Nightfall Marginalia
by Sarah Maclay
What Books Press 2023 $17.00

By Nasim Luczaj





Brushing against dusk, dawn, and desire, Nightfall Marginalia is a highly liminal work. Intricate and open, heady and tender, it dazzles with its color palette, surprising us as sunsets do. Maclay strikes me as a scenographer, a maker of emotional backdrops who achieves expansive effects by accumulating the tiniest of sensory details. We look at brushstrokes so closely they turn into stars. 

In “Girl Standing with Death by the Sea,” after the green of dusk, we traverse the “long distance from green / to green,” all the way to dawn: “She stands, looking out, until dawn / until the greens are mild / shades of blue, and indigo / is the only place that death might be.” Maclay’s sensitivity to optics is immense: “The moon reflects in the shape of a lingam / not a pearl—all the way down the water / it makes the road larger, pale and wide.” An echo of this closely observed image of light extending through a dark landscape can be found in “Bride, Running”:

she can never seem to make it, like a borrowed house, to the end of the lawn—the veil streaming behind her in some labyrinth of wind, tiny enough, kicked up by the planets, until the veil and the tulle are as long as the lawn, as long as a lung.

This alliterative and near-homonymic quality is elaborated in later poems. Sound is a medium, a dimension: “There is no need for furniture / because the sound is the furniture.” Music itself is a clear inspiration, as are the senses and their corresponding art forms; the bride is a reference to Lars von Trier’s film Melancholia. 

Almost every poem in the collection comes “after” someone—an artist, musician, writer, photograph or film. “Real State,” a devastating poem on homelessness, was written “after Moses, Hockney, Bosch.” Moses inspires the poem’s register; most lines begin with “Thou shalt”, invoking the language of the Ten Commandments, and moving through material details and phrases associated with loss of wealth, precarious living conditions, job-seeking, and homelessness. It’s painful to read, especially through the prism of poetry, which encourages the reader to seek multiple meanings in a line such as “Thou shalt try to sleep in the late afternoon at the base of a streetlamp on the hidden side of a Shell in the Marina.” Homeless encampments are occasionally juxtaposed with instances of spending large sums of money, e.g., “Thou shalt spring for the 27-thousand-dollar beaded gown.” The contrast brings to mind Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights, with a false Paradise at its bright center and outright Hell on the right panel. Unlike the true Paradise on the left, the Garden and Hell are overcrowded, with groups of people at the mercy of their desires, enveloped in striking constructions and materials that often appear synthetic. Maclay, too, describes only material reality and specific landmarks that locate the lines precisely in space and time. Meanwhile, story and emotion can only be inferred.  

The mention of David Hockney provides a clue as to the kind of story “Real Estate” is implying. Hockney’s most famous paintings were of sunny pool scenes, but he also made a series of etchings entitled A Rake’s Progress, which reinterpreted William Hogarth’s paintings about the downfall of a young man in London, who loses his fortune and ends up in prison. Seeing the extent of homelessness in New York City, Hockney etched a modern riches-to-rags story of a young queer artist. “Real Estate” also implies a downward spiral, even if it doesn’t follow the story of a single person.

First, parallels between consumers and the homeless are drawn, with cars and types of trees as recurring motifs, and repeated verbal constructions reinforcing the parallelism: “Thou shalt hang thy blankets from a tree,” “Thou shalt hang a right in thy pre-owned 911 Carrera,” while others live “in the back of a 1950s Buick with shattered glass.” The driver of the Carrera may or may not share, or end up sharing, the fate of the inhabitant of the Buick, and as the poem goes on, any implication of wealth is replaced by descriptions of increasing deterioration of living and working conditions, e.g., “Thou shalt no longer be able to afford the unpermitted room within earshot of gunshot and helicopter.” The final line, with its air of inevitability, reads: “Thou shalt not sleep except on a concrete floor.” 

In many other poems, fine art and its history are referenced explicitly, with descriptions such as “everything goes to woodcut white and black,” “she could almost be a future pietà,” or:

the lines descending from my eyes are not tears, no,
Or even blood—not now—
But merely the last of the remaining gold leaf
Etched into these walls in the 18th century

Many of the poems are explicitly ekphrastic, inspired by art from the late 19th and early 20th centuries—Vuillard, Bonnard, Munch, Klimt, de Lempicka. One of the most effective weavings of ekphrasis into a larger whole occurs in “Red Bath,” a poem as associative and poignant as a dream we might be taking part in. A view of the ocean as seen out of a plane window leads to the face of Bonnard’s lover, “ruddy outdoor-colored hue of pink.” Then:

As you recall the many tiny shingle-lights of paint

and how they pull the feeling of a moment

closer than the canvas, almost like a hologram,

you begin to see more clearly something far below the ocean

Maclay is almost moving through the painting and its materiality. We learn that Bonnard’s lover committed suicide in a bath. For all the rich movement between the story, the painting, and the present moment, it feels as if there were a crucial layer to the poem that the reader doesn’t have access to. The second-person speaker remarks on “something occluded in the brushstroke”, while being evasive themselves, claiming to not be feeling “anything” while so moved by the story of the suicide that even the sea view is tainted with the thought of blood (“old blood, dried blood / perhaps an immense encampment of kelp”). 

Nightfall Marginalia is strongly adjectival. Maclay’s close attention to the power of the adjective and metaphorical modifier in poetry, to which she devoted an excellent essay entitled “The Root of Saying”, shines through her work. We encounter not just a plethora of colors but phrases such as: “the dour Uber,” “linen sky,” “sulky rotisserie,” “Galangal nights.” In “A Mirror of Leaves,” black mold coexists with a Rococo fauteuil and an Aubusson carpet. Though ornate, these environments feel lived-in; these elaborate backdrops are set up for desire, longing, and difficult emotions to flicker against, submerging the reader in a luxurious imaginary space. The only instance where I felt this approach slip a bit into cliché was in “A Mirror of Leaves”, with its image of “the vaulted ceiling of your cathedral heart.” 

The use of “you” throughout the collection is effective; words often seem addressed to a specific person, but they are not introduced to the reader; no relationships in the collection are explained. This enhanced my sense of intimacy with the poems’ speakers, whose minds I felt myself to be moving through, propelled by emotion itself, regardless of its stimulus. Maclay writes, “May I not be greedy for what was.” Any reflex to glean supposed biographical details is flirted with. There are also great moments of philosophical playfulness. The very first page confronts the reader with the riddle-like poem “The Glass Sonata”; later, we have the mysterious “On the 10 Edges of my Knowing,” split into thirteen (not ten) sections, each divided with a long line (of which there are eleven), and consisting of fragmentary and enigmatic phrases that generate sensation while eluding explanation.

Spatially, many of the pieces spread out, wide and deliberate as wings. Formally versatile, Maclay knows when to keep to flush-left free-verse or the prose poem. Frequent use of dashes and lines that end mid-sentence provide a sense of urgency, even when the words themselves remain delicate, only just brushing against matter and dimensionality. Both the free-floating lines and dashes reminded me of brush strokes on canvas, and the description of the artist in “Field of Thorns” could well apply to Maclay’s own process:

He could leave us for days. Longer, at work on the drawings, or longer, alone in the work of making light behind the tapestries, of making marks on pages, finding some color, tangling the wind and the watery gray chill with the stolen dresses of childhood, the rip in the veil, the breaking slate, the buried crab, the stilled lips, the burning bird, the snow, the palms, the stones, the abundant endless heat, the ferocity of our love for him.

This could have been the coda, but we are left with a “Letter Almost Sent”— a frank piece, rife with longing and a sense of rejection, which ends on a curious extension of dusk through time: 

PS. My brother and I spent several hours

trimming the apple trees in the yard

as sunset flecked its pink and orange against gray.

We caught it just in time.

The sense of having been there “just in time” is not straightforward consolation or relief, though it can also be read as that. Timeless and yet tethered to a moment, just as a painting is, this final scene encapsulates the feel of Nightfall Marginalia as a whole. Maclay generates a sense of liminal expanse in which we can experience the bittersweet delight that comes from existing as an emotive and sensory being in a textured, cruel, and beautiful world—a world for which almost any adjective is fitting. 

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