Henry Purcell in Japan Essay - Critical Essays

Mary Jo Salter

Henry Purcell in Japan

The first of the book’s three sections is the most miscellaneous, but it quickly establishes the poet’s wonderfully accurate eye, and her ability to handle a range of tones, from that of “Herb,” with its playful indebtedness to Christopher Smart’s great consideration of his cat Jeoffrey, through meditations on such dissimilar topics as smashing a bee or studying an early photograph of a grandmother, to the honest and moving “John Lennon.” The second section contains poems set in various parts of the world, but the central focus is love, marriage, and impending motherhood. The third and most ambitious section arises from the poet’s sojourn in Japan; here, Salter’s patience and eye for detail yield splendid evocations of the tension between two disparate cultures. “Japanese characters,” “Welcome to Hiroshima,” and “Shisendo” are as beautifully made as any poems published in the 1980’s. Throughout, her mastery of technique is stunning; she has a truly unusual ability to combine traditional meters with language that sounds conversational. At times, her dependence on contractions for the conversational effect becomes perhaps too noticeable, but this is a small quibble with a book which inspires gratitude.

Mary Jo Salter is young, and a few of her poems acknowledge that fact, recounting moments of apprehension at the marriage-license bureau or in the obstetrician’s waiting room; but the attentiveness of her observation, the keen patience with which she exercises her unusual technical skill, and the breadth of experience upon which she draws, all encourage the reader to think of this book not merely as a promising debut, but as the arrival of a poet of rare and important gifts.