By Katie Peterson

A Phone Call to the Future: New and Selected Poems

By Mary Jo Salter

Knopf, 222 pages, $26.95

'A Phone Call to the Future" combines selections from five earlier books and a generous helping of new works by Formalist poet Mary Jo Salter. Salter seems to know exactly what she's doing:

Much less

the slam

than the slalom

gives me a thrill:

that solemn, no-fuss

Olympian skill

in skirting flag after flag

of the bloody obvious.

But contemporary poets who prefer to work in traditional forms are often our most skeptical and faithless. In her best moments, Salter is not just unsentimental but anti-sentimental about the possibilities of poetry and the always-partial satisfactions of life. The mother relinquishing "Somebody Else's Baby" winces under her own vivid self-reproach:

from now on when they cry and you say

wryly to their mother, 'better you than me,'

you'd better mean it, you'd better

hand over what you can't have, and graciously.

In the title poem the simplicity of Salter's voice registers with strange bluntness what the wiser future will remember about our foreshadowing of it: "Our worrying about robots." And in moments of fine understatement laced with regret and restraint, Salter veers into a regret no less prophetic for its urge toward understatement: "All of it was so quaint. And I was there./Poetry was there; we tried to write it."