A Review of Sarah Maclay?s Whore
University of Tampa Press, Tampa Florida, 2004, $20.00 (hardback)
A few prior chapbooks exempt, Sarah Maclay’s debut collection Whore is softly stunning. Softly stunning? An oxymoron perhaps, but accurate nonetheless. In this gorgeous, daringly titled and mounted book, and a winner may I add of the Tampa University Poetry Prize for 2004, Maclay’s exquisite control of utterance effuses a mood of quiet, meditative absorption. But the themes and experiences thereby rendered, and the spiritual movements recorded, are of the first level of profound concern. They are so strong in their subtlety of presentation that the effect is like an innocent object (or trope or poem) going off like a time bomb, a soft and stunning time bomb. Maclay intimates, she doesn’t blare, and the power of the misty yet unambiguous intimations can leave you breathless.
And the poems in this collection are predominantly about love—its nuances and vagaries, its disappointments, yearnings, and glory—either in place, viewed in memory, or again yearned for. By turns we experience love and its disparate sub-species: love longed for, disappointed, joyous, melancholic, ecstatic, and failed. The sure, deftly controlled, even oblique but lapidary language, and the human gravity of the information, fuse as a testament to the vicissitudes of the poet’s heart—and, by extension, everybody’s heart—in the face of that universal baseline: love. And, I hardly need mention, this for the purpose of evocatively re-experiencing your own historic waltzes with Eros past, present, and yet to come…deeply, perhaps painfully, but with redemption as its object.
Consider these excerpts from “Chiaroscuro” a long poem especially telling in its impact, and quite emblematic of Maclay’s work of this poetically fundamental focus:
…Bribe me with your tongue-/
It consecrates my narcissism.
Swindle me –
its deep sarcoma comforts me.
The singing folds I greet you with
are not an aberration…
…Kill me then, you
with your wet, swift wind,
with your ecstasy of ragged disappointment…
Passionate as hell, yet decorous, even demure. I find this recipe consuming, irresistible.
What is more, Maclay lacks nothing when it comes to improvisation of rendition. In an oddly affecting little poem called “Daphne at the Moment of Transformation” Maclay speaks in the very voice of the classical mythic Daphne, who was changed by Zeus into a laurel tree so she could evade the pursuing Apollo, who desired her. Daphne describes her new estate as a tree and the overall effect has to do with, it seems to me, the perils of love and the sacrifices it may require. Classical reference is no new thing in poetry, of course, but this gritty, sensual trope, which epitomizes the fusion of flesh and nature (“But now, my toenails grow into shale./Veins root. A bleeding rock.”), is a novel slant—and a powerful one.
Language notwithstanding, and many contend that language is poetry, Maclay has an acutely clear vision of and a firm grip on the conceptual and logical underpinnings, the structure of each poem.
That said, Maclay also has range of prosodic style. The brilliant title poem “Whore” is a gemlike example of another facet of her ability with a wholly different prosody. No impressionistic, quasi-surreal speech that she uses to such powerful advantage elsewhere here. Instead, here we are confronted with a hard-edged tone of clear logic, a soulful etymology” if you will, a snazzy and crafty etymology of that vexed word, eponymous to this poem and this book. From this analysis comes the concluding sentiment, which fairly leaps out at you: stunning and subtle, but this time not softly. Rather, it is a dazzling “sneak right hook” of a concluding line, almost a proverb, no less perfect for being a moral innuendo encapsulating in one line the huge matters of sex and love and social and ethico—legal pathology. This exquisite and telling little feat of etymological cross-pollination succeeds like a bombshell as a poem, yes, a soft bombshell.
It comes from hore in Old English
hora in Old Norwegian,
but the Latin references charity –
at the root it’s carus – dear,
as in Hello whore. Hello dear.
As in loved one, sweetheart, precious,
as in rare—therefore….
(Well, I won’t spoil it for you.)
But Maclay has range of theme as well. In what is perhaps my favorite of the book, “Prayer to the Moon,” we are not on about love, unless you include love of life at all. We are on about 9/11. A prayer for succor. But to the moon? Yes. We seem to need an atavistic rite, primal, pre-deistic, addressed to something natural, palpable and absolutely dependable. Something eternal, vivid enough in its existence to admit of sensory perception, and something that would not desert us. This, as was the practice of primitive man (read us): the sun, the moon as deity. In fact, here the poet re-invokes primitive tribal man, whom we might do damn well to emulate. Indeed, prayer to these sky gods not to go out and thus kill all of life. We need a rite more deep reaching than modern religion can supply, when the God of Abraham was away from his desk that day. The tour d’force of a poem has oblique visual references to the catastrophe, and intimations of both the fragility of life at all and the travail of the soul on earth.
…O moon, honey in the sky
Watch over us.
Even as we pause, suddenly fragile,
How tender, how forlorn, how beautiful.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
There are other strong and pervasive elements in Maclay’s poetry, which I can only mention in passing here:
Consuming sensuality: “A Crescendo of Rain” is a highly eroticized reverie on the processes and perhaps the loneliness of passion, and the reader cannot determine whether of the present, fancied, or past. This gives the poem an a-temporal, sort of eternal quality.
…Even blue, the sky is full of rain.
The pavement sweats.
I learn to suck nourishment
from your flat, ocean breast.
The passionate person enmeshed in love, embedded in the natural world. Strong stuff.
And indeed, the evocation of nature is a major element in Maclay’s oeuvre. I know of no contemporary of mine better at adducing that fusion of nature and soul, paradoxically mirroring each other—a time honored, standard and eternally reliable device of poetry, romantic poetry, (Wordsworth for example)—than Maclay.
Also in “A Crescendo of Rain” we find:
…A mourning dove
is moaning something
I no longer know….
Wind is blowing a flag of begonias.
Wind is blowing the white gladiolas.
Ocean of salt, ocean of roses.
There is much stirring and sustaining value here. But these are not “easy” poems; these poems deepen, rewarding multiple readings. Read them in your strong, quiet, meditative hours—qualities commensurate with this book. Or, put another way, follow Maclay down that shadowy, misted forest path at night, communing with and meditating on love, the light just over the horizon.