Open and Shut

A few years back, I moved to a new house. All of my books were packed up in boxes—where they remain even now, stacked up in the garage, waiting for me to find or build some shelf space for them. I miss having them in the house. I miss walking past them and randomly scanning the spines to find one I haven’t looked at in while. It was a bit like being in a used-book store with the sort of poetry section that you’d never find in real life but always fantasized about. I miss book stores, too—used and new. They still exist here and there, like stubborn tree stumps on the parkway waiting for the city to come and grind them down—something that could happen any day or maybe never.

Of course, the problem of being a compulsive buyer of poetry books means that when I do find myself in a book store with a book in hand, I often can’t remember whether I already own it.

One book that I purchased twice, unwittingly but without regret, is Open Shutters by Mary Jo Salter. Her last name does not start with a silent “P,” but that would be appropriate. Salter is a formalist and traditionalist, and her poems evince a distinct musicality and classical sensibility. Not surprisingly, she was a devotee of James Merrill, and one of the more whimsical poems in this collection, “Tanker,” stems from a sudden insight into a Merrill pun. In a sense, she finally got the joke, long after the joker had died. The joke, here, is the play between “tanker” and “tanka,” a poetic form related to the haiku (a form that appears in actuality or in essence several times in this book).

Salter loves a nice wry pun, too, and a dose of dry wit. In “Tromp L’Oeil,” for example, a painting on a wall shows “shirttails flapping on a frieze.” You hear an echo of “flapping in the breeze,” so the phrase is at once familiar and foreign. On a grander scale, that’s one of the hallmarks of great poetry: it makes us “re-see” things that we’ve always taken for granted. And of course, who could not fall in love with the title of the book, which truly provides a window (with balcony) into the poems that follow.

Salter is a deft formalist, and this book contains an assortment of villanelles, quatrains, sonnets, blank verse, haiku, and various invented rhyme schemes—even a ghazal (which, even in Salter’s accomplished hands, does nothing to endear me to the form). One of my favorites, “Another Session,” is a long sonnet sequence composed upon hearing about the death of her former therapist, which paints an intimate portrait both of the writer and the therapist (at least, as much as the writer could discern through the professional distance). Other favorites deal with more familiar, familial issues. The poems about Salter’s daughters are particularly poignant. In “Snowed-On Snowman,” when her daughter suggests making a snowman, Salter considers it “her last such invitation,/ maybe: she’s thirteen.” How often have I made that same calculation! She goes on to describe the photo she took of her daughter with the snowman: “a snapshot side by side—/ each soon to disappear,/ him shrinking as she grows.” In a similar vein, “For Emily at Fifteen” describes a poem that arrives in a letter from her daughter. The central figure (both the poem and meta-poem) is a mermaid, a ready-made metaphor for straddling (well, maybe that’s not the right word) two worlds. Her daughter embodies the “Half-human and half-fish/ of adolescence.” The metaphor extends to the chimerical juxtaposition of the serious near-adult who writes a poem with deep connotations and the ordinary child who writes a letter that is mostly superficial.

As it turns out, that child, Emily Leithauser, is now a poet of some renown in her own right. And as is evident from the name, Salter was married to Brad Leithauser, another of my favorite poets. I cannot think of many such legacies—Franz Wright and Frieda Hughes are the only ones that come immediately to mind.

Salter’s strength, I believe, is in the half-rhyme: for example, “shutters” and “shatters” in “Tromp L’Oeil,” or “shutter” and “scripture” (in another poem about her daughter, “Advent”). The half-rhyme is, for poetry, what the blue note is for jazz—unique, and hard to replicate or predict, a fall from perfection into an in-between state that defines its own perfection.

Open Shutters, too, defines and achieves its own perfection.