Nothing by Design

Nothing by Design

by Mary Jo Salter

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A beautiful collection of verse––both light and dark, elegiac and affirmative––from one of our most admired poets.
The title Nothing by Design is taken from Salter’s villanelle “Complaint for Absolute Divorce,” in which we’re asked to entertain the thought of a no-fault universe. The wary search for peace, personal and public, is a constant theme in poems as varied as “Our Friends the Enemy,” about the Christmas football match between German and British soldiers in 1914; “The Afterlife,” in which Egyptian tomb figurines labor to serve the dead; and “Voice of America,” where Salter returns to the Saint Petersburg of her exiled friend, the late Joseph Brodsky. A section of charming light verse serves as counterpoint to another series entitled “Bed of Letters,” in which Salter addresses the end of a long marriage. Artfully designed, with a highly intentional music, these poems movingly give form to the often unfathomable, yet very real, presence of nothingness and loss in our lives.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385349802
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/17/2013
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 128
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Mary Jo Salter was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She was educated at Harvard and Cambridge and taught at Mount Holyoke College for many years. In addition to her six previous poetry collections, she is the author of a children's book, The Moon Comes Home, and a coeditor of The Norton Anthology of Poetry. She is Andrew W. Mellon Professor in The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University and lives in Baltimore.

Read an Excerpt




He doesn’t see me, whoever he is, who steps

through high grass in his khakis and bow tie

at six in the morning. I’m looking through the glass

of my cottage at the inn, hours before

coffee and buns begin at the conference.

He looks as if he knows things, and will speak

at his appointed time on experiments

successfully conducted, with a coda

on unforeseen, exciting implications,

and a call for further research. The wordless calm

of kayaks moored and mirrored, the yachts far off,

the silver-pink lake’s lapping seem to please him.

He may be in a blessed state of non-thinking.

He runs a hand through thinning, tousled hair.

A witness at the window: somehow a deer

has sidled up, and is staring at me drinking

my coffee. I set it down, chastised. The same

plaintive and yet neutral gaze, as if

she knew once and is trying to recall my name.

I’m trying to unthink the expectations

of my given kind, to adopt another mode, a

curious but disinterested sense

of otherness. (Why is it for a week

all the deer have been either does or fawns?

Somebody knows the answer.) She wants more

from me, or maybe nothing; sniffs the grass,

nibbles a bit, then twitches: her profile high,

she bounds to the shore with leisurely, sure leaps.


Joanna and Valerio

went up to the campanile

of the stone-deaf castle.

From across the courtyard, one

dented little bell with a skew

clapper could be seen.

I hadn’t noticed the bellpulls.

But when Joanna yanked on hers,

and Valerio took his turn,

I heard a pair of louder bells,

deeper, surely bigger—though

these and both my friends remained

entirely invisible.

And the little bell, off-key

and out of sync, hung on and swung—

a third wheel like myself, moved

to celebrate a pair of bells.

Things happen but are parables.


And Jesus said unto them, Come ye after me; and I will make you to become fishers of men.

—mark 1:17

It was the age of sit-ins

and in any case, there weren’t enough chairs.

The guys loped heavy-footed down the stairs

or raced each other to the bottom, laughing,

pushing their luck. But here they all crammed in,

sophomores, born like him in ’51,

to huddle on the floor of the Common Room.

In a corner, a grandfather clock

startled the hour; hammered it home again.

He would remember that. The old New England

rickety dignity of the furniture.

The eminent, stern faces looking down

from time-discolored portraits. Or maybe some

of this was embellishment, added later on.

The flickering, thick fishbowl

of a TV screen, a Magnavox console,

silenced them all. There, in black and white,

gray-haired men in gray suits now began

to pull blue capsules from an actual fishbowl.

(At least the announcer said they were bright blue.)

It was the age of drugs. These looked like giant

Quaaludes handed out

by a mad pharmacist, whose grimly poised

assistant—female, sexless—then unscrewed

from each a poisonous slip of sticky paper.

A man affixed that date to a massive chart.

It was filling up already. (Some poor dude

named Bert was 7; he punched a sofa cushion.)

As for himself, he thought

of penny candy in a jar a million

years ago, picked out with his brother

most days after school. Or times he’d draw

tin soldiers from the bottom of a stocking.

(Born two days past Christmas, he’d always seen

that as good karma: the whole world free to play.)

A congressman was rifling

loudly through capsules, seized some in his fist,

dropped all but one. Not Jeremy? Good friend,

socked with 15. Two strangers, 38.

Ben got 120. Would that be good enough?

Curses, bluster, unfunny humor, crossed

fingers for blessed numbers that remained.

Somewhere, sometime in

that ammunition pile awaited his:

239. He heard the number whiz,

then lodge safe as a bullet in his brain.

Like a bullet in a dream: you’re dead, you’re fine.

No need to wish for C.O. or 4-F.

Oh thank you, Jesus God. No Nam for him.

Yet he was well brought up.

In decency, rather than dance for joy

or call up Mom right then from the hallway phone,

he stayed until the last guy knew his fate.

Typical Roy, who’d showed up late, freaked out

when, it appeared, his birthday got no mention.

He hadn’t heard: they’d hosed him. Number 2.

Before the war was lost

some four years later, a handful in that room

would battle inside fishbowls, most in color—

and little men, toy soldiers in a jungle,

bled behind the glass while those excused,

life-sized, would sit before it eating dinner.

He’d lived to be a watcher. And number 2

in the Common Room that day?

Clearly not stupid. Roy became a major

in Independent Projects. Something about

landscapes in oil, angles of northern sun.

By the time he graduated, he had won

a study grant to paint in England, where

(so his proposal went) the light was different.


A fish-shaped school of

fish, each individual

shaped like a single

scale on the larger

fish: some truths are all

a matter of scale,

in the manner that shale

will flake into thin layers

of and like itself,

or a roof is made

of shingle upon shingle

of roofish monad.

Scale, fish, school of fish . . . 

“That’s a fractal, isn’t it?”

was your feedback when

you ate what I said.

“A form that’s iterated:

output is input

ad infinitum.”

Must I now mull it over?

I mulled it over.

This aquarium,

I thought, was a sort of think

tank for non-thinkers

in their open-mouthed

safety-in-numbers forage,

needing no courage.

Yet so beautiful:

mathematically serving

one end while swerving

in a fraction of

a second into action:

how do they sense when

to advance or back-

track, tail that guy, or swallow

the law to follow?

Somewhat in the line

of Leibniz, Mandelbrot coined

the term fractal: it’s

the hall-of-mirrors

parthenogenesis of

a recursive, nonce,


irregular form: i.e.,

copies no other

formula can make.

(I learned that when I got home.)

An eye on either

side of a flat head

is useful, I read; herring

have a keen sense of hearing,

but it’s not that that

gives them their unerring

“high polarity,”

pooling together

just close enough to discern

skin on a neighbor,

far enough to skirt

collision. That’s a vision

scaled for fish—but what

human can marshal

acceptance, much less a wish,

for sight so partial?

“Stand back from the glass,

make room for the universe,”

I thought then; “at least

for whatever we

can compass: iteration

on iteration,

until fish fill the ocean.”

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