A Late Look Back, and Forward: Mary Jo Salter’s The Surveyors

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The Surveyors
by Mary Jo Salter
(Alfred A. Knopf, 90 pages, $27)

Gathering background for this review, I was surprised to discover that the poems of Mary Jo Salter that I remember best are not the ones that her recent reviewers consider most typical. The Salter poems I think of first are “Welcome to Hiroshima” and “Common Room, 1970,” poems that look through the prism of first-hand, small-scale experience to confront evils on the scale of history. But I’ve conversed with readers who think of Salter’s usual subjects and approaches as timid, reticent, anxious.

I reject those words, because I reject the notion that a woman poet’s treatment of domestic material is an avoidance of the “big subjects.” But I grant that Salter operates by means of a kind of holding back, a tight control. She is an expert at taking a minor observation—perhaps something from daily life, perhaps something in a work of art—and drilling down into its details, its history, its connections, then spinning them out with poetic craft into something lace-like.

That holding back was, in some estimations, characteristic of her first six books of poetry. Opinion seems to have shifted at her seventh book, Nothing by Design. That book contained a section, “Bed of Letters,” that looked candidly at the poet’s own divorce from her husband of many years. The techniques of meter, rhyme, and form, always Salter’s tools, were used in those poems to make art objects out of anger. The poems are sharp-edged but wielded with precision. They try to make sense of the absurd evils that the universe can inflict. Of the book’s title, Salter says (in a PBS interview) “[W]hat the title has come to mean for me is there may be no fault in the universe, there may be nothing by design, but on the other hand, by design, by means of art, I hope to address some of that nothingness.”

It’s necessary to talk about Nothing by Design before tackling The Surveyors, because the feeling of recovery from the divorce—of recovering a life late in life—is the thread that runs through the newer book’s design. That feeling is conveyed mostly by means of references to the poet’s new love, a military man. In the book’s second poem, “Bratislava,” Salter introduces us obliquely to the earlier breakup, and to the oddness and unexpectedness of what life hands us:

That’s funny. I’d assumed my travel companion
in life would be my husband, even if

I’d gone to Bratislava, which I hadn’t thought of
long enough to think I would or wouldn’t.

A few lines later, she points to her present situation:

And yet I’m happy, now, with my companion—

he likes me, I like him. He has his own backstory
of bleak encampments, battles lost, and sorrows

best not spoken of in Bratislava
lest we spoil our day, which so far is duly amazing.

There’s certainly some of the old reticence in this approach to the new life—no head-over-heels romance; calling the man a “companion”; a slant reference to “sorrows / best not spoken of.” The repeated “That’s funny,” a phrase that refuses to decide between laughter and strangeness, is noncommittal. But a few poems on, the new man is “Mr. Boyfriend,” and his departure a classical aubade, celebrating the beloved’s beauties, “a waft of aftershave / and the bracing, scratchy starch / of his dress shirt?” (Long-time Salter fans may enjoy contrasting this aubade with the “Aubade for Brad” of an earlier partner, in an earlier book.) Later in the book, in “Little Men,” she becomes direct about those histories “best not spoken of”:

Of these two boys who ordered all
the playroom into battle, one

grew up to be a novelist.
Reader, I married him; we lost.
The other rose in rank to Colonel,
draft-numbered for a distant war
nobody wanted anymore,

and nobody is more pacifist.

Later still, the poet seems to want to dig even deeper. In a plainspoken poem that pretends to be light but is not, the man shares his memory of a past tennis game; the poet asks questions and makes assumptions about parts of that memory, but she gets it all wrong. She ends the conversation:

Sorry, I said. I should leave it there.
I just wanted to be mixed up in it,
the place where your memories are.

By the book’s title poem, halfway through the book, the man is “my truest love”; by the closing poem the two are sitting in identical recliners in front of the screen, relaxed, watching escapist television in avoidance of the world’s sorrows—especially the country’s current war—which they both know plenty about.

The other thread, besides this romantic progress, that ties the book’s elements together is the poet’s whole past. The notion of an overview that makes sense of a life history gathers the book, beginning to end. One element of that overview is the poet’s daughters, who make appearances in scattered poems, sometimes as children, sometimes as the adults they are now, sometimes unavoidably as mementos of the dead marriage:

Remember when
you, your sister,
your father and I
all spoke the same language?

Because of you,
we invented a phrase—
“pastry level”—
to indicate the height of any
four-year-old on the street . . .
It seemed to go without saying
we’d be strolling together
all the rest of our days.

The poem “Pastry Level” ends there, an ambiguous portent of a marriage’s end. “The Profane Piano Tuner” gives a daughter a late-childhood cameo. And as a sort of opposition to many reminders of divorce, there’s “Lo Sposalizio,” which is a sort of acrobatic trick. It begins as a faux-ekphrastic; it’s about a painting entitled “The Marriage of the Virgin” but in reproduction, on a microfiber hankie. But at its close, it somersaults into an epithalamion for the poet’s daughter Emily.

Another part of the book’s set of overviews is the poet’s own childhood. The book’s opening poem, “Yield,” looks back to childhood and the act of reading, of making sense of the world. “Moon-Breath” recalls another childhood habit, breathing a cloud onto a cold school-bus window “. . . as if / I were kissing my own life.”

The book’s obvious backbone is the crown of twelve sonnets that is its title poem and that sits physically at its center. It’s a tour-de-force of clever conceit, as it purports to be a letter to a reader who asked about a poem he believed Salter had written, called “The Surveyors”; the present poem denies that that poem exists, but of course it also brings it into existence. Salter is always aware of prosody, but in these sonnets, she’s more exact with it than is her habit, and precise (but with charming variations) about the interlocking of first and last lines.

The requirements of the sonnet-crown form—the last line of one sonnet must be the first line of the next—can motivate an assortment of approaches in contemporary poetry. For example, in Erica Dawson’s “New NASA Missions Rendevous with Moon,” (from The Small Blades Hurt) they lead us in a clear narrative arc through an extended metaphor: a doomed relationship viewed in the lingo of space exploration. In George David Clark’s “Ultrasound,” (in The Hopkins Review of Summer 2018) they mine the many kinds of pain linked to the loss of a newborn. Salter makes very different but equally inspired use of the crown form, letting the necessary repetition rocket her into multiple changes of subject and so across a set of memories boomeranging from one to another. Full disclosure: as an age-mate of Salter’s I enjoyed remembering time-bound details she mentions, like the novelty of Seventies espresso shops and the scratch of my preschool winter coat, double breasted, in heavy wool. But readers need not be my age to enjoy the way Salter lands on, and digs into, the memory of studying literature and of specific writers—James, Milton, Homer, Auden, more.

The poem’s pleasures include its relaxed wording, its change-up rhyme schemes, and its seeming ramble back and forward in the poet’s life history, backtracking and correcting memories, pulling in assorted bits of life, of literature, of their linking in one poet’s history. That ramble allows the poem to send linking nerves, as from a spinal column, to the book’s other poems. It seems a key to what the book is aiming at: a close reading of a life, with all its regrets and pleasures, considering and reconsidering its parts from a vantage a long way out. All this exploration is a pleasure for the poet too, as the poem’s last sonnet admits:

Sweet things, I must remember. I’ve enjoyed
forgetting, then remembering again
the running out (remember, Matt, the chain
gone taut, then running out, over and over?)
of what my life is, before it meets the void.

Many poems in the book lie outside all this biography, though they tie to it in various ways. The book’s entire third section announces itself as “Selected lyrics from a song cycle,” and the texts in it incorporate the pleasures we would expect from Wilbur or Sondheim: zingy rhymes like Prada/nada and topless/Acropolis (in which we almost have to hear the Tom Lehrer-style elision), and closing lines designed for heartbreak, like these from “Dark Rooms,” a poem spoken by a soldier about a friend dead in Iraq:

There’s a governmental ban
on the image of his coffin.
But my buddy was a living man.
Why should he be forgotten?

There are dark rooms in the ground
no photograph will show,
where soldiers lay their heads.
And nobody wants to know—

Nobody else must know.

Do the words suffer from being without their melodies? Not much, I think, because it’s easy to hear how well they would work with melody. While “Paparazzi” is pure froth, “Here I Am,” “I’ve Got Your Picture,” and “Dark Rooms” cohere perfectly with the book’s bent toward examining life with enjoyment, with bemusement, and with regret.

The miscellaneous other poems, sprinkled through the book’s first and last sections, also develop the book’s main themes. Some connect to the idea of late-life stock-taking. “Advantage Federer,” for example, connects with the notion of coming to the end of one’s career. For a reader who is not a tennis fan, the poem might seem to ramble in coming to its point, but followers of Federer’s longevity will catch on quickly. Other poems link with the idea of the strangeness and unpredictability of what happens, as “St. Florian with Burning Church,” “Vierge Ouvrante,” and “The Bickers” do, very successfully, via the oddities of art and history. These are some of the poems that open the book out beyond the life being scrutinized to the wide view I value in my favorite Salter poems. The book’s closing poem, “An Afghan Carpet,” is a particularly skillful long-perspective view, from a cozy living room where poet and partner watch television, down the deep field of personal and global history that traps the partners and the world.

The book is so cohesive—in my opinion, more so than Nothing by Design—that one is tempted to talk about every poem and how it slots into place. For economy’s sake, I will instead talk about the few that seem less than perfectly necessary. Salter has mentioned in more than one interview how fond she is of lighter poetry that can relieve stretches of the heavy and the dark; and sometimes I find those lighter poems cleverly constructed and well placed for relief, as I do with “Dragnet” and “We’ll Always Have Parents.” But “Old Saw” feels, for most of its length, too taken with the old saws, a little slow to have fun with them, and rather belated in coming to its good last-line pun, “the wrong side of the dead.” And “So Far” is so far inferior to the usual Salter spark and zing that I think it detracts.

If this review’s title caught your eye, you probably know something already about the usual Salter spark and zing. If you don’t, let me give you some examples. The way Salter uses rhyme is most marvelous, sometimes chiming in pattern, sometimes changing up the pattern so that you never know what’s going to happen to your ear, sometimes popping up in a poem not obviously rhymed. Her gift for description in this meter and rhyme mixup is up there with the best, and the sentences that open “The Bickers” are a representative sample of it:

It’s as if he’s edible
himself, the overfed young man
clutching a greenish pair of gloves
like a bunch of steamed asparagus.
His wavy hair is chestnut. His face
is packed with juice, a pale pink cherry
topping the pudding of his body,
or topping what tops it first, the white
dollop of a scalloped collar.
His velvet cloak is a salmon color.
Even the golden frame that hems
him in is delicious, its baroque
buttercreams of ornament
the slathered icing on a cake.

Delicious? Absolutely. And even in the poems of pain in The Surveyors, there’s plenty to be enjoyed like this. If you want a poet to confront a design behind evil, Salter is not your poet; go read Adam Kirsch. If you believe the world in its beauties and sorrows is here to be borne, to be loved, and to be transformed into sense and order by memory, imagination, and craft, I give you Mary Jo Salter.