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.”
Nicolaes Maes: “Young Girl Peeling Apples” at the Metropolitan Museum, New York
Young Girl Peeling Apples
an elaborate pun:
the red peel of ribbon
twisted tightly around the bun
at the crown of her apple-
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
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!