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Mary Jo Salter


Mary Jo Salter was born in 1954 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. In 1976, she received her bachelor’s degree from Harvard University, where she studied with poet Elizabeth Bishop. She received her master’s degree from Cambridge University in 1978 and was awarded an honorary doctorate of letters from Amherst College in 2010.

Known as a leading figure of the New Formalism movement, Salter has published many collections of poems, including Nothing by Design (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), A Phone Call to the Future (Alfred A. Knopf, 2008), and Open Shutters (Alfred A. Knopf, 2003). Poet Carolyn Kizer described Salter’s work as “poems of breathtaking elegance: in formal control, in intellectual subtlety, in learning lightly displayed.”

Salter is also the author of a children’s book, The Moon Comes Home (1989) and a play, Falling Bodies (2004), and her lyrics for jazz pianist and composer Fred Hersch resulted in the song cycle Rooms of Light, which premiered at Lincoln Center in 2007.

Her honors include fellowships from the Bogliasco Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Rockefeller Foundation.

For twenty-three years, Salter taught at Mount Holyoke College, where she was eventually named the Emily Dickinson Senior Lecturer in the Humanities. She has served as an editor for the Atlantic Monthly and the New Republic, and was a coeditor of the fourth and fifth editions of The Norton Anthology of Poetry. She also served as the vice president of the Poetry Society of America from 1995 to 2007.

Currently, she is Krieger-Eisenhower Professor at The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University and lives in Baltimore. 

Selected Bibliography

Nothing by Design (Knopf, 2013)
A Phone Call to the Future (Knopf, 2008)
Open Shutters (Knopf, 2003)
A Kiss in Space (Knopf, 1999)
Sunday Skaters (Knopf, 1994)
Unfinished Painting (Knopf, 1989)
Henry Purcell in Japan (Knopf, 1985)

Mary Jo Salter
Photo credit: Michael Malyszko

By This Poet


The Buttonhook

President Roosevelt, touring Ellis Island
in 1906, watched the people from steerage
line up for their six-second physical.

Might not, he wondered aloud, the ungloved handling
of aliens who were ill infect the healthy?
Yet for years more it was done. I imagine

my grandmother, a girl in that Great Hall’s
polyglot, reverberating vault
more terrible than church, dazed by the stars

and stripes in the vast banner up in front
where the blessed ones had passed through. Then she did too,
to a room like a little chapel, where her mother

might take Communion. A man in a blue cap
and a blue uniform—a doctor? a policeman?
(Papa would have known, but he had sailed

all alone before them and was waiting
now in New York; yet wasn’t this New York?)—
a man in a blue cap reached for her mother.

Without a word (didn’t he speak Italian?) 
he stuck one finger into her mother’s eye,
then turned its lid up with a buttonhook,

the long, curved thing for doing up your boots
when buttons were too many or too small.
You couldn’t be American if you were blind

or going to be blind. That much she understood.
She’d go to school, she’d learn to read and write
and teach her parents. The eye man reached to touch

her own face next; she figured she was ready.
She felt big, like that woman in the sea
holding up not a buttonhook but a torch.