In Sarah Maclay’s third collection of poems, Music for the Black Room, humans attempt to conquer the natural world, but out of this desire for dominance, a synthesis of nature and civilization emerges, forming at times a surreal and dreamlike landscape. Quite possibly there is no place on Earth more suited to surreality and dreamy escapism than southern California, specifically the Los Angeles area, where many of the poems are set.
The poem “Demeter Before the Return of Spring” exemplifies these two defining elements of Maclay’s work, as she describes autumn in what could be MacArthur Park of Los Angeles.
On the thirty-second of November
I step into the crosswalk,
grateful for sunglasses.
Cold travels on light,
webbing my hands. One could say
the day is beautiful; the park,
made like a sandwich
on a concrete plate. Its toothpick-tree
sheds leaves like shreds of cellophane.
The naked tree steps out of its red dress.
The tree drops leaves like crackers.
On this shallow, man-made hill,
from the bench, I could watch
the delicate, unconscious strip of the tree
until the fifty-eighth of November,
the eighty-fourth of November—
this tree that stands on its hill like a prop,
letting go of its sewn-on leaves—
until the one hundred tenth of November,
the two hundred first of November,
because there will be no end to November.
The subject of the poem is Demeter, the Greek goddess of the harvest, marriage, and the life and death cycle; she is also the mother of Persephone, queen of the underworld and the goddess of Spring. The poem’s endless November is perhaps a nod to Demeter’s longing to again see Persephone after her winter hiatus in the underworld; it also speaks to the perpetually mild weather of southern California. More than that, though, the speaker recognizes her life is in an irreversible state of senescence—the ultimate struggle of humans against nature. From the beginning of the poem, she acknowledges her crossing into this human-crafted landscape, a place where humans supposedly have perfected their control over nature.
Yet even here, the trees still shed their leaves. Notably, the beauty of the park is described in terms of human desire and consumption, perhaps at a party. One moment the tree seems to be shedding cellophane for leaves; the next moment, it’s a woman sexily stepping out of a red dress. But wait—now the leaves are falling like crackers. While the vacillation between food and sex imagery might make the reader dizzy, the speaker clearly conflates the human and natural worlds into a strange but relatable reality of human desire. Even in the land of perpetual summer, nature still cycles through life and death for trees and humans alike, with little regard for our desires.
Maclay acknowledges the human desires that wither in defiance of nature, but she gracefully accepts nature’s ultimate dominance. As a result her poems read less as a battle between these two forces, and more as a clear synthesis. The mirror is a recurring image that reflects (pun intended) her speakers’ gentle submission to the will of nature. “Aspen,” a poem that could read as a series of haiku, beautifully exemplifies this human submission:
A tree of green butterflies:
all the wings flicking
The music of wind
made visible, felt.
In the creek,
water a fluttering pulse
a quiver of flickering
crossing the pebbles,
a mirror of leaves
in its own stirring,
its own unavoidable, welcome
as when you address my body
with your specific,
your tender, articulate
As a mirror, the leaves reflect the speaker’s inability to separate herself from the fluctuating natural world. This sensual moment is difficult to distinguish from another sensual moment with her lover. In Maclay’s poems, the human response to nature is to cultivate order and meaning, from seeing a mirror in leaves, to hearing music in the wind, to finding a pulse in a creek.
Even so, her speakers consume and compartmentalize nature only to be consumed by nature themselves; they recognize that their attempts to organize nature and assign meaning to it are ultimately futile. Music for the Black Room is filled with an unrelenting sensuality and a mess of experience in love, death, and separation, and yet a maturity and meditative sense of acceptance permeates each poem. For Maclay, the black room represents a place of ongoing confusion and unknowing, but also richness, discovery, and unpredictable syntheses. Darkness is a place of decay, but it is also a place where life happens—messy, confusing life.
Music for the Black Room by Sarah Maclay, University of Tampa Press, 2011.
Review by L. A. Grove.
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