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


waits to be turned into more

white-fleshed apples in a water-

filled pail on the floor;

her apron that fills and falls


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


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!

Related Content