Poetry for Southern California
MUSIC FOR THE BLACK ROOM
Book by Sarah Maclay
University of Tampa Press (http://utpress.ut.edu)
Sarah Maclay’s poetry operates through a contradiction. Her images are sharp and memorable—“The cinnamon has opened like a smooth, red canoe.” (“Coming To”), “I call it the thing that always happens/ when the perfectly skipped rock/ strikes the pond.” (“Smoke”)—yet the meaning lies as much in what she leaves out as in what she says.
The poems are like bare branches against a winter sky, beautiful to contemplate in themselves, but with lots of empty space. Their structure, often even the appearance on the page, is skeletal. They allow us to see the sky beyond, but they also enable us to imagine the thick foliage, the full, lush picture of the scene they present.
Here is her poem “Thanksgiving” in its entirety:
Just stay close to the furnace,
kneel on sheepskin, press your body
into the wall.
Look at the things in this room:
metal table, silver vase,
a fan, a mirror
propped against a wall.
Just keep wondering why it’s not his chest
beneath your fingers.
Later, you’ll dig the ice from the belly
of a small bird, squeeze
lemon on the skin,
rub salt into it.
Even though there is only one brief mention of the man missing from the scene, every detail of the poem points to his absence, and her loneliness.
In many of the poems the images at first seem disparate, unconnected. But they build, and often loop back on themselves, suddenly connecting and creating a much larger picture than what is on the page. Take the poem “Semiautomatic”:
Coming out of sleep
I hear the shots again —
sixteen, fast, followed by another round—
and for a second
they could be
the amplified hooves of horses
hitting the pavement
at a sudden, quick clip,
like when I mistook barking dogs
for your voice on the answering machine,
dropped the hose, midstream, on the lawn
and ran into the kitchen
to find no message coming in.
Sirens, from all directions.
It was not horses.
For an hour, helicopters
prowling like loud klieg lights.
The obvious link between the two pieces of the poem, the two moments when she mistakes one sound for another, is the presence of barking dogs. But notice how she also links in the title: “semiautomatic” refers to the type of gun, but also to her response(s) to the sounds.
This poem also illustrates another technique Maclay uses throughout the book—the key ending line. Her ending lines often tie the poem together. Sometimes, as above, they provide an unifying image or theme. In others, they create a twist, which provides a new perspective on the entire meaning of the poem.
There is an arc to the book. The poems get denser in the middle. More of the meaning is included in the poems, not just alluded to. Then they thin out again in the final section. Still, the key to the poems is what’s missing. Even rich, full poems like “A Day Like Summer,” “Broken Hill” and “Tangier” gain power from what is implied but not stated. For these are poems about desire, and desire is always about what’s missing.
Of course, not every poem is about desire, but it is the recurring
theme throughout. “I’m hungry,/ but choose/ to keep/ your taste/ in my
mouth.” (“Our Tongues”). “I’m starving and I can’t/ sleep, exhausted and
I can’t eat./ What have you done to me?// Cure me. Please./ Make it
worse.” (“The Symptoms”).
Even poems which start out seeming to be about something else end up about desire. Take the poem “Aspen.” It starts with a series of images of aspen leaves in the wind: “A tree of green butterflies:/ all the wings flicking/ unceasingly, random.” But the last stanza transmutes it into an image of her own physical desire: “as when you address my body/ with your specific,/ your tender, articulate/ tongue.” Here, once again, the final stanza reveals the true meaning of the poem.
Music for the Black Room is a powerful example of the potential of poetry, how it can be beautiful in itself, yet contain so much more than the words on the page.
— G. Murray Thomas