The White Bride. Cover image: "O Grave, Where is thy Victory" by Jan Toorop. Cover design: Richard Mathews
SARAH MACLAY: The Erotic Surrealist
Sarah Maclay is a master of erotic surrealism or surreal eroticism. This trait, essential in her writing, can be easily traced in all her literary production: Whore (2004), The White Bride (2008), Music for the Black Room (2011), The "She" Series: A Venice Correspondence (her forthcoming collaboration with Holaday Mason), and newer work. Her eroticism is at the same time explicit and elusive. As Cecilia Woloch explains, “Things are slightly askew . . . as in a dream.” (1) Or, as Jeanette Clough puts it, the poems “have an aura, a luminescence around something, in this case, around the words. One may know what each word means separately, but the poem as a whole is more than an exact overlay of the words in it. It's a fuzzy match. You could call the poems faceted, but facets are solid and edgy. A more appropriate term is sfumato. In painting, sfumato is a technique where gradations of tone and color (not of line, incidentally) are used to blur the contours of a form. A painter does this to make an object look like itself, but not quite.” (2)
Desire is at the core of Maclay's poems—a complex desire that tries to reconcile the celebration of touch and the impossibility of contact. And impossibility crisscrosses the work of this author. Far from being a paralyzing force, however, it becomes a source of inspiration. Impossibility feeds exploration, and as a result, instead of a void, we encounter multiple, simultaneous outcomes. Reality—the reality of landscape, the reality of body—is unpredictable, fluid, transformative.
Sometimes the poetic voice intervenes to rename (to reinvent) reality. In her work, Maclay excels in the creation of a surprising, ever-changing universe: "So let’s call them something other than clouds— / Mirror, shell, flame. The sky’s idea of hair." (3)
Maclay's poetry is a poetry of searching—most of all, a search for the nonevident meaning. We witness how the poet needs to turn and shake meaning until its complete exhaustion. Words must be undressed, almost excavated. The actions applied to the words are, at the same time, applied to "the body": "Nuzzle the morsel inside, examine the surface of the inner shell. That small orange tongue of lox—slip it into your mouth. Insert the butter knife between the pages of 'A Thousand French Verbs.' Vivre. Vernir. Verser. To live, to varnish, to decant, to pour, deposit, overturn, to shed, to spill." (4)
As we analyze the evolution of Sarah Maclay's poetry—whether lyric, ekphrastic, or prose poetry—we see a movement toward freedom. In her latest manuscripts—The "She" Series: A Venice Correspondence and the work-in-progress Nightfall Marginalia—the language becomes increasingly experimental. Mixed with sensual synesthesia (a signature of her style), we find the playful contrast of paronymous terms and the deconstruction (and reconstruction) of meaning based on language sound. Reality and language become fragmented and reorganized. Her poems produce an expansive, disorienting dizziness, and the reader—lost and found—experiences Maclay's piercing eroticism, the eroticism of language itself.
1. Cecilia Woloch, blurb on the back cover of Sarah Maclay, Music for the Black Room (Tampa, FL: University of Tampa Press, 2011).
2. Jeanette Clough, oral introduction at the launch of Sarah Maclay's book Whore, Barnes & Noble, Santa Monica, CA, 2004.
3. Sarah Maclay, "Mother-of-Pearl," in Whore (Tampa, FL: University of Tampa Press, 2004), 59.
4. Sarah Maclay, "Verse," in The White Bride (Tampa, FL: University of Tampa Press, 2008), 13.
Born 1956, Missoula, MT
Lives in Venice, CA, and works in Los Angeles and Venice
MFA, creative writing, Vermont College, Montpelier, 2002
BA, English, Oberlin College, OH, 1978
2016 The “She” Series: A Venice Correspondence, coauthored with Holaday Mason. Los Angeles: What Books Press, forthcoming.
2015 "The Abstract Concrete." Poetry International, no. 20–21: 425–38.
2011 Music for the Black Room. Tampa, FL: University of Tampa Press.
2008 The White Bride. Tampa, FL: University of Tampa Press.
2008 "My Lavenderdom." In The Best American Erotic Poems: From 1800 to the Present, ed. David Lehman. New York: Scribner Poetry.
2004 "The Root of Saying." Writer’s Chronicle 37 (October–November): 67–74.
2004 Whore. Tampa, FL: University of Tampa Press. Tampa Review Prize for Poetry.
2001 Ice from the Belly. Laguna Hills, CA: FarStarFire Press.
1999 Shadow of Light. Laguna Beach, CA: Inevitable Press.
1980 "Fugue States Coming Down the Hall." In Scenarios: Scripts to Perform, ed. Richard Kostelanetz. Brooklyn: Assembling Press.
1979 Weeding the Duchess. San Francisco: Black Stone Press.
Cavalieri, Grace. "Andrea Holander Budy and Sarah Maclay." The Poet and the Poem: Audio Podcasts, pt. 1, September 2008. Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress.
Lecrivain, Marie. "Center Stage: Sarah Maclay" (interview). poeticdiversity 3 (November 2005).
Moscaliuc, Mihaela. "Review of Sarah Maclay's The White Bride." Journal (Ohio State University) 32 (Autumn–Winter 2008): 131–33.
The Marina, Early Evening
The sea is only a blue sand,
reaching over its brother.
The sand is only a hard, brown sea.
Gulls open their beaks and nothing comes out.
One. Another. Three. The sea
is only a low cloud
wandering under its sister.
The cloud is only a high, gray sea.
The gulls seem to be praying.
They stand as still as a chess set.
Waves crawl onto the body, slither back.
Oh, the woman with red hair,
legs as tall as stilts,
sings into the ocean.
Her song is only the mirror
of the broken wave.
From Whore (University of Tampa Press, 2004.)
Let's imagine I'm translating something to you—
you, asleep, or sleepless or naming
that third place—between—
with the tips of your tapering fingers—
I don't know the language.
In the mind—in that strangely shared chamber—
that is, I mean, in your hands,
where you show me those scenes of confusion and flight
with such intimacy, and don't know it—
even sans color, sans liquor, sans shape,
we are twins. Fraternal. Unknown.
The moon, invasive, huge,
lunging in through the windows,
makes no exceptions—
It's true: it will never happen / you'd be surprised.
First published in FIELD (Oberlin College Press), no. 91 (Fall 2014)
At the Crossing
I’m holding out my hand to you.
There are three gold coins in my palm.
You don't see the coins, only my hand.
But it's as if my hand is cardboard.
That's what you see—not the coins,
not my palm.
I am trying to tell you something.
I am saying, Here are the coins.
Take them. I’m ready to cross.
You look at the clouds,
you look at the river,
you look at my hand.
You can't take what you can't see.
From Music for the Black Room (University of Tampa Press, 2011.)
—as, after Odysseus, her body wanted to be Ophelia
The pistol came with its own music.
An echo slid from her throat:
Liquid, alive beyond common names for color.
How at night she could not swim.
Her song like a line of neon in wavering slices
across the crinoline dark
until the dogs began to bay
and men slipped into the skins of animals
to roll against the mud without the barrier of clothes.
How that bay was a living jewel—the sound, the topaz water—
the water had poured from her
and become alive.
She would wash up on the shore or float,
as white as the lizard who pulls the carriage
in a dream, all soggy finery
and hair and reeds.
Over and over
her body was painted
like a wine of skin.
What was true:
It was up to her to invent
her own music,
as she began to hear it
in the growing stain of sky.
from The "She" Series: A Venice Correspondence, forthcoming from What Books Press, 2016.
Girl Standing with Death by the Sea
First, there was rain.
Or the surface was scratched.
It was a long distance from green
Death was so quiet,
Perhaps there had been trees. Living ones.
Or maybe really just rain.
It reminded her of standing on top of a hill
and looking down at the city trailing below.
No city, though.
Maybe, in the distance, a sail
or a buoy.
Or a sprinkle of stars, recessed
in that intaglio of green.
And a road, curving along the coastline,
It's so different
from standing on the footbridge
with girlfriends, or cousins,
looking out at the noon lake
or turning around at sunset, removing a hat.
Letting the lake go black.
(In another version, the halo was red—
there was a halo in that version.
It covered her head like a hairband
but she was alone.)
She stands, looking out, until dawn
until the greens are mild
shades of blue, and indigo
is the only place that death might be
nothing but a squiggle,
a puzzle piece.
In little bursts of wind.
It moves like a wet shadow.
If it moves.
Or now it's dark, her hair is longer,
she carries a tambourine
of yellow roses, and death
is only herself, older, and then much older.
The one in the middle—that self—opens her legs in a V,
naked, clasps her hands behind her head—
but she, the sea-looker-she, looks out at the sea.
Feels them, standing behind her.
She has never seen her own exposure, though she feels it.
When she finally sees it—its strangeness, her own—
well, I tell you, I can't explain why,
but it makes her radiant.
Even when everything goes to woodcut white and black,
she stands on a road
and, behind her, it is not death, but a woman with hair—
herself—and skin. And brows. A woman fully exposed
and her dark-clad companion—night, herself.
Or no—the only color now is the palest blue
of water strafed with cloud
and she stands on the black sand before dawn
in her long pale dress and the frothy, possessed black
waves must be wetting her feet and behind her
a figure approaches—a man?
We see them from behind.
She does not yet hear him.
In her private future red bedchamber,
in her long dark confusion of hair,
there is no shame.
Yes—there's a man
and her three selves
as she stands in ochre fog
looking out to the sea.
Her hair spills back
into cloud into branch
she is almost a ghost
he clutches his heart
or maybe just his pocket
the moon reflects in the shape of a lingam
not a pearl—all the way down the water
it makes the road larger, pale and wide
with light until we see her turn away
from the water
and now the reflection, long as the dark the rising
dark of the trees—
it is before, just before, they touch.
Death sits silently by
in another version.
There are so many versions.
No, she was never alone.
Hey, lover. Hey lover, lover, lover. . .
First published in Fanzine, February 20, 2015. http://thefanzine.com/2015/02