Last Psalm at Sea Level by Meg Day
(Barrow Street Press, 2014)
reviewed by Andrew Haley
In Last Psalm at Sea Level, Meg Day gives us poems that quake with mutability. The concrete things—bodies, shadows, landscapes, and wounds—merge not in surreality or the changing of masks, but in an oceanic wholeness. “As if one is a shadow stitched to the other, / they sit, knees bent & parted, cradled in the basin / of the clawfoot, her belly to his spine.”
Complex things join with the common nouns. Intention and cause, desire and consequence blend in these poems that are at once frivolities and dirges. In parts, the plain spoken, even throwaway, breaks into lyric in shifts that can be disorienting. The poem “Tell Me It’s Not Too Late for Me” begins as a chain of commonplaces: “Leave the refrigerator door open / or the bathroom light on, drop your shoes / in the hallway, borrow my ties…just tell me it’s not too late.” This sequence could come to us ghostwritten in a country song, but between the sixth and seventh stanzas lightning strikes.
[…] the man slid the package
across the desk at me, asked quietly
if I would like a bag, then paused & said
how much you cost
The poet’s keening, to which our ears have become inured, is instantly heard anew with the revealing of the beloved’s transmutation from overflowing and indefinite to a weight of ashes, boxed and priced.
The book is raw with these moments coming unforeseen: “the tender felony /of waking up in a shared bed not shared / with you”; “Let her carry you like a bouquet of splinters”; “the clearing erupts with an exaltation / of larks, fifty applauding bodies lifting then / settling into stately quiet.”
In the best places, the quavering of boundaries is drawn the bow’s length of the page. The poem “What I Will Tell His Daughter, When She’s Old Enough to Ask” is worth quoting in its entirety and was this reader’s favorite in the collection:
When they removed the yellow tape
from the doorway, our neckless birds
still sat, unfolding, on the tabletop,
his stack of paper—foils & florals
& one tartan velum—fanning out
across Origami for Dummies
& onto the floor. The chair we’d set
in the middle of the room for hanging
the first twenty attempts at a thousand
seemed frozen mid-bow, all four legs facing
west. He never mentioned his plans
or his grief—only that I could find the fishing
line toward the front, near the large spools
of rope. Don’t go on without me I’d said
& whistled the eleven short blocks
back from the hardware while he folded his apologies
& suspended himself from the ceiling of cranes.
There is much to praise in this mature and masterful poem: the spareness and solemnity, the complex and haunting metaphor of the unfinished birds, and the insinuation of our selves into these paper mutabilities; the cruel joke of the word “hanging,” especially set against the dignity of the verb “suspend,” and the play of that word inside the trope of an interrupted progression of forms; breaking the pattern of three-line stanzas to end the poem with an absence making itself felt inside the final couplet.
I wish the whole of the book were at this level. The smoke of the small fires of poetry workshops still lingers in its pages. Ghazals and sestinas appear like exotic animals on parade in a book that does not seem designed for polite applause. The poems in Last Psalm at Sea Level, despite a few unfortunate cliches (gaping coffins, howlings in the chest, saxophones wailing on street corners at dawn), are full of pride, urging, resistance, anger, sorrow, and perseverance. They are poems of the body, of incisions and tombs, not parlor tricks.
Last Psalm at Sea Level draws much of its power from its religious attitude. Day has fashioned a queer God of multitudes whom she addresses not with irony, but with the exposed sincerity of hymn. In the expert “Batter My Heart, Transgender’d God,” she has mastered the sinewed, animal language of John Donne but brought it whole into our vernacular. Like Donne, and his acolyte, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Day writes of multiplicity and consubstantiality with such fervor the language of her poems too becomes part of the protean shifting of her subject matter.
[…] Show every part
to every stranger’s anger, surprise them with my drawers
full up of maps that lead to vacancies & chart
the distance from my pride, my core. Terror, do not depart
but nest in the hollows of my loins & keep me on all fours.
Here, the language within the lines is so muscled one barely notices the architecture of end rhyme to which it hews. This is not the spavined favorite of the viceroy trotted out by courtiers, but a poem that fills the space of its own being. It, like so much of this genuine, important book, is everything poetry was meant for.