A review of Nightfall Marginalia by Sarah Maclay

Reviewed by Charles Rammelkamp

Nightfall Marginalia
by Sarah Maclay
What Books Press
Oct 2023, $17.00, 104 pages, ISBN: 979-8-9866258-2-9

Sarah Maclay’s poems feel like dreams, with logic loosened and desire the always unreliable guide. The poem “Enclave” begins, “It’s as if you’re looking for a restaurant you’ve been to in a dream,” and then the dream refuses to obey the poet’s will. “You want to return because the one you still love had happened to walk in.” You can feel the frustration, the confusion,  the delicious disorientation that drives a dream you can’t control. The poem ends: “Both of you want to go back. And neither of you can recall even one of its features.”

Or, as she concludes the first poem, “Glass Sonata”:

            Can we be quiet enough together now

                          to hear it—

                          hear it

                          and not break it—

Everything is fragile, tenuous, in this world. It’s not threatening or frightening; indeed, a kind of vast resignation suffuses the scene. As the title of the collection, Nightfall Marginalia, suggests, the predominant atmosphere throughout is dusky, dark, and the principal mood is the nocturne – dreamy, romantic. It’s no surprise that Edvard Munch, the moody Norwegian who lived his life dreading that he might inherit the disabling mental condition that ran in his family, is one of Maclay’s muses. The poem, “Girl Standing with Death by the Sea,” after Munch, invokes death as a constant, if unobtrusive, presence (“Death was so quiet, / so patient.”). The girl in the poem is shadowy (“she stands in ochre fog”; “she is almost a ghost”), like one of the tortured subjects in Munch’s paintings. The poem ends:

           Death sits silently by

           in another version.

           There are so many versions.

           No, she was never alone.

           Hey, lover. Hey lover, lover, lover…

“Munch Is Screaming Now from Many Angles” likewise evokes Edvard Munch, even, as the title suggests, his most famous painting. 

           (On the Bridge / In the empty apartment /

           Shadow puppets thrown against

           The wall, the cave, the mimeo of time)

            As the mouth opened—

 So many of Maclay’s poems end in just this way, like a cliffhanger, on tenterhooks. You know something is coming next, but what? Even the punctuation reinforces this feeling, the long em-dashes she so often employs.

Indeed, the prose poem, “Cypress—Adjacent,” which begins in a slyly humorous way with, “It’s only after you compliment me on my Palmer method—which I’ve managed to loop across a dozen envelopes or so…” abruptly ends with the line: “And now is the moment you give me some advice:” See what I mean? WHAT ADVICE???

When Maclay opens Pandora’s Box in her prose poem by the same name, which “waited, meanwhile, on a chest. Opened easily,” full of darkness and glimmers of candlelight, she encounters a magical world of “not chaos, you see, but joy mistaking itself for chaos,” and the poem ends on the single-word sentence, “Suspended.”

Or take “Off H’wood Blvd.,” another ekphrastic poem after a photograph by Alexis Rhone Fancher. Maclay paints a picture of a drab, anonymous lunch counter (“And it was almost as easy to think of it as a confession booth / As a bar—”). It’s run by a man and a woman (“Call her Ms. Stella Artois. // Call him Racer Peroni…”). The poem ends in suspense:

               She could almost be a future pietà

               Waiting to receive her customer’s order.
               Waiting. About to deliver.

Maclay also channels the decorative French artists, Bonnard (“Red Bath”) and Vuillard, his vivid “Garden at Vaucresson” (“Below the white hibiscus, stamens / Longer than a hand…”; “Turning red as the roof in the evening sun, / Red as the tallest floribunda…”).

Other poems in Nightfall Marginalia are influenced by painters as well, including Klimt, Goya, Hockney, Bosch and Brueghel. Maclay’s inspirations range widely; her influences go beyond painting. She is also inspired by writers – Jericho Brown (“Would Not Have Seen Each Other for Years”), Boris Pasternak (“Letter Almost Sent,” which is also influenced by Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheharazade), Sylvia Plath (“Beginner’s Daybook”), Charlotte Brontë, Hart Crane and Shakespeare.

My favorite poem in the collection? “Letter Almost Sent,” which begins, “You won’t like this,” and continues with gorgeous stanzas like this one:

                               We walked quickly, my friend and I, from the parking lot

               to the symphony. I made it nearly to the end of the Rimsky-Korsakov—

               all the way to that crescendo and quickening, that cymbal crash—

                     and then

                               in the place where things go suddenly quiet, but alive—

                into that barely audible, sustained, pianissimo pulsing


                 exactly like it always is when we’re together, after—

                                                                                        holding each other—

                                                                                                        exactly like this

                  but in sound. 

                                                                  You must listen.

You must listen, indeed. Nightfall Marginalia is full of the sound of dreaming, the imagined, the shadowy world that flits by just under the eyelids at night, when the lights go out.

About the reviewer: Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for BrickHouse Books in Baltimore. His latest book, See What I Mean?, was published by Kelsay Books in 2023.