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From up here, the insomniac
river turning in its bed
looks like a line somebody painted
so many years ago it’s hard
to believe it was ever liquid; a motorboat
winks in the sun and leaves a wake
that seals itself in an instant, like the crack
in a hardly broken heart.

And the little straight-faced houses
that with dignity bear the twin
burdens of being unique and all alike,
and the leaf-crammed valley like the plate
of days that kept on coming and I ate
though laced with poison: I can look
over them, from this distance, with an ache
instead of a blinding pain.

Sometimes, off my guard, I half-
remember what it was to be
half-mad: whole seasons gone; the fear
a stranger in the street might ask
the time; how feigning normality
became my single, bungled task.
What made me right again? I wouldn’t dare
to guess; was I let off

for good behavior? Praise
to whatever grace or power preserves
the living for living…Yet I see the square
down there, unmarked, where I would pace
endlessly, and as the river swerves
around it, wonder what portion of
love I’d relinquish to ensure
I’d never again risk drowning.

– Mary Jo Salter

I read the line, “the plate/of days that kept on coming and I ate/though laced with poison” and she had me.

A note on the format of this poem: I am unable to get WordPress to “tab” lines for indentation. (If anyone knows how, please advise.) The layout of this poem is an important part of the experience. Please refer to its proper presentation here.


Spring Thaw in South Hadley

Old snows locked under glass
by last night’s ice storm left
curatorial Winter, in
whose hands alone we’d hope
to find the keys,
jangling them in the trees—.

not merely in these pine
needles by the fistful
gloved in crystal, but,
from their boughs, the self-
invented digits of
icicles addressed

(in a manner reminiscent
of the insubstantial
finger of a sundial)
less to a point in space
than effectively to Time,
the frozen moment.

By noon, the ice as thin
as an eggshell veined to show
life seeping yellow,
one’s boots sink in
with a snap; the sap
underrunning everything

may be nothing but water, yet
there’s a sacramental
joy in how, converting
to its liquid state,
it’s anything but gentle.
A crash from Abbey Chapel—

who cut the string
that sent the white sheets falling?
Nothing but the long
scissors of the sun
unwraps such thunder. Even
a modest A-frame

in a muffled instant sheds
its wrinkling roofs of snow:
black butterfly below.
As if to make
one more clean break above,
the sky—seconds ago

one continent of cloud—
follows the drift of Spring,
splits and refits like Ming
porcelain. The plate
tectonics alternate:
white and blue, blue and white.

–Mary Jo Salter

This poem is a worthy paen to the power of weather systems, appropriately posted right before I head back to the warmer clime of San Francisco for a few days. I’m hungry for that sound of spring breaking through that I hear, crystalline, in this poem. The éclat of the changing from winter to warmth.

I am also moved by many of Salter’s phrases, like “curatorial Winter,” “a sacramental/joy in how, converting/to its liquid state,/it’s anything but gentle,” “Nothing but the long/scissors of the sun/unwraps such thunder.”

(Salter and her poetry resurfaced for me after reading a review of her latest volume, A Phone Call to the Future, in the New York Times Book Review on Sunday. An excerpt of that review is posted on Slow Painting.)