Pick-a-Poem: Mary Jo Salter

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Good morning, blog readers! I hope your week has been going swimmingly. It’s Wednesday and that means that it’s time for another featured poem courtesy of Poetry Daily. If you’re looking to inject some verse and rhyme into your day, check out Poetry Daily! This week’s poem is entitled Common Room, 1970 and is written by Mary Jo Salter.

According to her page on Poetry Daily, Mary Jo Salter “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.”

 Common Room, 1970, by Mary Jo Salter

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.

I hope you enjoyed this week’s featured poem! For more posts like this, check out the archives.

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

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