Salter in the House

Cody Walker
October 17, 2013
Comments 2

I’ve never been able to locate a working time machine—which leaves me, tonight, in a worse-than-usual-fix. Because I need to travel back to earlier this evening and exhort anyone within striking distance of Gambier to rush to Finn House for Mary Jo Salter’s poetry reading. It’ll be great, I promise! (It was great, I’m quite sure.)

I read Salter’s stunning new collection, Nothing by Design, several days ago. This isn’t the place (or hour) for a proper review, but let me quickly salute the book’s intelligence, its artistry, its “radiance / that even now in the darkness follows me.” In seven bracing sections, Salter offers mirror rhymes and riddles, sestinas and drinking songs, and she does so in a voice that is, by turns, questioning, tender, and fierce (and often all in the same poem). Even her light verse is edged with shadow; “Urban Haiku” ends,

Hailing a taxi—
finally one pulls over.
Proof that I must exist.

The book’s fifth section, “Bed of Letters,” begins with an epigraph from Blake’s “A Poison Tree”; the poems then track wrath’s growth season. (See the final stanza of “The Gazebo”: “But it’s December. And the dripping now / is the sound of melting icicles / sharpening into knives.”) “Drinking Song” recalls James Fenton at his acid best; “Complaint for Absolute Divorce” recalls Bishop. (“Write it!” you can almost hear Salter’s former teacher imploring.)

On the final page, under A Note on the Type, we read, “The text of this book was set in Requiem.” What could be more appropriate, better designed? These musical stanzas find their subjects in lost friends, lost soldiers, “lost originals” (the phrase is Blake’s; Salter makes marvelous use of it in the book’s closing poem). They reach out to hero-poet-friends: Amy Clampitt, Joseph Brodsky. They celebrate and mourn the soul, “its twisted sheet in tatters.”

***

So maybe Salter’s collection itself is a kind of time machine, one that takes us back as far as Blake and Blake’s gods (“gods that went / so many eons back he had / to invent them, so to mourn their loss”). It’s getting late in Ann Arbor; I’m willing to believe anything. For those of you waking up soon in Gambier, you still have a chance to see Salter before she leaves town: she’ll be in conversation this morning with Willard Spiegelman (11 a.m., Cheever Room, Finn House). I’m guessing the conversation will turn, at some point, to Amy Clampitt; Salter edited Clampitt’s Selected Poems (2010) and Spiegelman edited her Selected Letters (2005). (Salter and Clampitt were close friends; Clampitt’s third book, Archaic Figure, is dedicated to Salter.) In one of the letters that Spiegelman selects, Clampitt calls The Kenyon Review “the most interesting of the literary quarterlies I’ve seen.” In a letter to Salter, she calls Alice in Wonderland her favorite book.

A rabbit hole is a working time machine.

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