UP IN A CORNER of Vermont for the summer, I recently happened to attend two very different readings of work by local poets in the space of four days. I found myself freshly alerted, on however pastoral and manageable a scale, to a couple of the numerous flavors or currents of contemporary American poetry. There are always questions behind the presentation of any new work: Who has this poet been reading? What poetic genealogy have they chosen, consciously or otherwise? How does she turn life into art? What does he choose to include and what does he omit? What is the work trying to do? How about history, current events, a vision of a wider world — how do these figure in the work? And does the poet’s how (style, form, voice, syntax, diction) prevail over their what (idea, substance, what used to be called theme, what my students like to call the lesson or moral)?
Mary Jo Salter, the accomplished author of seven previous poetry collections and a longtime co-editor of The Norton Anthology of Poetry, is, like all poets whose art continues to develop over decades, something of a moving target; she’s not easy to pin down or pigeonhole as a poetic presence. She’s certainly well read. James Merrill and Elizabeth Bishop are discernible presences, but we also hear of Henry James’s novels and of Paradise Lost, “my favorite poem of all.” Yet the poems aren’t principally bookish. The consistently sane and thoughtful voice in Salter’s poems coexists with a certain restlessness; where will the next poem take us? Salter has long been a traveler. Her first book (Henry Purcell in Japan, 1985) is set partly in Japan; and as she notes in this new book’s splendid title sequence, there are “a dozen places I called home.” Her new life and love have recently taken her to Bratislava, Zagreb, and Poland, and have set her wondering about a Herati rug purchased in Bahrain, but she also recalls long-ago patisserie windows in Paris and a visit to the Jungfrau.
The Surveyors is a capacious and ambitious collection. The book as a whole, as well as many of the individual poems, ranges through time and space, just as memory does once a thoughtful person has reached a certain age. The speaker in most of these poems is a woman “in the autumn of my life” with grown children and “[a] buried marriage. Late, my truest lover.” Indeed, many of the poems here are moving celebrations of a late-life love. There are domestic vignettes:
Move in with me. This is our house.
This will be us:
first, we’ll get to be alive.
And then we’ll have
megatons of mail-ordered stuff,
an Afghan carpet, a smart TV
larger than good taste might warrant
but face it, our eyes
are no longer what they were.
— “An Afghan Carpet”
You looked up from your book, and apropos
of nothing, asked: Did I ever tell you
I played tennis once in the snow?
— “Tennis in the Snow”
We read the daily news in bed,
updates to the casualty list …
— “Little Men”
The new love, now husband, is a military man. Note that casualty list, those megatons, and the chilling, almost offhand comment: “[F]irst, we’ll get to be alive.” A heightened awareness of danger, loss, and mortality attends on this new relationship, with the kinds of specialized knowledge it brings to a poet who had probably (though I may be wrong) given little thought to casualty lists before. But it’s also the case that simply growing older sharpens such awareness. In the touching and vivid love poem memorably entitled “Mr. Boyfriend,” Salter writes:
Oh, how many years
did I wait to know a man
who knows he is a man
and not a boy?
Man/boy: the distinction is many-layered, but one difference is simply age. This man (and woman) know they are no longer young. From “The Surveyors”:
In shabby, hipster Zagreb … my love
and I, now sixty, walked past shuttered shops
on a Sunday morning, and found ourselves in front of
the — really? — Museum of Broken Relationships,
which was open. Of course it was open.
The crown of sonnets that supplies this collection’s title is the heart of the book in more ways than one. Here Salter’s formal prowess is on display, as is her rueful wisdom, her vivid eye and memory for detail, and her ability to collapse time. (“My children jumping too high on the bed, / landing on colleges campuses.”) Equally noteworthy, though, is the fact that the sequence was occasioned by a correspondent who wrote to Salter that he had dreamed of reading a poem of hers entitled “The Surveyors.”
“The Surveyors” both is and is not that poem; the line with which the sequence begins and ends affirms that the poem “does not exist.” Thus, to take one example, the visit to the Zagreb Museum of Broken Relationships, though it is referenced here in passing, is also the setting of a poem “I never wrote.” This structural paradox allows Salter to eat her cake and have it too; she gets to include many vignettes that don’t develop into full-fledged poems, and in the process of course writes a wonderful (if nonexistent) crown of sonnets entitled “The Surveyors.”
The trick of mentioning an unwritten poem seems oddly apropos in that the weaker pieces in The Surveyors are poems that did get written but could have been relegated to a few lines. Salter always writes with wit and style; she is always thoughtful and perceptive. But to my taste, “Today’s Specials,” “The Bickers,” “Lo Sposalizio,” “Smoking the Dead Sea Scrolls,” and a few others lack the eloquent urgency of the love poems or the elegant play with time of the title sequence. It’s when Salter’s poems contemplate a work of art or a college reunion that they’re most prone to longueurs; some of these poems could be shorter, some were perhaps not needed in this collection.
It’s significant that in “The Surveyors,” Salter criticizes Henry James for taking too long to get to the point:
I was going to read all the works of Henry James,
but haven’t. So much unfinished business
unless you’re Henry James, who had time to witness
every minute of life, then record the whole, it seems.
Yes, it was thrilling art, but also bad
to make us wait so long to locate Chad
and Madame de Thing in their adulterous boat.
Not that Salter’s longueurs are Jamesian either in their dimensions or in their themes. Nevertheless, Salter has something of a novelist’s, or at least short-story writer’s, imagination, and this sometimes militates against her lyric gift. She is drawn to vignette, to anecdote, but weak on plot. “Today’s Specials” is an extended story of misreading a sign that really says “In Memoriam”; “Smoking the Dead Sea Scrolls” and “Advantage Federer” are leisurely accounts of experiences that lack a punch line or a resolution. Some of the better poems, too, could be imagined as short stories: “Tennis in the Snow” and “Pastry Level” are both little slices of recalled life. But these stronger poems are more effective because they carry the emotional weight of personal experience.
Still, in what might be called her docent mode Salter can be masterful. “St. Florian with Burning Church” begins mildly enough with a museum visit (“Funny, how you can pass time and again / the same things in the same room and not see them.”) and moves through iconography to a dark echo of Auden’s “September 1, 1939”:
Some vague, antique offense occurred near Linz,
famous for Hitler and the Linzertorte.
Auden, though, wouldn’t have closed his poem with a confection.
Most poets these days lack a talent for or even interest in plot. Many poets also lack Salter’s wide range, her patient interest in detail, her easy authority with form, and — what to call it? — her wisdom: the understanding or knowledge that, if you’re lucky, comes with years. The most striking feature in The Surveyors is precisely this ripe wisdom — that and its joyful counterpoint, the love poems. Yet even in the polished, Cole Porter–ish song lyrics excerpted here, history intrudes into the personal — sometimes to relatively frivolous effect, sometimes much more somberly.
Here I am at the Berlin Wall.
They tore it down, but it’s still there
in this picture, like my long dark hair.
— “Here I Am”
My best friend came back
from his tour of Iraq
a different way than me.
He was lifted off a plane
in a flag-draped coffin
that nobody else could see.
— “Dark Rooms”
The pleasures of travel, art, reading, of beautiful pastries, of love — Salter honors them all. But the strongest poems here accommodate darkness as well. Love and war come together in “An Afghan Carpet,” which, as we’ve seen, celebrates domesticity and beauty. But also:
Art as target. Art as grid
where secret combatants are hidden.
Prayer rug whose standard size
is a village square.
What do I know?
Nothing. But I hear it underfoot:
the terrible, low
warble of warplanes.
The poem’s and hence the book’s final stanza juxtaposes domestic companionship, as the couple comfortably settles in to watch a British mystery on television, with that ominous low warble of a murky distant war:
Each of us in a leather chair
and primed, with a glass of wine, for tonight’s
mystery set in some English hamlet
where a murder is solved every week,
let’s confess: we can’t
unearth the carpeted names.
Salter refers in “The Surveyors” to the lofty dimensions of Henry James’s titles:
The Europeans or The Ambassadors —
the grandeur James could pour into a title!
That plural but hawk-like wisdom, above it all —
implied too by your title, “The Surveyors.”
But “The Surveyors,” she reminds us, is a title someone else (the “you” of “your title,” which isn’t a title Salter ever chose) dreamed of — a title for a poem she insists she never wrote. Here at ground level, aging, loving, settling into a comfortable chair to watch TV, that “hawk-like wisdom” isn’t available. “What do I know? / Nothing.” It’s an unsettling and courageous admission. And The Surveyors in its richness and complexity is a poignant and candid, courageous and unsettling book.