One-Minute Book Reviews

January 12, 2009

Back to the Diner With Mary Jo Salter — The Unofficial Poet Laureate of Female Baby Boomers Remembers Her Past in ‘A Phone Call to the Future’

Filed under: Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:14 pm
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This was the Fifties: as far back as I go.
Some of it lasted decades.
That’s why I remember it so clearly.

From the title poem of A Phone Call to the Future

A Phone Call to the Future: New and Selected Poems. Knopf, 222 pp., $26.95.

By Janice Harayda
America is full of women who promised themselves years ago that someday they would read more than The Managerial Woman and the owner’s manual for Aprica strollers — maybe even poetry. Now the great day is at hand as many of these baby boomers approach retirement.

Mary Jo Salter awaits them. It would be patronizing — and misleading — to call Salter a “women’s poet.” She has written six books, coedited the Norton Anthology of Poetry and won praise from both sexes. Salter is no more of a “women’s poet” than was Elizabeth Bishop, with whom she studied. And yet perhaps better than any other poet, she provides a narrative arc for the shared experiences of female baby boomers.

A Phone Call to the Future reads at times like an index to the milestones of a generation of women. Looking for a poem about menopause? Try “Somebody Else’s Baby.” The death of a parent? “Dead Letters.” The long-ago crisis that your marriage mercifully survived? “The Twelfth Year.” The wistful feelings inspired by your teenage daughter’s maturity? “For Emily at Fifteen.” The incomprehension you felt when you went back to your once-favorite diner and found that it had become a Chinese restaurant? “Inside the Midget.”

If these poems sound like articles-in-verse for More or the AARP Bulletin, they are far from it: They tell truths that tend to yield in magazines to chipper advice on how to look younger without surgery or have the best sex of your life after 50. But they stay rooted in everyday life — the daily pleasures and anxieties of activities as ordinary as watching a much younger couple at a train station or visiting a beach house and eating corn on the cob, each one “a little rolling pin.”

Salter sets the tone of A Phone Call to the Future in the haunting first poem, “Wake-up Call,” about the yearnings and self-delusions of middle age and beyond. Her nominal subject is leaving Venice, that sinking city – first by boat, then by plane. But the visit that has just ended is a metaphor for the “essence / of what must end because it is beautiful,” including life. The speaker in the poem tries to find solace in the possibility of returning to the city

but you’re not going back to so much, and more and more,
the longer you live there’s more not to go back to …

In the end, the possibility of a return provides false comfort, and not just because the next trip inevitably will be different. What you really want, the speaker knows

is more life in which to get so attached to something,
someone or someplace, you’re sure you’ll die right then
when you can’t have it back …

Salter’s rhymes have grown looser over the years, and some of her poems are much slighter than “Wake-up Call” – little more than vignettes in verse. But A Phone Call to the Future shows a remarkably consistent mastery of varied forms and styles. It has a lament (“Lament”), an aubade (“Aubade for Brad”), and a pattern poem with lines that curve in and out like a slalom course (“Poetry Slalom”). It has several villanelles (“Refrain,” the blues-y “Video Blues,” and part of “Elegies” for Etsuko”) that may nod to Bishop’s “One Art” www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15212. And it has so many other familiar and not-so-familiar forms that poetry classes might use the book with profit.

One of the most appealing qualities of A Phone Call to the Future is that Salter has a gift for storytelling, a trait many poets lack. Classic forms like the sonnet can be a narrative straightjacket. Salter knows how to use them to drive a story forward. In a wonderful sequence of 10 sonnets, she remembers her former therapist, who died when his bicycle struck a barrier and hurtled into a truck during a race. She begins by recalling their first session: The therapist said that what she told him would stay in the room unless, in his judgment, she posed a danger to herself or others:

… It was like being read
my rights in some film noir – but I was glad
already I’d at last turned myself in,
guilty of anxiety and depression.

How many poets could pull off the black humor of that film noir simile in an elegy? In her title poem Salter tells us: “This was the Fifties: as far back as I go. / Some of it lasted decades. / That’s why I remember it so clearly.” How nice for us that Salter, unlike so many baby boomers, hasn’t started forgetting.

Best line: Salter’s description of her mother during cancer treatments in “Dead Letters”: “Injected, radiated, / bloated, balded, nauseated.” And all of the title poem, which begins: “Who says science fiction / is only set in the future? / After a while, the story that looks least / believable is the past.” A Phone Call to the Future also has a memorable narrative poem about the adulthood of the third president, “The Hand of Thomas Jefferson.”

Worst line: Three phrases: “your low, confiding chuckle” from “Dead Letters.” “Munching peanuts, bored” from “Please Forward.” And “a comfy sofa” from “A Leak Somewhere.” “Chuckle,” “munching” and “comfy” are cute words that don’t work in most serious poetry unless it’s satirizing them. And why give a poem as good as “Wake-up Call” such a clichéd title?

Published: March 2008

Recommendation? This is one of the best collections of 2008 for book clubs that don’t normally read poetry but would like to do it occasionally. The poems are of high quality but no so high that they’ll sail over the heads of everybody who doesn’t have a graduate degree in English. Instead of assigning the entire collection, consider asking members to read the sonnet sequence and a half dozen others.

About the author: Salter teaches at Johns Hopkins University. Read “Somebody Else’s Baby” at
www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poem.html?id=179004. Read another poem from the book, “Trompe L’Oeil,” www.blueflowerarts.com/mjsalter.html.

You might also want to read: Claudia Emerson’s Late Wife www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/12/03/. Two villanelles appear in All the Poems of Muriel Spark (New Directions, 2004): “Edinburgh Villanelle” (first published in The New Yorker) and “Verlaine Villanelle.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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