Mary Jo Salter, The Surveyors (2)


I mentioned the number of poems whose starting point is a work of art.

But a critic and poet I admire, in her review of The Surveyors, speaks of poems that too often wind up on the sunny side of things, witness this poem about 'The Profane Piano Tuner,' a man (who might have a neurological disease, though the poem doesn't raise or eliminate this possibility) who swears at the keys as he tunes them, mostly it seems in a way that expresses anger at women, 'You filthy stinking, stupid bitch,' but concludes (the poem) with her daughter coming home from school and playing 'a Chopin prelude like an angel.'

So should Salter's poem get more darkness into them? I think this is a fair question. After all, Wendy Cope, who is also a witty, crafty, funny poet is, in fact, extremely dark, and this (all of the above) is why she's so good, so memorable and so often gut-twisting. Salter is not gut-twisting: most situations in her poems seem to come right in the end, they finish politely, with a smile, even when she may be gritting her teeth and feeling more like snarling--and there are enough dark situations in her last two books to suggest that she must have done a fair amount of snarling or weeping or something.

So could there be more edge? Less comfort? Wry is her default tone, and wry has its limits. But wry is clearly her comfort zone and she does it extremely well. On the other hand, there's every indication that Salter is an extremely intelligent, gifted  poet, who has grown better with time, and maybe, if she senses that wryness is limiting, she could push herself beyond it? More angry Anger, more Grief? What about expanding the range of her subjects--politics, history?--though she already ranges  widely, despite the pull and also the warmth and attraction of the domestic.

I guess I'm lecturing myself too.


Mary Jo Salter, The Surveyors


I want to strongly recommend MJS's new (2017) collection of poems. Salter is someone whose books I have been reading and buying for a long time (this is her 8th, without counting the one for children), but though I haven't done anything like systematically rereading older books, this one feels to me even more accomplished and multifaceted than the earlier books. It is witty, crafty, poignant, humourous and a lovely read, in addition to being instructive about technique, if you are interested in poetics.

I bought it when it first came out, but went back to it recently--why?--because I was reading Anthony Hecht's letters and they exchanged a few, including one, that caught my eye, about rhyme, and delaying perfect rhyme till the end of a poem--I think Herbert and Hardy were the examples. And I thought, I've got her last book, I should look at it again, and I have and I am.

Salter is often stuck in the camp of the Formalists, as opposed to, say, the casualness of the NY School or Confessionals (though she's much younger); but there's no lack of feeling, in addition to the rationality, the saneness, in her work, only the feeling is muted, understated, not splashed all over the surface of the poem. She's come out of a divorce, she's in a new relationship, a daughter gets married, she buys herself a house ('a single buyer lately/possessed by self-/possession'). If this book may have a few too many ekphrastic (poems that rise out of art works) it also has plenty of personality, and not only at second hand. There's a lovely poem about her daughter and Paris pastry shops ('Pastry Level') that ends with a thought about marriages--hers broke up a few years ago--and a beautiful, spare, 'Japanese' poem about the moon and a yellow school bus and...I could go on, but won't because blogs should be brief (is my belief).

Reservoir 13 (2)

I've been thinking about how, when I finish reading Reservoir 13, I turned back to the beginning and started reading it again. This isn't something I usually do when I read a novel, at least not right away, because most novels have a plot and main characters whose 'story' finishes in the last chapter.

Reservoir 13 doesn't have a plot and 'main' characters. It's not linear in this way. It's more like a piece of music, the Goldberg Variations, say, with themes and motifs, that combine in different patterns, and that you can listen to again and again without exhausting their interest.

Of course, there's the missing girl. She's the big bad wolf whose appearance we keep waiting for, but not really, because we get drawn into the life of the village, the very ordinary, but somehow engrossing life of ordinary people and plants and creatures.

The first time I read it, I realized the heron kept reappearing. I like herons, and at some point, I tried to go back through the chapters and see what the heron did in each chapter--maybe there was some symbol there? As in a haiku? 

The second time I read more slowly and the people became more real to me, all of them interesting, all of them real, no one especially heroic or they're heroic in small (but important) ways 

And the writing! The non-sequiturs, the evenness of tone, the sentence rhythms, the restraint...

Jon McGregor, Reservoir 13


I've just read, twice--and I could start again tonight--a remarkable novel by Jon McGregor, a young British writer. It's called Reservoir 13, and I heard about it through one of James Wood's New Yorker reviews (Wood mentions it again in a Christmas issue, as one of 2017's overlooked books.) It sounded to me immediately like a book I would want to read, and it was and is.

It's a low key book, set in a nameless village in the north of England (Manchester must be nearby), with a cast of villagers (shopkeepers, sheep farmers, holiday house renters, a potter, a pastor, two school teachers, some high school students...), none of whom is 'the main character,' because there are no main characters: it's an equal opportunity book, in which weather, trees and plants, foxes, badgers, the local river, the hills, home to sheep and hikers, and 13 rather ominous reservoirs and some caves also figure. Life goes on over 13 years, after the one notable event, which is the disappearance of a teenage visitor while out hiking with her parents (she never turns up). The girl's disappearance is alluded to in each of the 13 chapters, along with other mundane events (sheep shearing, planting in the allotments, marriages, births and separations). All these things run together, largely indifferentiated, in an understated, but lyrical prose. Sometimes a few more sentences are devoted to one character or family. The remarkable thing is how interested one becomes in the life of this community and its environment, and in the writing.  I think the book is a remarkable achievement, in its way, flawless, but beautiful, and unusual. As I say, I read it twice, and I'm ready to begin again. It is also the sort of book you can dip into anywhere and read a few pages.

Therapy Plant?

I have begun talking to plants. A plant.


It all started when I read a news story about plants reacting to anaesthesia just like humans, by entering a sleep-like state, and then coming out of it. This couldn't help but evoke the question of pain and whether plants feel it, etc. And by extension, a lot of other things, like life being on a spectrum.

Also, our friends Marj and Tom, who stayed in our apartment while we were in France last fall, were worried that my husband's pet orchid was not responding well, indeed languishing for lack of hearing him playing the flute playing in the mornings before he went to work. Marj began to cheer the orchid up with recorded music. And the orchid was in splendid condition when we returned, even making new flower buds, only now starting to open.

Marj left us a little lime tree (well, sprout), which, since I've been tending it, has started dropping its leaves: over-watering? under-watering? lack of sun (we face north)? Or do I need to talk to it? Sing to it? Touch it?

All of the above.

In the morning I stroke a leaf or two and cluck over a yellowing leaf. If no one's listening I may sing a bar or two of a romantic Italian aria I learned in singing school a couple of summers ago.

You know, it's a lot less work than an animal pet or a bird.  I think I could start to see it as a companion, as my therapy plant.

My Desk

I'm sure I've said before that I work in bed: I like to have my legs up to work and read and I also like to be able to spread my materials around me, books (usually several, open, though at the moment I'm fixated on a Scottish poet called Douglas Dunn), glasses (reading, computer), coffee (instant), snacks (unsalted baked almonds)... . In this house, in this position (on the bed, legs out), opposite me are two windows and between them my official desk, which is one of those banquet-sized, rectangular, folding plastic picnic tables people rent or buy for 'events.' It's just the right length for that stretch of wall and I ordered it from Amazon for about $50 when we moved into this place 3 years ago, as a temporary solution to the desk problem. Above it is a large c17th plan of Paris, a gift from our former landlord, a Stanford art historian who thought we should have it. 

On the desk, right to left: a printer, some black file folders, some notebooks propped up by a two volume set, orange and red, of the Webster's dictionary that I 'stole' from my parents' bookshelf about a decade ago, lying flat. On top of them a jar of pens and pencils, my backup drive (which I wear around my neck when I fly in case I have to leave my laptop behind when my plane goes down and I have to ditch); my laptop, when it's not in bed with me, a lamp (Ikea), my agenda, some stacks of stuff (books I plan to read and don't want to forget about, tax forms...) and, most important, a monitor that allows me to go back and forth between two screens when I have some proof-reading to do, but which mostly serves as a place to prop a couple touchstone postcards:


1) Chardin's still life, Le gobelet d'argent (silver timbale, three apples, a silver bowl with a spoon...); and

2) Monet's Magpie on a fence in the snow.

They are the last things I look at before I turn out the light at night.

Tarte Tatin

Wonder why the weather is always the first thing that comes to mind? Because it's easy? Because it is what the world notices on waking? Anyway, it's at least 20 degrees warmer here than in Paris, or even the Vaucluse, but I've got over the shock of California weather, for the moment, and only  grumble when it rains and I can't take my bike to go where I want to go, or just for a ride. I am working on 'new' or new-old poems--ones that didn't fit into The Hotel Eden, the title of the new book (August), whose manuscript I sent to Carcanet last week. I should also conclude my Baudelaire, but I'm afraid to, because I know there are changes I'll immediately or eventually want to make, when it's no longer possible. Not finished but abandoned in despair--Valery, I believe.

This afternoon I'm driving over to Berkeley for the Poetry Group meeting: discussion then dinner, picking up friend Peter on the way. My contribution to dinner will be the usual--a tarte tatin, which I will head off and prepare for 8 people, but cook in Berkeley.


Several times I've wanted to write here, and then something else came up and I put it off. On Tuesday morning I sent the manuscript for the new book to Carcanet, and tried to put it out of my mind. This wasn't too hard to do because Wednesday we flew to San Francisco, which took most of the day, and then one is too jet-lagged to think of much besides domestic tasks: stocking the fridge, unpacking, trying to remember where I put my...slippers, say...four months ago. Friends were staying in our apartment in our absence, so we'd made closet and drawer space for them. 

Yesterday I sorted mail and went to the first meeting of a seminar on campus: Sepp Gumbrecht on 'Bliss and Literature," 3 hours a week. The first week of classes here is Shopping Week. The students can go to different classes, then choose the ones they want to take. The amphitheatre was 90% full. The first reading was the scene in the Illiad where Priam goes to Achilles to beg for the body of Hector. I've just reread the passage and my notes from yesterday; which made me think about the difference between happiness (my translation of the Illiad speaks of happiness) and bliss, as well as about bliss and that literary chestnut, the epiphany. This because another thought took me to Eliot's Burnt Norton, where he seems to be having an epiphany or moment of bliss or happiness, towards the end, a moment when the flow of time becomes meaningless. I need to reread the 4Q.

Not blissful was the flight from Paris to SF, because there was a small child nearby, who was probably handicapped in some way we couldn't define, but which involved hyperactivity and long bouts of screaming. When I realized he wasn't misbehaving I also realized that his parents were doing an extraordinary job of taking things in stride.