Salter, Mary Jo

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Nationality: American. Born: Grand Rapids, Michigan, 15 August 1954. Education: Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, B.A. (cum laude) 1976; New Hall, Cambridge, M.A. (with first class honors) 1978. Family: Married Brad Leithauser q.v. in 1980; two daughters. Career: Instructor, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1978–79; staff editor, Atlantic Monthly, Boston, Massachusetts, 1978–80; instructor in English conversation at various institutions in Japan, 1980–83. Since 1984 lecturer, Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Massachusetts. Poet-in-residence, Robert Frost Place, 1981. Awards: Discovery (The Nation) prize, 1983; National Endowment for the Arts fellow, 1983–84; Lamont Poetry prize, Academy of American Poets, 1988, for Unfinished Painting; Ingram-Merrill Foundation fellowship, 1989; Witter Bynner Foundation Poetry prize, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, 1989; Lavan award, Academy of American Poets, 1990; Guggenheim fellowship, 1993. Address: c/o Alfred A. Knopf, 201 East 50th Street, New York, New York 10022, U.S.A.



Henry Purcell in Japan. New York, Knopf, 1985.

Unfinished Painting. New York, Knopf, 1989.

Sunday Skaters. New York, Knopf, 1994.

A Kiss in Space. New York, Knopf, 1999.


The Moon Comes Home (for children). New York, Knopf, 1989.


Critical Study: "The Not-So-New Formalism" by David Lehman, in Michigan Quarterly Review (Ann Arbor, Michigan), 29(1), winter 1990.

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Mary Jo Salter is one of the best of the younger poets now writing in traditional forms. Her work has variety, grace, humor, and depth. Her first book, Henry Purcell in Japan (1985), opens with a poem that introduces many of the themes that inform much of her subsequent work. "For an Italian Cousin" recounts the speaker's reaction as her cousin shows her the Roman Catholic church she attends and describes the local observance of Good Friday. The speaker is shocked by the waxen image of Christ on the chapel's crucifix and by her cousin's naïveté:

Tempted to joke, I'm silenced by
the trusting expression on her face,
flushed with the light of this stained glass
where Christ is always about to die.

Yet the speaker thinks of another church, San Marco in Venice, where images have shown her "a world I've pieced / together with a kind of faith, at least." The mosaics there seem less stone than flesh:

A puzzle of figures floats on the walls
and in golden domes, and you have the feeling
this heavenly gold is not a ceiling—
but space itself, from which no one falls.

The voice here, as in most of Salter's poems, is controlled and plausibly conversational. The speaker's mind makes rapid connections and associations, many of them metaphorical, and the speaker brings an American sensibility self-consciously to bear upon remote surroundings. Salter and her family have spent significant stretches of time abroad, in Japan, Paris, and Iceland, and these places have provided settings for many of her poems.

Salter received the Lamont award of the Academy of American Poets for her second collection, Unfinished Painting (1989). Reflecting additional years of practice, the poems are more fully achieved technically, and the balance between the attractive ingenuity of slighter poems and the depth of feeling in more solemn ones is more assured. There is the wit that rhymes "umbrage" and "Cambridge" and sees in the face of Big Ben "a daily mirror of the Times," and there is the heart for elegies to the poet's mother and for Etsuko, a Japanese friend. The title poem, about a painting reproduced on the book's jacket, again confronts the tension between the passage of time and those objects that evoke single moments. The painting is by the poet's mother and portrays the poet's brother as a child.

Sunday Skaters (1994), Salter's third collection, begins with several poems evoking the joys and the trials of love and of parenthood, both experienced and observed. Here is "Lullaby for a Daughter," the shortest but not the least of these:

Someday, when the sands of time
invert, may you find perfect rest
as a newborn nurses from
the hourglass of your breast.

In these poems close but apparently effortless observation is backed by a deep moral sense that greatly enriches Salter's work, though it never makes it too solemn to be believed. Solemnity, in fact, is scarce here, even when the poems are at their most serious, for Salter is constantly alert for the small jokes the language plays upon itself.

The book ends with two longer poems of notable ambition. "Two American Lives" evokes crucial moments in the lives of Thomas Jefferson and Robert Frost and, according to notes at the back of the book, required considerable research. The poems live, however, on their own terms and bring great moments to life, free of the sound of index cards.

—Henry Taylor