“The beloved spectator who is myself”: Mary Jo Salter, Socially Distanced

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Zoom Rooms: Poems
by Mary Jo Salter
(Alfred A. Knopf, 2022, 80 pages, $28.00 hardcover)

Right up front, for those in too much of a hurry to read on, here’s a striking fact and a strong reason to look into this newest collection by Mary Jo Salter: Zoom Rooms is her tenth poetry collection in thirty-seven years, and all ten have been published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

A little more background: Salter got her degrees at Harvard (where she studied under Elizabeth Bishop) and Cambridge. She has edited the Atlantic Monthly, was former poetry editor of The New Republic, and co-edited the fourth through seventh editions of the Norton Anthology of Poetry. Her collection Unfinished Painting won the 1989 Lamont Poetry Prize for the most distinguished second volume of poetry. Sunday Skaters was a poetry finalist for the 1994 National Book Critics Circle Award. And Open Shutters was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year in 2003. Salter has held fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, and has just recently retired from her position as Krieger-Eisenhower Professor in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University.

In Zoom Rooms, not all poems are about the Great Isolation of 2020, but many are, in one way or another. Covid-19 provided—and, in some places, still provides—a nutrient-rich petri dish for artists. The choice was this: cope or go crazy. Video chats and meetings suddenly proliferated. They were one way to cope, but they offered their own variants of misery. The collection’s first poem hints at the uncomfortable doubts that arose during the first year of the pandemic.

Your Session Has Timed Out

due to inactivity.
Do you want to reboot
back to your nativity?

Too bad. You can’t go back.
Or forward, for that matter.
Remember running track,

dunking a basketball,
or, come to think of it, doing
anything at all?

Too bad. You can’t reboot.
In fact, the very terms
you use will soon be moot,

will take their downward spiral
like you to a black hole
while brave new words go viral—

assuming being “active”
or “inactive” is a thing
in the future. Or to “live.”

The New Formalism movement claimed Salter as one of its own after her first poetry collection, Henry Purcell in Japan, was published in 1985. She has always quietly demurred. Like most poets, she seems to find labels irksome, distracting, and restrictive. Rhyme and meter present unending possibilities but are not commandments. The term formalist, however, encompasses a broad spectrum of practice. In our current world, where rhyme and meter are seldom seen as even possibilities, Salter is a formalist. She draws from her obviously deep scholarship to create poems that somehow manage to camouflage the scholarship in natural English metrics.

“Your Session Has Timed Out” exemplifies that camouflage. A loose trimeter moves the reader swiftly down the page using enclosed tercets (i.e., the first and third lines of each tercet rhyme). It’s all quite structured, which makes the poem’s informal, natural sound and syntax all the more noteworthy. This light, almost bantering style in a discussion of life, death, and the nature of future human existence is classic Salter.

The collection’s title section consists of seven sonnets exploring life when, suddenly, all human interaction happens courtesy of videoconferencing software. Here are the first two sonnets in the “Zoom Rooms” section. The permissive pentameter, the nonce rhyme scheme (each of the seven sonnets has a different rhyme scheme): these details, too, are Salter being Salter.

Followers and Friends and Participants,
Gallery View, which Speaker View supplants,
Meeting Attendants, who for now are Mute
or worse, Unmute, a word I might dispute
even exists, whether verb or adjective:
Is this life? Is this how you want to live?
Nose-scratches broadcast, thoughts shrunk to an icon
or two (Clap, Thumbs Up), and if you leave your mic on
while others talk, your faintest sighing framed
in gold light like a vanity mirror? Named
on your little tile, you can’t slip out unseen.
Self-surveilled, your eye contact on-screen
seems off. Don’t look at people! Focus where
the tiny camera is that proves you’re there.


Bookcase-prop and real or fake bouquet
behind you, well-dressed only to the waist
as if in a casket, top half on display,
here’s another weirdness to be faced:
you’re in the Gallery. You’re shown as one
of your own satellites—as if the sun
were both a planet and the Copernican
magnet for all planets. Yes, I can
undo all this and activate the Hide
Self feature… where was that again? It’s hidden
nearly as neatly as the moon’s dark side.
But that’s like suicide. It feels forbidden
now that I’m linked to the beloved spectator
who is myself: light-source and shadowed crater.

These sonnets capture the ridiculousness of the actual, physical Zoom experience—while leading toward painful self-knowledge. The “Hide Self feature” is “suicide.” The poet is reminded of this by seeing her own beloved face among the other faces arranged neatly on the screen. And she recognizes that she is—to herself and to everyone else—both a “light-source” and a “shadowed crater.” It’s humbling, perhaps even humiliating, and it’s all the result of the blasted virus.

And “the beloved spectator / who is myself”: isn’t this every poet? Wordsworth got it nearly right with “emotion recollected in tranquility,” but it’s emotional distance, more than tranquility, that encourages poetry. A poet may not be tranquil, or not yet, or maybe not ever, but is hard-wired to distance herself, to make room to consider. The search for comprehension is what drives a poet, and in the midst of the flame, one cannot comprehend the flame.

The closing poem in the collection, “A Letter to Leena,” is quite long. (“Leena” is Salter’s young granddaughter.) Here are the closing stanzas.

Remember, I keep saying
inside my head, because
I have words. Remember this:
Leena at three months.

I got to give you a bottle.
I got to fondle your feet.
And it’s all a replay from
the lost days I recall

when your mother was this new.
I got to have it twice,
her and her sister. Then
a third time: I got you.

How could such floods of love
not add up to enough?
Yet I hardly tried at all
to make this old world better;

what I made was dinner
and poems, when I could.
Dear child in a bassinet
who tries and tries and can’t

quite roll over yet,
grow to turn your mind
to the desperate demands
of your time, choose to be glad;

to change, not to wait and see.
I’m changed by you already.
I want to be around
more keenly than before,

to live because you’re living.
When you have words, I’ll listen:
tell me what I’m missing
when you come to visit me.

In the 1990s, “Magic Eye” pictures were all the rage. Technology enabled artists to “hide” three-dimensional images within two-dimensional (printed) pictures. The three-dimensional image (let’s say a unicorn) was invisible until you stared at a certain area—actually, relaxed and unfocused your eyes and stared through a certain area—in the two-dimensional picture (let’s say a forest). After you had discovered the unicorn hidden in the forest, you could never unsee it. And each hidden image you found in a new Magic Eye picture trained your brain to discover hidden images in other pictures.

Salter’s rhymes are often like Magic Eye pictures. Look at what she’s done in “A Letter to Leena.” There’s no predictability, no pattern, to the rhyme, yet our ears sense that something is going on. If we listen, we hear it; if we look for it, we see it—or are pretty sure we see it.

Some poets strive for musicality in their work, some for shock, some for restraint, some for strict adherence to classical rules. Salter’s poems aim for and achieve the familiar cadences of natural speech because of her deft use of meter and rhyme. It’s a paradox. Does she have a gift for hearing spoken English and, with a light touch, making it poetry? Or is her gift that of fitting spoken English into the metrics her mind has devised? Regardless, it’s a gift.

Finally, the almost-epigrammatic “Forgetting Names” is an example of Salter packing a whole lot into a small valise.

Forgetting Names

Inevitable, and not
too shaming that I forget
(long in years as I am)
some familiar name
for a moment or two;

but waking now it occurs
to me something worse
is already well on its way,
the perfectly normal day
that nobody anywhere,

no tip of any tongue,
will even think of trying
to call me up from the vast
data cache of the past:
the forgotten name is mine.

Anyone over fifty will empathize with the poet’s sad realization in this small poem. What makes it recognizable as a Salter poem is the ease with which she communicates it, almost as an aside. And part of that ease is contributed by the nonce rhyme scheme: aabbc, ddeef, gghhi (if we can persuade ourselves to consider tongue/trying an off-rhyme, which is a big ask—but that troubling rhyme is appropriate in this troubling stanza). Each stanza has two trimeter rhyming couplets and then ends with no rhyme, deteriorating from order into chaos, exemplifying with familiar speech the guaranteed constant entropy of everything. All in seventy-one words.

In human relationships, the line between separation and connection is always shifting. Many of Zoom Rooms’ forty or so poems in five sections muse upon that shifty line from a variety of perspectives. Mary Jo Salter’s unique amalgamation of form, familiarity, and distance clarifies not only the past two years but also how we live with each other.