Sarah Maclay


After I’d completed the manuscript that became my first published full-length book, I went through a sort of gawky, awkward, adolescent groping toward poems that seemed either like the last spurts of what I’d just assembled, or the misshapen beginnings of something that was yet to be revealed. I needed a sort of chaser—a different attack, a different way in—to counter a kind of exhaustion I felt about the degree to which I’d been trolling in bleak territory that felt exceptionally revealing, if still, I suppose, veiled. Among other things, I needed, for a long time, not to say “I.” And I needed to look outward, to be triggered by sources that, for some reason, magnetized me. Of course both of those rules were broken or re-assembled once the next vein had opened and had become something I knew was going to continue for a while, but they served as a loose set of rules or constraints, as well as points of inspiration, for the beginnings of what was going to come next: a series of (mostly) prose poems that very often came to me, in the way individual lines so often do, as assignments based on a title (often a single word), or the trigger of a cultural artifact that felt ekphrastic but had not necessarily been intended as a work of art, per se—for instance, a mannequin in front of a pawn shop on Gardner, and another, in a costume exhibit, that became, along with the moon (for which the title of the new collection is finally a metaphor), the basis of the title poem. Book covers, the backs of record albums, music, the strange, small things encountered on walks, historical figures and obscure characters from old novels all provided moments of inspiration, along with the subjects that I think now tend to be typical of what I write “about,” though it’s my experience that we don’t really choose our “subjects.” They choose us. What is more intriguing to me is mode—how is it that what we’re writing, what we’re perceiving, finds its way into these words and silences?

I have written prose poems, on and off, across several decades. My first chapbook was a long, absurd, series of linked prose poems that I subtitled “A Cartoon.” I had the good fortune of stumbling onto encouragement for working in this form at Oberlin, many years ago, and still have my copy of Michael Benedikt’s The Prose Poem, though it has recently split in two. I was a fan of both Russell Edson and Transtromer, among many others—Merwin, Char, Rimbaud—who had been drawn to it. I don’t particularly ask myself what a given form “means” to me, the way I don’t ask myself what a particular type of tree means to me (though some, oddly, do have specific “meaning.”) But I do find that I’m generally with those who suggest that the prose poem is simply a poem that has neither the obligation nor the tool of the line break. It has recently allowed a kind of rush of rhythms and lines and sentences that sprawled into a still somewhat condensed space, with frequent dashes making for the occasional breath, a caesura between linkages that defy other types of punctuation. And I have recently been drawn to breaking up moment-to-moment coherence and unity, so that the surface is sometimes a little more distressed and the poem feels as precariously balanced as a bunch of Pick-Up-Sticks, though at other times I like an almost glass-like surface for something that is inherently emotionally distressing, because the contrast is so unsettling. And so, many of these are rather dense, but I hope they proceed with a kind of propulsion. The prose poems reprinted here were strongly influenced by music—Gorecki and Chet Baker, in particular, and also a nod to a Christmas carol. While in the midst of writing "Let Every Heart", in a December in which I was trying to find every possible way to “make a little room,” after a huge wind, I stumbled on an article that talked about the way Baker would try for a sense of continually sustained breath in his trumpet solos—as though the breath were going on and on without a pause for inhalation—the illusion of an endless breath. I had that in mind as I wrote the poem, and though of course it is impossible not to take a breath in the middle of it, while reading it aloud, I like the idea of it all falling within one very, very long breath that takes in the entire view, the entire, collapsed experience—in all of its many individual moments and newly scattered sights and objects—of the poem.




Let Every Heart


The blue sash of wind circling the tiny waist of the city, ample and ample the satin, the keen swishing of leaves, the burnished browns of dislodged palm piled askew on the walks, the sailing trash, the cry, the lover’s tongue—slowly making its way; the heaving boughs, the undersides of silver all at once turning together like birds, the huge relief, the sigh, the way the hair falls to the side, the fingers turning the scalp to sand, the smell of dope rising up from the sidewalk—a musk eucalyptus, the sirens, the horns, the bits of yellow leaves like a stack of centimes blown over the street, the unrelenting sky, these, these ornaments of time, the letting go of the spine, the held flight of the thousand bougainvillea blossoms of paper fuchsia and rust, the return, the moment of stillness, the climbing chords, the lights suddenly off, the parking lot words of the bantering man in the Chrysler, the lips as expressive as fingers, the palm debris everywhere like fallen wood, him, it, the pelvis open like a hinge, the sound exhaled from both bodies, the sigh beyond color, the steep—the raw—pitch of legato, the face entirely changed, the face made true, the wind as it spindles the long limp blinds like a sea of bamboo, oh let me not cease, oh let me not—let this not—cease, the erupting quiet, the wind, the snare, the sound of the drum being brushed by sashes, the blue and terrible sashes, the lush unspoken scream welling up from the center, lavish, unbearable, this moment, this.


Originally published in The Journal.



Ocean in White Chair



The music starts inaudibly, as all music starts. She thinks: tonight there is a hammock, there is memory: they are all glassy rocking, undertow, it is mysterious, nothing in the living room looks wet. They can never talk about it later, they are going to be fools, it is the saddest music, they are smart enough to come back. It is an act of memory, done not with the mind, but with the body. With two bodies they are black water under night; they are the sound the seashell makes, the ear it presses to. They are aqua, ultra. Seaweed flying through like lace. Like stray hair. They pull it back. There is a lie of whispers, but not here. The ocean is the grave of all tears, tears are a memory of ocean. Elegy isn’t even elegy, but something deeper: this is what they touch. It is the only music but it is not really sad. They do not cry, they do not have to cry, they are the same wave. Later they cannot talk about it, say the wrong things; make promises they cannot keep or promise not to promise. Anything they say flattens into ribbons, curls away. It is this simple: start by asking her about her day, start by asking him about his day, and then begin. Listen with your fingers. The sea is dangerous, they say, but not if you’re the sea. What they give each other they will never see in a mirror, they are clothed, it doesn’t matter, from the depths of what they’re doing they are pausing, they look up, they did not know the ocean looked like this.


Originally published in The Laurel Review.



Ocean Without Figures



And now all sound is liquid, settling into the curve of a shell, filling it—the long, curling funnel opening into sand—and it’s night, or the cusp of dawn, the ocean calm as a lake at the shore, the smell of the sea opening like fog across the basin for miles, as if fog could be smelled, as if it carries with it memory: a kind of body, a kindness, a body awake—

nothing hurts. And all this empties into the necessity of fog: a vanishing, and the notes, all played, all crafted in tic-tack Victorian, drop. Much too well we have settled. The unknown, the hidden, comfort. Not an embrace, but bigger. The vague obliterates the specific; forgets it, happy, relieved.

Here is the morning estuary—for a moment, beyond fear. And the ear drinks like a cup as if all sound were ocean, and this cupful, all we hear—as it sets the tiny bones in motion, sticks in a stream, and the larger ones, buried far below the sand—the bones that can only dance—




Sarah_Maclay.JPGSarah Maclay is the author of The White Bride (forthcoming, University of Tampa Press, ’08) and Whore (Tampa Review Prize for Poetry). Her poems, essays and reviews have appeared in The American Poetry Review, FIELD, Ploughshares, The Writers’ Chronicle, Ninth Letter, Swink, The Laurel Review, The Journal, lyric, Hotel Amerika and numerous other spots including Poetry International, where she serves as book review editor, and her work is forthcoming in The Best American Erotic Poems: 1800 to the Present (Scribner’s, 2008). She received a Special Mention in The Pushcart Prize XXXI. A visiting assistant professor at Loyola Marymount University, she currently lives in Venice, California.