezra his due credit/ for that amazing edit./ Still, T.S. is the one who said it." Or take the much funnier "Edna St. Vincent, M.F.A.," about the poet "Chic and petite, blind to her destiny/ of being hailed upon her death the worst/ sometimes-excellent poet in history." That is a great critical line in its own right, but then Salter adds an even harsher assessment from what may be called the Age of the Workshop, where poetry, particularly, doesn't exist outside the university. "Still, they liked her, partly because she friended/ everybody who asked, and fucked them too, lending them each some notoriety/ by blogging through the night how things had ended./ Plus, she knew people at A.W.P."
Based on evidence of a poem like this, one can imagine that Salter's students may see her much as she describes Joseph Brodsky in the brilliant "Voice of America," where his exiled harshness made co-eds cry in the "warm/ and fuzzy American classroom." But to the reader, the variety and texture of the poems in Nothing by Design give the feeling of hanging out with a friend who is both prettier, smarter, and funnier than oneself. Even the most dazzling friends, however, can be tedious at times, and certain poems-"Our Friends the Enemy" or "The Seafarer," for instance-don't maintain the tension or frisson to move the machine along with, to quote Williams, an "intrinsic, undulant, a physical more than a literary character." Such complaints seem trifling when one can easily flit to almost any page, even a poem that doesn't entirely work, and find a shining, living passage where Salter accomplishes what is all but impossible.
Mary jo Salter will read at Ivy Bookshop on Nov. 6 at 7 p.m. For more information, visit theivybookshop.com.