KR Reviews

On The Surveyors by Mary Jo Salter

New York, NY: Knopf, 2017. 112 pages. $27.00.

What are these mixtures that pervade our lives? At every level, there are conflicts that turn into complements, and vice-versa, and frequent realizations that each was the other all along. Is nothing anything unless it is also, somehow, something else? Are we mixture, all the way down? In The Surveyors, Mary Jo Salter sets these questions to shimmering music, playing with so light a touch that the complexity of her thought rests quietly beneath a witty and entertaining surface. “That’s funny,” says the speaker in “Bratislava,” surprised to find herself alive, never mind in love, never mind in Bratislava:

A sign in italics nudges us at the station:
Have an amazing time in Bratislava!

That’s funny: a straight-faced wish, offered in English
and then Slovakian, posted above a trash can

The dizziness of travel evoked in an instant, Salter dives deeper in the same moment, weaving giddy excitement with an almost melancholy introspection. Nothing is as she expected it to be. This is not the life she had planned, nor even one should could have imagined planning. Even the ceaseless flow of the time she has lived is barely distinguishable from the grander course of history, and she can’t help but laugh at all the mixtures, and herself caught up, nearly dissolving into them. (Funnily enough, the official tourism website for Bratislava advertises the place as “The City Where You Find Real Life.”)

That’s funny. Atop embarrassing pillars, knights
in plaster armor gaze up at the sky

triumphantly, although what for is forgotten,
and the sunlight they eclipse in silhouette

is all the sillier on those phallic cannons
between their legs, with three or four cannonballs.

More cannonballs per man. That’s human history
in a nutshell. Bullies unsated with all they’ve got

and below, the blindsided masses. That’s what it is.
And yet I’m happy, now, with my companion—

Here the poem turns and, having risked losing herself entirely in the vertiginous swirl of memory, the speaker emerges into calmer, though no less textured emotional terrain. The voice is quieter, but she is pleased to find herself still able to share new experiences with another person, to bear witness not only to the “bleak encampments, battles lost, and sorrows,” but also to the world as it is now, and their own willingness to live as they wish to:

I admire his dignity. Dignity is funny.
Everything’s funny now, which we hadn’t expected

to happen, either of us, after what happened.
We’re still alive and now we’re in Bratislava.

Mary Jo Salter studied with Elizabeth Bishop at Harvard, and has since served as an editor for the Atlantic, the New Republic, and the Norton Anthology of Poetry, all the while teaching at Mount Holyoke and now the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins. But whatever the stability of her professional standing, her style is marked by her sustained exploration of ambivalence, insecurity, and the strangeness that permeates even the most domestic of lives. The Surveyors, her eighth collection, represents a further refinement of the voice that remains familiar through whatever turns her images demand we make. For instance: she loves tennis.

In “Tennis in the Snow,” we are dropped into the quietest of domestic idylls, only to follow a strange, almost unreal path: a mind imagining another’s memory, the intertwining of two imaginations—and perhaps a third, our own—producing a delicate but no less profound dance, a negotiation of longing and self. But it begins in and returns to the same place, one with air still enough to be cut by the odd reminiscence, the thought spoken aloud:

You looked up from your book, and apropos
of nothing, asked: Did I ever tell you
I played tennis once in the snow?

          No, I said, you didn’t. Where was this?

Perhaps it is snowing now, or perhaps they have been playing tennis, or perhaps neither. It doesn’t matter. What will be said will be heard. This is the value of the domestic in Salter: whatever the circumstance, the mind unfolds in hospitable territory, memory is sown in fertile ground. But this is also its danger: between two, however close, there will always be friction, even, perhaps especially, when one most wants to be woven into the other. It’s what we always try, what we always get wrong.

But the door has been opened, and the memory unfolds in a new mind, so beautiful that we’re willing to continue on, even as what we’re following is, really, nothing:

          Oh, I said. That’s a shame.
          I’m picturing the big white flakes
          whirling around, and part of the game

          was that you guys could hardly tell
          the difference between falling snow
          and the big white fuzzy tennis ball

          or even the full moon that would seem
          to lob over your heads that night,
          like a dream or a movie.

It was daytime, you said. Nice story, though.

The images here are gorgeous, vivid and clear—her study under Bishop is evident as ever in these poems—but they are not real. The typographical convention of indenting the speaker’s own voice and leaving the interlocutor’s lines left-justified earns its keep here: the sudden realignment of the single line with the left margin following three indented stanzas instantly punctures the lyric flow. But the apology that follows is one of embarrassment, not atonement:

          Sorry, I said. I should leave it there.
          I just wanted to be mixed up in it,
          the place where your memories are.

We all know this feeling, the flush you wish wouldn’t come, and the despair when your stumbling apology makes things worse, not better. How the confession spills out, making you more vulnerable at just the moment you are trying to be less so. And then there is the outrage, the wounded pride that recalls the original invitation. The power of this poem is in its duration, its ability to lead us through to the other side of the emotions it elicits, when the conflict has been exhausted and memory of it becomes more complex. Here and elsewhere, Salter unfolds and explores the work of memory with such thoroughgoing perspicacity that time itself is reimagined as no longer mere duration, but instead a mixture of past and future, of many pasts and many futures.

As comforting as this may be, Salter is no sentimentalist, and she remains sharply aware that if nothing is barred to us, nothing is entirely ours, either. That there is always a second chance, a new beginning, means equally that our moments of redemption are transitory, and that suffering and death await with no less constancy than consolation and renewal—at least, that is, as far as we can tell, and so she writes:

All we can say so far
is that we suffer
for nothing.

This is Salter at her most bitter, and the poem, titled “So Far,” plows ahead with a fatalism that recalls the best of Larkin:

We suffer because
suffering’s there.
We hadn’t been warned
it got here first,
that it drank all the water
before we were born.

And as if this were too abstract, and the constant presence of threat—threat of violence, of degradation, of sheer humiliation—is found to be inextricably tied to life as a woman. In “A Woman’s Tale,” two instances of street harassment are bridged by marriage and the birth of a child, but in this moment at least, the first and third experiences seem to determine the middle. It opens with a cinematic description, memory in this case serving as a script, as if to say that with something so common, it’s the repetition that gets to you more than anything else.

In the first scene, I’m eighteen,
with a waist of twenty-four inches
I’m wearing a sweet blouse
my mother sewed for me.
A business man in a suit
comes walking down the street,
stops in his tracks, and cries,
“My God, you’re adorable.
I want you to have my babies!”

She is left dumbfounded, and he is able to walk on, apparently unashamed, perhaps even unaware, of his own boorishness. A brief, if grotesque, encounter, but such things leave marks and can even shape future, ostensibly reverse experiences:

A decade later, Another
man has found me winning:
this one impregnates me.
We’d done the romantic thing,
the ring, the honeymoon.

This is almost repellent in its hard-heartedness, but it’s no wonder, since even now:

. . . some guy approaching
on the sidewalk takes me in:
at nine months gone, five-three,
I’m nothing but a belly,
waddling along like Falstaff.
He flings back his head to laugh—
a belly laugh, if you will.

That was thirty summers ago,
and it still gives me a chill.

To be so encompassed, so subject to this unwanted attention, which sets a task as the measure of your worth then mocks you for fulfilling it, is the kind of trap that makes all of life seem a bad joke.

But no, nothing is ever over, the end never really comes, and even these darkest of moments (and there are even darker in The Surveyors) cannot evade the quiet calm of a well-made poem. At the close of “Moon-Breath,” we find a sudden burst of life in the increasing darkness of late autumn, as memory provides a way of living in the present:

[ . . . ] I shiver
at the window where I plant

one perfect moon-round breath,
as I liked to do as a girl

against the filthy glass
of the yellow school bus

laboring up the hill,
not thinking what I meant

but passionate, as if
I were kissing my own life.

The surprise of domestic pleasure, the shock of death in its midst, the constant displacement at home and sudden belonging abroad. Salter shows over and again how these contradictions, paradoxes, mixtures make up life and that they can be lived through not without pain, but not without joy, either.

Jack Hanson is a PhD student at Yale University. His poems, essays, and reviews appear in Berfrois, Hopkins Review, PN Review, Salamander, and elsewhere.