Review by Maureen Alsop
THE WHITE BRIDE
by Sarah Maclay
University of Tampa Press
401 W. Kennedy Blvd.
Tampa, FL 33606
2008, 84 pp., $12.00
A mesmeric music that “starts inaudibly, as all music starts…” (3) within Maclay’s The White Bride moves not only from poem to poem, but from outer ear to inner throat. The arc of the book is a crescendo of image and silhouette guided by a voice with one leg in the city and one leg in another century, past or future–one cannot be sure. The voice, delicate, whispers calmly as the reader engages the motion of waves while standing at the edge of a cliff.
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. (3)
Maclay’s voice is the sea, and a reader is quickly catapulted by the marvelous waves of The White Bride’s musical language.
This music offers the same impact a stray piece of tinsel swept over wooden floor boards may offer to one’s memory when its lost glint is discovered well after Boxing Day, deep into the slings of February’s buoyant new holiday when roses, whispers, pink cellophane define the season’s ambience. A surprising warmth coupled with the hospitality, both familiar and romantically re-envisioned, Maclays’ poems themselves are
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 …(12)
Her prose rises as that “lush unspoken scream welling up from the center, lavish…” (12). Maclay’s poetry imprints the psyche leaving no emotion uncovered.
After reading Sarah Maclay’s poem “Let Every Heart,” (12) the chorus from the ballad ”Joy to the World” ran through my mind as if from the vibration from a bell that just stopped ringing. Not any contemporary version of, that ballad, but a choir lifting out of Maclay’s haunting voice as if from an old phonograph record on an obscure 18th Century loop which crackles and goes soft. A layer of snow. A layer of static. Dark, yes. Flecked in mystery. The resonance of Maclay’s language offers a friendly, lucid resting place in a “landscape crushed like tinfoil.” (43) It is a place where “we can assume stars though we cannot see them.” (38) Maclay writes in the poem “Black Lake,” “This is what I’m sure of: the last time I sat near you, there was fog. How it padded the hotel patio like thoughtful architecture, the air suddenly grave with a kind of admission. And then that new sensation on my cheek—and then our two hands nestling like goslings.” (38) A love poem? Perhaps. An elegy? Perhaps. The poem, like many poems in White Bride, seems to embody quiet conversations with angels, not in a figurative sense, but in a contemporary search for what is soul. Maclay suggests that this place, the place of the soul, is a world “in between,” a place inhabited by someone or something more significant than the physical body, more haunting than an old lover. In “Figure in Permanent Field,” a deliberately italicized poem, Maclay writes:
There were too many endings. Beginnings grew less clear. And here, after all, was the second half of things. You won’t remember this now, but later you knew me. It was in that dream of the other century, still ahead. Perhaps you had come across me in that strange way of yours—protective, awkward, intense—even as I worked at the small desk just beyond the landing. Even as you entered with your flask. And though you barely spoke, I felt your blessing. You say you never gave one, but you did. I can tell you now what I was doing in that field, where you saw me sleeping. It was all I wanted, to be lying there in white. It was all I wanted for a long time—unless, that is, the kite you saw suspended from my writst began, eventually, to lift me. Meanwhile, I was the counterweight. Meanwhile, I could sleep. But I’d have let it take me anywhere. It was a chance. (37).
A soliloquy to the soul, to the past, a gratitude for finding oneself as impermanent, alive, and through this knowledge, transcendent. The soul’s epithalamium to writing perhaps, as the bride ascends from the underworld. In “What Keeps Me,” the poem ends with “The clock beating out its tune, like a fallen leaf or the ticking of a heart. Who’s a saint?” (43) Yes, “who is a saint?” The words river their course through the bloodstream, alighting, as they will in one’s own inner sanctuary.
The last poem of the book, “The Night Cloth” tells us, it is time to go home, perhaps time to go back to the place poetry begins. For Maclay, this is a place of unutterable grace:
There is always the path back to the place you began, but this time, take another. You have been give the colors of a Vermeer, made in muted light. They are what twilight does to wheat and shadow. And then the man below you, in his apartment, does a kind of singing—as though he is making song with his fingers as they drum a tabletop. As soon as you name this color gold, it looks like ultramarine or even distant knapweed or even part of the ocean. (62)
The White Bride is what a radiant soul does to language, but as soon as it is defined, understood, it transforms, blossoming into a sacred chorus, an elevated spacious sound. Centered by the hush one might find in a cathedral.
Maureen Alsop’s poems have appeared or are pending in various publications including: Agni, Tampa Review, New Delta Review, The Cortland Review, Barrow Street, Typo, Columbia Journal and Texas Review. Her first full collection of poetry, Apparition Wren, was recently released. Her second manuscript, The Diction of Moths, is pending publication in 2010. She can be contacted at: email@example.com