Whore, Sarah Maclay’s first full length collection of poems, opens soft and white--hushed--a strange juxtaposition to the title. The poems are at times graceful and delicate in language, filled with feminine sounds like lit crystal. A sweetness, a faint token of perfume and grief, is calling us constantly to return to the light, even as the lyrics are exploring shadow. And this is the most fascinating dichotomy Whore offers—-a rage of inner weather, traces of bitterness, and an erotic cynicism framed in light and eucalyptus leaves.
There is immediacy in these self-referent conditions which remind us that everything on earth will age. Fatigued and eroded, everyone seems to be sleeping, or away, and Maclay admits in “Chiaroscuro” that, “Yes it is uncomfortable. I cannot leave.”
Why should we doubt that this voice, resigned (though not submissive) wants nakedness, clarity, and light, just as it wants a crippling passion, the frozen landscape of winter, and a real darkness? There is more than one kind of death in these poems, and while simplicity is a little unwelcome, the lyrics claim we are as human as tin and iron and silver. Let it be a vision, or a ghost, or the silhouettes of women searching, always searching…
This world is only barely pretending to be black and white and it might have hinted at success if everything wasn’t so provocative and unreliable, and we return to that obsessive seduction in The White Bride, Maclay’s second collection. This time the poems are less fragmented; instead we are presented with musical movement, block form, and a loud echo of the neurotic repetition so prevalent in Whore.
A Dark Colloquy
The words are unimportant: the words do not exist. What is
familiar is closer: the turned face, the hair flicked over the ear. Is
even smaller: the earlobe, exposed, and the small whir of traffic.
Birds like whistles. It’s dark enough to hear the clocks tick, the fan’s
motor. Inside, outside’s small sounds. The small light of breathing.
And the way movement slows. What is breathing? The cup, the
body. What is still? And the lips are closer, the breath in them, and
the mirrors seem redundant—light sources widening the room and
the gathering dark. The long time we can look at each other, and
swallow and breath, and not go. And the way we remember this
part of the conversation.
Maclay’s eclectic influences for The White Bride include Baudelaire, Gorecki, English folklore, the writings of Anne Boleyn, Greek myth, and even a store mannequin in the window of a pawn shop. The poems in this collection are like stained glass windows in a church, pieced together and surrounded by tradition, dark whispers, and as improbable as it seems, hope. Maclay does mystery well, and among the elegies, love poems, and soliloquies are the reflections of religious metamorphoses—-like the body to bread—black geese become swans, which become stars, which become silence…
The last poem in The White Bride, “The Night Cloth,” offers a return: “There is always the path back to place you began, but this time, take another.” And Maclay’s most recent collection Music for the Black Room does just that. Many of the poems are brief, short in line and length, and although stark, they are just as vivid in language as her earlier work.
There is something fearful about these poems, something very aware of absence and the cold ache of desire. The air is charged, urgent, and everywhere is the exploration of injury and uncertainty.
We are trying to identify music
and I say, Satie. It sounds like Satie.
She says, You know what suttee means--
death by burning. Self-immolation.
It’s considered the highest way to go.
I say it sounds painful.
No, she says, you burn from within--
everything in you on fire
from within. I want to go that way.
I say that Satie’s a composer,
the name of a French composer.
In the way “Satie” finds both hurt and history, Maclay’s third collection is full of things that do not quite touch—-people mostly, but also understanding and sorrow, mercy and hunger, white breath and betrayal. And like each book before it, Music for the Black Room is filled with an enviable elegance of image, sometimes so striking it doesn’t seem real. Many of the poems hint at dreams, or myths waiting to be written, and make no mistake, these pages will haunt long after the covers once again close.