Mary Jo Salter’s "Phone Call to the Future"

Up with poets. Send us your favorites, please. We begin a new series of poetry conversations with the well-known American formalist, Mary Jo Salter, who teaches at Mount Holyoke and Johns Hopkins and co-edits The Norton Anthology of Poetry.

In the poem below, we are standing in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The poet is spinning out a tribute to Nicolael Maes, a student of Rembrandt’s, and his painting of a girl with an apple-round, red-ribboned head. The girl is paring an apple, and dangling a fragile coil of apple skin as she goes. The poet’s coil is plain in the layout and the links of rhyme — “pun… bun” in the heart of the first stanza, “unbroken… spoken” at the start and finish of the last. So this is a formal paean to craft — in the peeler, the painter, the poet, and in poetry itself: “this spiral of making while unmaking while the world goes round.”

maes painting 

 

Nicolaes Maes: “Young Girl Peeling Apples” at the Metropolitan Museum, New York

    Young Girl Peeling Apples

(Nicholaes Maes)

It’s all

an elaborate pun:

the red peel of ribbon

twisted tightly around the bun

at the crown of her apple-

round head;

the ribbon coming loose in the real

apple-peel she allows to dangle

from her lifted hand; the table

on which a basket of red

apples

waits to be turned into more

white-fleshed apples in a water-

filled pail on the floor;

her apron that fills and falls

empty,

a lapful of apples piling on

like the apron itself, the napkin,

the hem of her skirts — each a skin

layered over her heart, just as he

who has

painted her at her knife

paints the brush that puts life

in her, apple of his eye: if

there’s anything on earth but this

unbroken

concentration, this spiral

of making while unmaking while

the world goes round, neither the girl

nor he has yet looked up, or spoken.

from A Phone Call to the Future, New and Collected Poems by Mary Jo Salter, Knopf, 2008, page 100.

In our conversation, I volunteer that Ms. Salter, a student of Elizabeth Bishop and a famous teacher in real life, has given us a modern American manual of lessons — about form, beauty, womanhood, wifehood, artistic and family life. She can sound like our daughter and our mother, both. There are just a few “public” poems here — about paying for a war in Iraq that shocks us into silence; about feeling like a fossil in a digital age. But most of her interests are inward, even domestic. She writes in “Au Pair,” a poem on a Swiss girl’s encounter with small-town America: “she had no boyfriend yet, but she was hoping.” There, and in “Lullaby for a Daughter,” she can encompass the lifetime of womanhood in a few lines:

Someday, when the sands of time

Invert, may you find perfect rest

as a newborn nurses from

the hourglass of your breast.

We are speaking here about tradition and a contemporary poet’s reality — and about what may be a renewed appeal of formal poetry. With all the poets we engage, we want to hear also about the place of new poetry in the wider American conversation. Nominations, please!

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  • hurley

    Nomination: Frederick Seidel. Mentioned him on the earlier incarnation, with links, but he’s worth mentioning again.

  • elizabethbooker

    Another nomination for a guest: Mark Yakich. He writes political poetry but of a different kind than most poets’ usual staid, protest stuff. His is a unique blend of tragedy and comedy. And he’s got this great website with all kinds of stuff — drawings, paintings, writings. Check out: markyakich.com