Review of Mary Jo Salter’s A Phone Call to the Future: New & Selected Poems

Jessica Johnson

Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95 (hardcover)

Reading Mary Jo Salter can be like taking a walk with a very bright friend who has a knack for the well-told anecdote, the vivid confidence. This effect is due in part to her narrative distance from her subjects, which is close to conversational. But above all, she is a skilled scene-painter, a crafter of poems in which the finest detail, finally, throws an aspect of experience into high relief.

The trick, as she writes in “A Case of Netsuke,” is “to tell the whole tale in a nutshell.” Netsuke are very small, elaborately carved sculptures that served as a kind of fastener in traditional Japanese dress; the word’s characters mean “root” and “to attach.” When Salter succeeds in telling “the whole tale” with the smallest stroke, it is a feat of attachment. “The Age of Reason,” for example, begins with a believable scene: a child’s birthday party, with the child unable to see the benefits of delayed gratification and adults casually recalling their religious educations. But when “the camera’s flash / captures a mother’s hand, all hope no blame, / saving [the child] from the flame,” a great deal more is suddenly at stake than we originally bargained for. The last detail holds perfectly to what came before, calling up the ways even secular parents inevitably worry for a child’s salvation. The close-up picture illuminates the larger situation.

This volume of new and selected poems is balanced in favor of new and newer work, from A Kiss in Space (1999) onward. In selections from her earlier books, Henry Purcell in Japan, Unfinished Painting, and Sunday Skaters, poems surrounding loss and the passage of time are well-represented; poems of a lighter tone, less so. Salter’s most powerful poems are long and probing, but she can also be very funny, so it was good to find a few like “Aubade for Brad” included.

Starting around “A Kiss in Space,” the poems begin to explore an inability to connect with the present-not a loss, but an absence where caring or comprehension might have been. This sense of disconnectedness may explain why, beside the most poignant and sharply constructed of the selected poems, the new ones sometimes seem oblique. “June: Gianicolo,” from Sunday Skaters (1994), portrays the stars and the lights of Rome as analogs to a pair of lovers on one of the city’s hills. Rome is the scene; the poem is there. But in “Wake Up Call,” Venice retreats as “a bobbing, pungent postcard” and the speaker chronicles all she isn’t going home to, asking for “more life in which to get so attached to something, / someone or someplace, you’re sure you’ll die right then / when you can’t have it back, something you don’t even know / the name of yet . . . ” The poem is neither in Venice nor at home. It is in space.

Still, in aggregate, the poems in A Phone Call to the Future represent both an achievement and a good read. Who could forget, in “Elegies for Etsuko,” the images of a friend who committed suicide, first as a fantastically made-up bride, then in Rome on New Year’s Eve?

How long since you
were known as Hara-san (Miss Hara)! These days
it haunts me, that when you married you erased
your first name too-and as an honor asked
I call you by a childhood nickname, Ekko.
Ekko. Echo. Ecco: the champagne
cork pops, the skies explode, repeat
that automatic gunfire to the heart . . .

A Phone Call to the Future shows how many times Mary Jo Salter has achieved what Larkin did in “The Whitsun Weddings,” the narrative masterpiece that appears effortless in its unfolding.

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