Poetry Review: “Nothing By Design” by Mary Jo Salter

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When I consider buying poetry for other people, there are two main groups I typically shop for: those who have not studied poetry but have an interest, and those who have. Neither group is particularly easy to shop for: the newbies need something that can be read on the surface, yet possibly has greater depths, while buying for the vets requires knowledge of their particular taste: did they study critically or creatively? Do they like narrative with their poems or are they all about sound? Do they like experimental poems or do they find them pretentious? The joy of discovering Mary Jo Salter’s new collection, “Nothing By Design,”  is that she has given me a book I can give to both groups without fear.

For the newbies, Salter should be a revelation. Her poems feature easily defined narratives, some of which arc between poems, such as the ones in the section, “Bed of Letters,” which mediates on the divorce of the speaker. Poems throughout the collection deal with universal topics and themes ranging from infidelity, war and death. But while she deals with such heavy issues, she approaches them with humor. The poem “Over and Out” assumes the “jocular despair” of an archetypal yet doomed airplane pilot narrating the likely demise of himself and his passengers in the same manner he does the Fourth of July fireworks popping on the port side. The poem is particularly funny because it perfectly captures the captain’s voice before we’re told the plane is going down, and then runs with the travel metaphors when he reveals the plane is having trouble:

Let’s be frank. This flight is headed
for your longest vacation. Tonight the only gates
we’ll taxi to are pearly: no connection
to the party raging down there without us.

Salter is particularly interested in dead poets. To some she is kind and contemplative, as she is to William Blake in her poem “Lost Originals,” late colleague Amy Clampitt in the long poem “Unbroken Music,” and dead Nobel winner Joseph Brodsky in the “Voice of America.” She is careful to examine objects and legacies left behind, or the harsh realities of their lives that created their art. But Salter never loses her humor. As she examines the notes Clampitt left behind in “Unbroken Music,” she can’t help but remark on her late friend’s penmanship, asking, “Amy, when will you learn to correct it?” Later, in “Edna St. Vincent, MFA,” the title a pun on the name of Edna St. Vincent Millay, she imagines the lyrical poet as a modern poetry student, who writes “pretentious, creaky sonnets emailed late/for workshop” and who blogs her many trysts through the night. Even the form of the poem heightens the satire, as she uses the very form Millay specialized in: the sonnet. Among other poetic meta-commentary, she most notably takes the time to skewer the poetic obsession with nature in “Out of the Woods:”

I’ve had my fill of Frost,
proud again to be lost,
coming upon his fork
in the road for the millionth time

Poets and critics interested in examining her style will, ironically, get most out of a poem that is not wholly hers. Salter’s translation of the old English poem “the Seafarer” adds her name to a long list of poets who have taken a crack at it. Showing her preference for sense over sound, her rendition of the poem is in comprehensible, modern English. That’s not to say she’s ditched sound completely; like Pound she captures much of the source’s alliteration: “sick with sorrow,” “wild swan’s song,” “men drank mead.” But unlike Pound she doesn’t chase sound at the expense of meaning. She tries to strike a balance, and I’d argue she has. (Brendan Buck)

“Nothing By Design”
By Mary Jo Salter
Knopf, 128 pages, $26.95

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