POETRY ... Mary Jo Salter
“A Phone Call to the Future”
Mary Jo Salter
Who says science fiction
is only set in the future?
After a while, the story that looks least
believable is the past.
The console television with three channels.
Black-and-white picture. Manual controls:
the dial clicks when you turn it, like the oven.
You have to get up and walk somewhere to change things.
You have to leave the house to mail a letter.
Waiting for letters. The phone rings: you’re not there.
You’ll never know. The phone rings, and you are,
there’s only one, you have to stand or sit
plugged into it, a cord
confines you to the room where everyone
is also having dinner.
Hang up the phone. The family’s having dinner.
Waiting for dinner. You bake things in the oven.
Or Mother does. That’s how it always is.
She sets the temperature: it takes an hour.
The patience of the past.
The typewriter forgives its own mistakes.
You type on top sheet, carbon, onion skin.
The third is yours, a record of typeovers,
clotted and homemade-looking, like the seams
on dresses cut out on the dining table.
The sewing machine. The wanting to look nice.
Girls who made their dresses for the dance.
This was the Fifties: as far back as I go.
Some of it lasted decades.
That’s why I remember it so clearly.
Also because, as I lie in a motel room
sometime in 2004, scrolling
through seventy-seven channels on my back
(there ought to be more—this is a cheap motel room),
I can revisit evidence, hear it ringing.
My life is movies, and tells itself in phones.
The rotary phone, so dangerously languid
and loud when the invalid must dial the police.
The killer coming up the stairs can hear it.
The detective ducks into a handy phone booth
to call his sidekick. Now at least there’s touch tone.
But wait, the killer’s waiting in the booth
to try to strangle him with the handy cord.
The cordless phone, first noted in the crook
of the neck of the secretary
as she pulls life-saving files.
Files come in drawers, not in the computer.
Then funny computers, big and slow as ovens.
Now the reporter’s running with a cell phone
larger than his head,
if you count the antenna.
They’re Martians, all of these people,
perhaps the strangest being the most recent.
I bought that phone. I thought it was so modern.
Phones shrinking year by year, as stealthily
as children growing.
It’s the end of the world.
Or people are managing, after the conflagration.
After the epidemic. The global thaw.
Everyone’s stunned. Nobody combs his hair.
Or it’s a century later, and although
is a robot or a clone, or some combination,
you have to admire the technology of the future.
When you want to call somebody, you just think it.
Your dreams are filmed. Without a camera.
You can scroll through the actual things that happened,
and nobody disagrees. No memory.
No point of view. None of it necessary.
Past the time when the standard thing to say
is that, no matter what, the human endures.
That whatever humans make of themselves
is therefore human.
Past the transitional time
when humanity as we know it was there to say that.
Past the time we meant well but were wrong.
It’s less than that, not anymore a concept.
Past the time when mourning was a concept.
Of course, such a projection,
however much I believe it, is sentimental—
belief being sentimental.
The thought of a woman born
in the fictional Fifties.
That’s what I mean. We were Martians. Nothing’s stranger
than our patience, our humanity, inhumanity.
Our worrying about robots. Earplug cell phones
that make us seem to be walking about like loonies
talking to ourselves. Perhaps we are.
All of it was so quaint. And I was there.
Poetry was there; we tried to write it.
from A Phone Call to the Future:
New and Selected Poems
Mary Jo Salter
(Alfred A. Knopf, 2008)