Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Lesbians Held Hands

More often than not a poem by Mary Jo Salter fails to hold my attention beyond a span of five or six lines, too frequently being a string of moments tied to the quotidian flow of domestic life. I suppose that criticism could be countered by someone pointing out that in my case, Charles Bukowski, a great favorite, also wrote volumes about unremarkable and seemingly mundane situations in life. In defense of that I would say that Salter is simply not the poet that Bukowski was. In Salter’s case there is sometimes the sense of attempting to weave television sets into lines of poetic meter while on another page casting a critical eye upon the already proven:

…give me Sondheim any day.

I’ve had my fill of Frost,

proud again to be lost,

coming upon his fork

in the road for the millionth time,

or stumbling upon woodpiles

of somebody else’s work.

—excerpt from “Out of the Woods” The Atlantic, October 2009

Certainly a writer is free to express opinion, observation or belief in any way that opens a chink of light for the reader, but it doesn’t always seem to work for Salter.

Salter was born in Michigan in 1954, received her BA from Harvard and an MA from Cambridge; was a staff editor at The Atlantic Monthly and poetry editor of The New Republic before co-editing The Norton Anthology of Poetry, 4th and 5th editions. Salter’s essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review. She has spent extended periods of time living abroad, alternately in Japan, England, Italy, Iceland, and France. Currently a professor in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University, her sixth and latest collection of poems, A Phone Call to the Future: New and Selected Poems, was published in March 2008.

I thank The Writer’s Almanac for bringing to my attention a poem by Salter that I do like very much. In “Au Pair” a poem originally published in a 1999 collection and included in the more recent A Phone Call to the Future, the poet calls upon her experience of living abroad to paint a portrait of a French girl working as an au pair in American suburbia. Whether she means to or not, Salter shows us a fierce perspective of the American way. There is also a delightful sense of humor throughout. It might be that I connected with this poem because as a former expatriate most of the French girl’s observations about Americans and the American way of life mirror my own thoughts.


The first thing she’d noticed, as they sat her down for lunch
by the picture window, was flags all doing a dance
in front of houses: was today a holiday?
No, they said smiling, it’s just the American way,
and she couldn’t help reflecting that in France
nobody needed reminding they were French,

but the neighborhood had turned out very nice,
no fences, big yards, kids racing back and forth;
you could let the shower run while you were soaping
or get ice from a giant refrigerator’s face.
She couldn’t believe how much the franc was worth
and she had no boyfriend yet, but she was hoping,

and because her father was the world’s best baker
she naturally thought of his bakery in the Alps
whenever they passed her a slice of their so-called bread,
and sometimes she wished she could hire a jet to take her
back just for breakfast, but as her great-aunt had said
so wisely more than once, it never helps

to make comparisons, so she mostly refrained.
She couldn’t believe, though, how here whenever it rained
the mother sent children out without their coats,
not carelessly, but because she had no power
and nobody made them finish the food on their plates
and bedtime was always bedtime plus an hour,

so au pairs were useless really, except for the driving.
Yes, that was puzzling: after she cracked up the car
they didn’t blame her or ask her to pay a thing,
but once she let Caitlin eat some sort of cherry
with red dye in it, and then the were angry, very.
Americans were strange, that much was clear:

no penmanship, and lesbians held hands
on the street, and most women carried a pair
of pumps in a bag they never took out to wear;
it was so disrespectful, she couldn’t understand
how the older ones got called nothing, not even Madame,
but then nobody in this country had a last name

which was going to make it hard to write them a letter
when she got back. It was really bittersweet
her visa running out; she was sad that all
she’d done with her days off was go to the mall,
she’d bought a million T-shirts and that was great
but she had to admit it, saving would have been better,

and she knew somehow that when she got on the plane
she’d probably never live anywhere foreign again
which filled her American family with more pity
than she felt for herself, because at least she was coping,
she’d work at her sister’s shop and stay in the city
where she had no boyfriend yet. But she was hoping.


  1. Yes, nice perspective on Americans and the valueless things they sometimes value. Dead Horse City, but we have such riches in so many areas and always put the emphasis on the wrong things. Wise up, America, and enjoy the hissing of summer lawns.

  2. That was a pretty good poem. It makes us realize how America is such a great place to live, yet we take for granted it's benefits and just focus on the bad side. We should learn to appreciate our country, this is our home.


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America