The Surveyors: Poems
The cover of Mary Jo Salter’s latest collection of poems, The Surveyors, features an unclasped chain, two pieces meant to connect that are just slightly out of reach from one another. This image perfectly encapsulates much of what happens in these breathtaking and ordinary poems. The ordinary, everyday world populates Salter’s poems, from a four-year-old eyeing pastry in “Pastry Level,” to the feel of a lover’s cuff link against the cheek in “Mr. Boyfriend,” to “a sliver / of dried soap in a dish” in “Moon-Breath.”
What is so exquisite about Salter’s poetry is its simplistic construction that gives way to images that haunt, amuse, and unsettle the reader. In “Bratislava,” an older couple, seemingly not each other’s first loves, sees the sights of a foreign city together and are simultaneously drawn together and wedged apart by it. The imagery of children playing in “Little Men” is both familiar and new, perhaps speaking to the genius of Salter’s observations of the world around her: she can render something you’ve seen hundreds of times—little boys playing with toy soldiers—into a new and heartbreaking poem of loss.
But it is the second section of the book that truly astounds. In it, twelve sonnets titled “The Surveyors” comprise a letter in response to Matthew Yeager, who’d dreamed once that she’d written a poem with that title. The twelve sonnets, a sequence that doesn’t perfectly fit the sonnet form but certainly riffs and plays on it, are not only beautiful as individual poems but, as a whole, they reveal a depth of literary passion from Adam and Eve to Donne, from Homer and Milton to Henry James. It is referential and allusive and glorious. Any lover of poetry should run to read this book.
Mary Jo Salter