Poetry Review

Review: Nightfall Marginalia by Sarah Maclay

It was early in the new year — by the water, on the steps of the marina, swallowed in a PDF of Sarah Maclay’s life-affirming fifth collection Nightfall Marginalia — that somehow, I hadn’t noticed the sun slip away. How could it be dark out? In these consoling dream-poems, nocturnes, and ekphrastics, there was such room, such possibility. I felt, more than anything, a new luminescence about the world. As a speaker describes in the sensualist manifesto-poem “Ode with Moan in the Middle,” I had caught myself “flung off, in the genius wind. Air gets in. And everything in it: // chime-rustle, wind-slip of leaves, whole sashes: trees” …In the mouthfeel of language, Maclay does magic up close. Something like a door inside us cracks ajar as each dawning image casts us into a visceral liminality. We encounter almost everything with new strangeness, new depth, new light. We speak to sense the words in our mouths. Their curves. We follow humbly, take note, and savor this rare honesty while it lasts.

As a former workshop student of Maclay’s, I was lucky to hear her read this poem before. There, in her “usual Jesuit ranch-girl dark academia” as she once described her style over email, I can still hear her incanting the ending lines as if casting a spell: “Love, I’ll oboe the low long round slow sound for you, oh you— / and I’d do any, anything to loosen my tongue.” As the speaker mounts each vowel, the “o” echo of “you, oh you” opens us, both physically and psychically. And then that final “any, anything” drops the jaw and summons the whole body-mind-heart-soul in devotion to this truest sensuality. Nightfall Marginalia not only staves off limitations of the diurnal but becomes a lighthouse and a north star in its own right — a daring example of how we might dream, bear witness, and, most dutifully, live in a twilight moment, at once graying and specked with constellations.

Spiraling fluently through time, consciousness, and forms spanning abecedarian, OuLiPo, lyric, and prose, the poems in this collection testify to Maclay’s diligence as a student, ever-fascinated with language and its peculiar thresholds to mystery. I recall when she read “The Glass Sonata,” the book’s opening poem, at an annual student publications’ event: “Here, we abandon years of insistent rhythm— // just to hear it. / But not its sound. // Can we be quiet enough together now to hear it— hear it— and not break it—” In concert with the “night voices” we had read together (Tomas Tranströmer and W.S. Merwin especially), the poet recasts silence, stillness, and suspension as sanctuary. Knowing the sound’s fragility, the speaker implores the collective to “hear it— and not break it—” and in doing so, blurs our sensory faculties open to new potential.

In hushed togetherness, Maclay’s autumnal speakers tend to eros, memory, art of all sorts, what could / could never be, and the midnights the mind makes. These speakers also frequently disarm the listener — “I don’t know the language / it bends” — and court surrealism with a charming familiarity— “and nothing is wrong. Nothing. Nothing except that // the planets are off, colliding, turning day into eclipse…” In each poem’s careful distillation, craft elements like maximizing the torque of line breaks, lyric concision, and images as layered as whole labyrinths conspire to dazzling effect. Maclay not only knows the language, but bends it to her precise, studied eye. The result is a symphony of deep affect, intimacy, and color, finding faith in that which we can scarcely know.

I think of the “prisoner’s cinema,” the phenomenon of a “light show” where various colors emerge from darkness, believed to be a consequence of phosphenes combined with the psychological effects of prolonged lack of exposure to light. Often reported by those confined to dark cells, including truckers, astronauts, and practitioners of intense meditation, the prisoner’s cinema eludes description but bears resemblance in form to Neolithic cave paintings. Similarly, these lush, mythic poems marvel in the possibility of light and gesture from a nocturnal ontological position. See “Night Text”: “even sans color, sans liquor, sans shape, / we are twins. Fraternal. Unknown.” Or how in “Munch is Screaming Now from Many Angles,” language propels itself forward in echoing impression-images: “Shadow puppets thrown against / The wall, the cave, the mimeo of time…” In “The Sleeping Arrows,” another speaker riffs Jean Valentine, “The isle of rose, the river as wolf, a guilt-ripple / of wind—they come to me, // these gifts of misperception.” And gifts, they are. These “good confusions” flicker like vignettes whirring to life on a film reel. They invite us to take vigil and lose ourselves at “the limen.”

Parataxis, or an equitable attunement to the senses, becomes key to how Maclay achieves this floating, ephemeral style. Approaching each line with the fluid movement of a seamlessly panning camera, these poems reveal an epicenter in constant flux, rendered more emotionally resonant via ambiguity and enjambment. “Enclave” imagines this epicenter as a domestic space that may or may not exist: “…he was sure you’d been there / together one night or you’d lived there together, a little apartment. Both of you want / to go back. And neither of you can recall even one of its features.” But we don’t need the full frame — only the margins, where longing, precarity, and enchantment find ample space to breathe. Amid a crowded, increasingly bleak reality (“Thou shalt not sleep except upon a concrete floor”), such interiority and hidden openings offer solace and illumination.

These are poems to live with and take refuge in. Ever-reverent, Maclay invites us to commune, heal, yearn, mourn, and return to center — to the sensate — asking unutterable questions: “But even the moon refuses to stay halved / and how can I ban the moon?” Sitting on the water’s edge, finishing Nightfall Marginalia, I felt an immense gratitude, suspended in a dream-light that only a poet as elucidating and beguiling as Sarah Maclay could conjure. Indeed, “It was all night, then.”

cover of Nightfall Marginalia by Sarah Maclay
Nightfall Marginalia by Sarah Maclay

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