A beautiful collection of verse––both light and dark, elegiac and affirmative––from one of our most admired poets.
The title Nothing by Design is taken from Salter’s villanelle “Complaint for Absolute Divorce,” in which we’re asked to entertain the thought of a no-fault universe. The wary search for peace, personal and public, is a constant theme in poems as varied as “Our Friends the Enemy,” about the Christmas football match between German and British soldiers in 1914; “The Afterlife,” in which Egyptian tomb figurines labor to serve the dead; and “Voice of America,” where Salter returns to the Saint Petersburg of her exiled friend, the late Joseph Brodsky. A section of charming light verse serves as counterpoint to another series entitled “Bed of Letters,” in which Salter addresses the end of a long marriage. Artfully designed, with a highly intentional music, these poems movingly give form to the often unfathomable, yet very real, presence of nothingness and loss in our lives.
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Mary Jo Salter was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She was educated at Harvard and Cambridge and taught at Mount Holyoke College for many years. In addition to her six previous poetry collections, she is the author of a children's book, The Moon Comes Home, and a coeditor of The Norton Anthology of Poetry. She is Andrew W. Mellon Professor in The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University and lives in Baltimore.
He doesn’t see me, whoever he is, who steps
through high grass in his khakis and bow tie
at six in the morning. I’m looking through the glass
of my cottage at the inn, hours before
coffee and buns begin at the conference.
He looks as if he knows things, and will speak
at his appointed time on experiments
successfully conducted, with a coda
on unforeseen, exciting implications,
and a call for further research. The wordless calm
of kayaks moored and mirrored, the yachts far off,
the silver-pink lake’s lapping seem to please him.
He may be in a blessed state of non-thinking.
He runs a hand through thinning, tousled hair.
A witness at the window: somehow a deer
has sidled up, and is staring at me drinking
my coffee. I set it down, chastised. The same
plaintive and yet neutral gaze, as if
she knew once and is trying to recall my name.
I’m trying to unthink the expectations
of my given kind, to adopt another mode, a
curious but disinterested sense
of otherness. (Why is it for a week
all the deer have been either does or fawns?
Somebody knows the answer.) She wants more
from me, or maybe nothing; sniffs the grass,
nibbles a bit, then twitches: her profile high,
she bounds to the shore with leisurely, sure leaps.
PAIR OF BELLS
Joanna and Valerio
went up to the campanile
of the stone-deaf castle.
From across the courtyard, one
dented little bell with a skew
clapper could be seen.
I hadn’t noticed the bellpulls.
But when Joanna yanked on hers,
and Valerio took his turn,
I heard a pair of louder bells,
deeper, surely bigger—though
these and both my friends remained
And the little bell, off-key
and out of sync, hung on and swung—
a third wheel like myself, moved
to celebrate a pair of bells.
Things happen but are parables.
COMMON ROOM, 1970
And Jesus said unto them, Come ye after me; and I will make you to become fishers of men.
It was the age of sit-ins
and in any case, there weren’t enough chairs.
The guys loped heavy-footed down the stairs
or raced each other to the bottom, laughing,
pushing their luck. But here they all crammed in,
sophomores, born like him in ’51,
to huddle on the floor of the Common Room.
In a corner, a grandfather clock
startled the hour; hammered it home again.
He would remember that. The old New England
rickety dignity of the furniture.
The eminent, stern faces looking down
from time-discolored portraits. Or maybe some
of this was embellishment, added later on.
The flickering, thick fishbowl
of a TV screen, a Magnavox console,
silenced them all. There, in black and white,
gray-haired men in gray suits now began
to pull blue capsules from an actual fishbowl.
(At least the announcer said they were bright blue.)
It was the age of drugs. These looked like giant
Quaaludes handed out
by a mad pharmacist, whose grimly poised
assistant—female, sexless—then unscrewed
from each a poisonous slip of sticky paper.
A man affixed that date to a massive chart.
It was filling up already. (Some poor dude
named Bert was 7; he punched a sofa cushion.)
As for himself, he thought
of penny candy in a jar a million
years ago, picked out with his brother
most days after school. Or times he’d draw
tin soldiers from the bottom of a stocking.
(Born two days past Christmas, he’d always seen
that as good karma: the whole world free to play.)
A congressman was rifling
loudly through capsules, seized some in his fist,
dropped all but one. Not Jeremy? Good friend,
socked with 15. Two strangers, 38.
Ben got 120. Would that be good enough?
Curses, bluster, unfunny humor, crossed
fingers for blessed numbers that remained.
Somewhere, sometime in
that ammunition pile awaited his:
239. He heard the number whiz,
then lodge safe as a bullet in his brain.
Like a bullet in a dream: you’re dead, you’re fine.
No need to wish for C.O. or 4-F.
Oh thank you, Jesus God. No Nam for him.
Yet he was well brought up.
In decency, rather than dance for joy
or call up Mom right then from the hallway phone,
he stayed until the last guy knew his fate.
Typical Roy, who’d showed up late, freaked out
when, it appeared, his birthday got no mention.
He hadn’t heard: they’d hosed him. Number 2.
Before the war was lost
some four years later, a handful in that room
would battle inside fishbowls, most in color—
and little men, toy soldiers in a jungle,
bled behind the glass while those excused,
life-sized, would sit before it eating dinner.
He’d lived to be a watcher. And number 2
in the Common Room that day?
Clearly not stupid. Roy became a major
in Independent Projects. Something about
landscapes in oil, angles of northern sun.
By the time he graduated, he had won
a study grant to paint in England, where
(so his proposal went) the light was different.
A fish-shaped school of
fish, each individual
shaped like a single
scale on the larger
fish: some truths are all
a matter of scale,
in the manner that shale
will flake into thin layers
of and like itself,
or a roof is made
of shingle upon shingle
of roofish monad.
Scale, fish, school of fish . . .
“That’s a fractal, isn’t it?”
was your feedback when
you ate what I said.
“A form that’s iterated:
output is input
Must I now mull it over?
I mulled it over.
I thought, was a sort of think
tank for non-thinkers
in their open-mouthed
needing no courage.
Yet so beautiful:
one end while swerving
in a fraction of
a second into action:
how do they sense when
to advance or back-
track, tail that guy, or swallow
the law to follow?
Somewhat in the line
of Leibniz, Mandelbrot coined
the term fractal: it’s
a recursive, nonce,
irregular form: i.e.,
copies no other
formula can make.
(I learned that when I got home.)
An eye on either
side of a flat head
is useful, I read; herring
have a keen sense of hearing,
but it’s not that that
gives them their unerring
just close enough to discern
skin on a neighbor,
far enough to skirt
collision. That’s a vision
scaled for fish—but what
human can marshal
acceptance, much less a wish,
for sight so partial?
“Stand back from the glass,
make room for the universe,”
I thought then; “at least
for whatever we
can compass: iteration
until fish fill the ocean.”
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