The White Bride
Sarah Maclay, (The University of Tampa Press, 2008)
A Review by Merrill Leffler
The White Bride is Sarah Maclay’s second full-length book of poems—her first was the provocatively titled Whore (she’s also published several chapbooks). Here’s the title poem, though it’s not what you might expect:
It comes from hore in Old English,
hora in Old Norweigian,
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 expensive, dear,
cher, cheri, a luxury
when given freely,
pitting charity against law.
If Ms. Maclay had published “Whore” in this second collection, the poem could have appeared this way:
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 expensive, dear, cher, cheri, a luxury when given freely, pitting charity against law.
Nearly all the work in The White Bride is in prose lines—here is “Rape,” for example, also titled provocatively but again, not what you might expect from the title:
Maybe it is moving like a yellow sea, with corners, so golden under the late sun, that he has to stop the car. And he stands, now, in the middle, in this blond field, somewhere in length between a hundredth and a score. I could say that he discovers, caked in drying mud, a flat-brimmed sunbonnet: straw beginning to curl, broad blue ribbon pierced by hat pins. Or that he got in by cutting the wire of the fence as simply as rope; the few pebbles he stepped on squashed like grapes beneath his feet. But that didn’t happen, so I will say only that he waded into it, into the field, brushing the tips of his fingers across the crowns of the plants as their heads rose past his thighs, and—of the light they reflected—only that it made the sun too stubborn to set; and he grasped the feathery top of a stem and stuck it between his teeth and pressed for the shell, the seed, oil.
If The White Bride did not announce itself as “poems,” you could easily have taken many as prose sketches—a number of them, like “Rape,” have a linear narrative, though some are of the improvisational type, inspired by art and music, according to the notes. They are sometimes interior (not “The Four Marys,” which is Nelson de la Nuez’s print “Virgins Looking for Saviors,” that you can find on the web), in which a word or phrase often leads to the next by the poet’s particular associational logic. (In “The White Bride” below, see “as someone in an adjoining corridor ruminates over the way whales breed in their sleep.”)
But first, what’s the difference between the lineated “Whore” and the prose version? To begin with, I can imagine Ms. Maclay sitting at her desk and for some reason, she thinks of the word and wonders about its derivation; she looks up its etymology in the Oxford English Dictionary or Eric Partridge’s Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English or maybe she goes to an on-line etymology site, finds that hora is from Old Norwegian, and then launches off from there. Through improvisation, the poet/poem make discoveries that surprise, give delight, and may even have the prospect of something more.
By “something more,” I have in mind Joseph Conrad’s remarks on what as a novelist he was trying to do, which I believe is related poetry: “My task,” he wrote “is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see. That—and no more, and it is everything. If I succeed, you shall find there according to your deserts: encouragement, consolation, fear, charm—all you demand—and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.”
In prose poems we don’t of course get enjambment and the various effects that line breaks, punctuation, word spacing, indentation, skipped lines give us. The prose poem depends on sentences and rhythms orchestrated by sentence length, punctuation, repetitions, tropes. In a number of the poems here, the sentences sometimes feel weighted down by their prosiness. By way of example, here is the title poem (I’ve added the underlining) —
Alabaster: she glows in the dark. and it is very dark, here in the drafty chapel, where the ivory satin nearly yellows when compared to her body, and I would say skin—but there is no distinction between skin and bone. The veil surrounds her like an aura—like another source of light—over the appliqué of chenille and beadwork embroidery. Her face is nearly waxen, upturned—brooding, it seems—below the white plaster of hair gathered into a braid and pinned at the nape. She is very still—exceptionally still—as someone in an adjoining corridor ruminates over the way whales breed in their sleep. How do they maneuver? In that broad cradle of water, do they have identical dreams?
And when we leave it is evening, the air damp enough to chill. No. It is piercingly cold, in spite of the fresh-laid peat, the newly cut hibiscus—squat and oddly welcoming, a couple of nectarines about to be planted and the camellia blossoms, whiter than the stucco behind them, opening their petals, exposing the central bud . . . and in the wan and graying sky, nothing but the white bride, stone who does not care for us, shrouded in her veil.
These prose lines lean too much (or so I feel) on indefinite pronoun/verb constructions (underlinings), thereby weighing down the ethereal temper of the poem. How would it read differently if lineated? It’s not just a matter of converting these sentences into lines: I tried doing that but found I had to change and delete words and could play with word spacing, etc. In this poem, lineation, enjambment, breath pauses might better evoke what whole sentences are laboring at. A number of poems here labor under these constructions—I’ll mention “Below the Desert,” “Flight,” Hinge, “Figure in a Prominent Field”—there are two poems so titled; here is the first:
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 wrist began, eventually, to lift me. Meanwhile, It was the counterweight. Meanwhile, I could sleep. But I’d have let it take me anywhere. It was a chance. (My underlinings again.)
Am I nit-picking? Am I looking for what I feel are shortcomings? I think of Coleridge’s often-quoted distinction between prose and poetry: “Prose, words in their best order. Poetry, the best words in the best order.” This dictum may seem too abstract, so here is “Realism,” which uses elaboration, sound, and repetition wonderfully in orchestrating this one sentence poem.
Flittering in the lit dark: lime, lemon, container of light, portable star, surface we steal to shine our lips like patent leather, floating petals, floating jewels, will as transparent as grace, the sound of time elongating into darkness---a liquid darkness, wrasse, anemone, sea-horse, kelp, a sheen as translucent as neon, undulant as vermouth, the sound of a bell just before it rings.
Here are the long heaves of breath that I don’t think a lineated poem would get in just this way, e.g., the “l” alliterations (“lit. . . lime, lemon, light, steal, lips like, leather”); the repetitions (floating petals, floating jewels); the elaborations (“liquid darkness, wrasses, anemone, sea-horse. . . .”). With this in mind, I’ll quote part of “Let Every Heart,” which is one long sentence and opens this way:
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. . . . .
The poem sustains its breathless waves of details until the close: “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.” Get the book and read/experience others, for example, “Verse,” Nude with Violin in the Rain,” “Ocean without Figures.”
* * *
In reading any book of poetry, we enter a poetic universe with its particular themes, its ideas, rhythms, tropes, and more. What are we, rather what am I, after? At bottom, a singular Voice, or the glints of one—poems that gives me an excited awareness or understanding if only of poetry itself, as when I first read John Berryman’s Dream Songs, James Wright’s Shall We Gather at the River, Lucille Clifton’s Good Times, Edmond Jabès’s Book of Questions, Witslawa Szymborska’s View with a Grain of Sand, to name only a few. When Emily Dickinson wrote, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry,” that’s what I first felt—and still do—in the work of these and other poets. They gave me a sense of being alive in a new way. And strangely, it is all through transforming the ordinary language we speak and write every day. “You’re asking too much of poetry,” a friend said to me not so long ago. Maybe. But when there’s so much great prose on so many compelling subjects, why go to poetry at all if not to be staggered? And there are different ways to experience the top of your head being taken off.
At one extreme we have those poems that give us what “oft was said but ne’er so well express’d,” poems that “report” on the world, outer or inner—they give us a unique view on subjects or themes that we may be well familiar with. Such poems can often be paraphrased because their currency is in recognizable meaning, that is, they tell us something about the world we all inhabit; they give us an excitingly fresh way of experiencing what we know, or thought we knew. When I first read Robert Frost’s Never Again Would Birds’ Song Be the Same—“He would declare and could himself believe/ that the birds there in all the garden round/ Had heard the daylong voice of Eve’s/ And added to hers an oversound”—I physically experienced a feeling of the paradisiacal that I had not until then heard in that way—since then, whenever I hear bird sounds, that poem rises up in me. It is a possession like no other.
At another extreme are those poems that bear no apparent relation to the common experience or the familiars of the world—the poem is the unique experience in and of itself. These may be the non-referential or, pejoratively for some, so-called language poems, poems that don’t report on what we have in common but report on themselves, on their own linguistic/poetic discoveries, poems such as those by John Ashbery and Barbara Guest, whose work I have come to late. Such poems are not anchored in the world of common experience.
The poems in The White Bride inhabit both worlds. Some are dream-like and mysterious—they traffic in paradox, oxymoron and the surreal. Others are grounded in narrative. Sarah Maclay is an accomplished poet and she has written compelling poems in both modes. So what distinguishes her work from the hundreds of other accomplished poets whose poems fill the scores of literary magazines and the thousands of slim books published each year? I can’t say—but her poetry has glimmers that could one day become unique and singular. It may be that the poems here and in Whore will eventually reveal themselves to be aspects of a singular voice that has not yet clarified itself.
Merrill Leffler is a poet, scholar, teacher, and critic. He is the publisher of Dryad Press contributing to American literature for more than 40 years. He divides his time between Maryland and New Hampshire.