The Poetry of Meg Day and Malachi Black

Liberty Park Salt Lake

I am in awe of Meg Day’s work and intellect. I first met her some time in 2014 when she featured at the poetry venue I host. I bought her book and didn’t really get a true sense of her poetry until I read Last Psalm at Sea Level over Christmas break, 2015, in one of the loveliest mountain retreats on earth. I hadn’t gotten much out of her reading: I’m not a great listener and her writing is so intricate it works much better on the page than the stage. Meg Day is a very approachable, down-to-earth artist, and I somehow don’t think I was prepared for the ambitiousness and complexity of her poems. It’s not that they’re difficult or obscure, but there’s so much going on in every sentence, in every word choice; these poems need your full attention. Day doesn’t write directly about how she feels or what’s happened; instead, she uses events and experiences as points of departure to weave an elaborate web of metaphors and conceits, and she does so with a vocabulary three times the size most of us can ever hope to amass.

I put down her book around Christmastime, and over the last several months the piece that has most stayed with me is “On My Way to Meet Her in Liberty Park Before the First Snow.” I’m not saying it’s the best, but for me it’s the most striking and typical. Here it is:

I walk tilted so as to let the violent wind anoint my head
or take it from me. Lord, you give me so little courage:

like a ship aimed seaboard, wavering in the surge, I come to you
listing & hungry for cert, rushing each gust’s inhale with the beams

of my legs, lurching in empty airstream toward some chance harbor
invisible behind that solid hill of green slurry. Why, as I tear

toward it, won’t you right me? A chalk wharf only lends refuge
with a lighthouse to baptize its mouth—& though this full season

wills all its ochre leaves to fold around me the grandest
of canyons (the wind bending its breath through the harmonica

of pines), no amber is bright enough to project the forecast
as shadow or shade. Is it water that carves the gully to gorge

to valley, or the sheer face of rock that bows, a deep grin,
& rips open at its seam to welcome the flood?

Knowing something of Day’s bio, I figured out this is the Liberty Park in Salt Lake City. The “her” in the title never returns in the body of this sonnet. Is it a friend? Probably much more than a friend. Meeting a lover in a lovely park in late fall or early winter: this is what we learn in the title. Day sets the stage, gives us the bare facts; there’s windy weather and anticipation. We never learn much more: the setup is introduced in the title and first lines, and off we go to the high seas. The wind is the poet’s antagonist: the poet is up against many headwinds, was we know from the previous forty pages of the book—sexual orientation, disability, and now romance, the biggest headwind of all. She invokes God, but who is this God exactly? Not John Donne’s, I think, but her own personal higher power (and the word “courage” is found in the Serenity Prayer).

Struggling on the high seas—this has been done in poems before; Day has many illustrious forebears. And it’s very vivid, the way we go from Liberty Park to the middle of the ocean. That’s how Day’s mind works. I am intrigued and baffled by her use of the word “cert.” Not sure why she has chosen it, but I think it has something to do with “certitude” the way Arnold used it in “Dover Beach”: “for the world . . . / Hath really neither joy nor love nor light / Nor certitude nor peace nor help for pain . . .” She is hungry for certitude—but  when one is in love, one does not have absolute certainty, and one has to say the Serenity Prayer many times a day. Instead of despairing the way Arnold does and turning exclusively to the beloved object (“ah, love, let us be true to one another”), she still clings to her concept of Lord. The “you” in the poem is not the lover, but God. He (She?) is somewhere beyond the “hill of green slurry” that the poet’s ship must surmount without sinking. But then we shift from day to night. The lighthouse “baptizes” the mouth of the chalk wharf. (Earlier in the poem we had the term “anoint”). The poet is searching for a haven in the storm. Thus the sonnet’s octave.

In the sestet, we are once again on land. The ochre of late fall leaves puts her in mind of the Grand Canyon, a natural phenomenon as awe-inspiring as the ocean in a storm. I confess to not getting these words: “no amber is bright enough to project the forecast / as shadow or shade.” When I see “forecast,” I’m once again believing we are in the tricky territory of romantic attachments and trying to predict the future. I note that in this sestet, there’s no more mention of God; everything’s more secular. Is Day thinking of the amber as a gem that casts light and predicts the future? As if to increase the new uncertainty opening up in the poem, we end with a question of a quasi-geological kind: “Is it water that carves the gully to gorge // to valley, or the sheer face of rock that bows, a deep grin, / and rips open at its seam to welcome the flood?” She’s now questioning, no certainty here. I take the water as the tumult and violence of the sonnet’s first eight lines, whereas, after the sonnet’s turn, the “sheer face of rock” bowing with a “deep grin” is the “higher power” or Lord whom the narrator is trusting to see her through life’s vicissitudes. A kind of Rock of Gibraltar.

As you can see, Meg Day’s work is exceedingly (some might say excessively) rich and layered. She doesn’t use drama or fanfare to ease us into her world: we have to be attentive to every detail, every nuance. She’s more like the Metaphysical Poets than any contemporary writer I’ve read. She doesn’t deal with primary or even secondary colors; she’s alighted on the tertiary colors and stays there. (Thus a poem “about” the San Francisco quake of 1989, after an accessible epigraph, begins with these lines: “The buttons were the hardest: // baby teeth folded tightly into piano silk . . .”) This is work to read and reread. Somehow, at a young age, Day understood what poetry is all about—not the poetry of quick Facebook postings and Twitter fandom, but real poetry as it’s been practiced since the time of Homer and Sappho. Clearly the future is in good hands.
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Storm Toward Morning
And this applies to the work of Malachi Black as well. I hadn’t been familiar with him until he contacted me to do a reading from his collection Storm Toward Morning. What’s fascinating is the contrast between Black and Day. Malachi Black comes across as very formal and erudite, and a bit intimidating, and yet when I finally read his book (in the same snowed-in mountain retreat where I read Last Psalm at Sea Level), I found it less dense and easier to get into than Day’s work. And whereas Black invokes the Metaphysicals in epigraphs and so on, he doesn’t actually write like a modern Donne or Herbert. He’s digested their influence and seems to have moved on, at least in his manner; as far as his matter, he’s even more concerned with God’s presence in our lives than Day. When I interviewed him before his reading began, I asked him about favorite poets, and one of the names he mentioned was Ted Berrigan. I can’t remember if he said Plath too.

I also asked him about translations. He doesn’t much believe in them—too much gets lost. When he teaches, he only has English-language poets (as I recall) on the syllabus. In his own work, the music of language is paramount. Listen again to the book’s title: Storm Toward Morning.

At the heart of this collection is a suite of poems, known as a “crown of sonnets,” devotional lyrics that explore faith and doubt; it is titled “Quarantine.” Though some of these intense poems were published individually prior to the appearance of the book, they are really not meant to be separate entities and shouldn’t be discussed in isolation from one another. So I’ve chosen another poem, one that can stand more on its own without context, “Insomnia & So On.”

Fat bed, lick the black cat in my mouth
each morning. Unfasten all the bones

that make a head, and let me rest: unknown
among the oboe-throated geese gone south

to drop their down and sleep beside the out-
bound tides. Now there’s no nighttime I can own

that isn’t anxious as a phone
about to ring. Give me some doubt

on loan; give me a way to get away
from what I know. I pace until the sun

is in my window. I lie down. I’m a coal:
I smolder to a bloodshot glow. Each day

I die down in my bed of snow, undone
by my red mind and what it woke.

A Petrarchan sonnet in a loose iambic pentameter. Given that the subject is insomnia, how could it be strict iambs? The octave is about the urge for rest; the sestet is more about trying to escape. I was at first confused by “Give me some doubt / on loan.” One would think that doubt is the very thing one wouldn’t want to be plagued by, that doubting is the reason the poet is unable to get to sleep; certainty, on the other hand, would be therapeutic (Day, remember, was hungry “for cert”). But he goes on: “Give me a way to get away / from what I know.” And that clears it up: it is knowledge and certainty, being stuck with what and who one is, that keeps the would-be sleeper awake.

But is this a poem about sleeplessness? It is “Insomnia & So On.” Yes, it is ostensibly about the traditional literary insomniac, but this literary individual is also cursed by his vision and his genius. The rest of us can rest fine because we aren’t burdened with genius. He knows too much, sees too much. His status is that of a quixotic outsider.

There isn’t a line in this lean poem that is overwritten or unmemorable. Consider the first: “Fat bed, lick the black cat in my mouth.” To call a bed “fat.” To have the bed lick a black cat. To have the black cat in the narrator’s mouth. It’s all so new, so unusual, and yet Black (playing here with own name, too, I guess) has found a way to fit the new into the centuries-old form of the Petrarchan sonnet.

 

Like most poets, Day and Black are professors. When I met Black, I remember thinking, “I wish I were eighteen again so he could be my teacher.” I imagine that Black’s students might have an easier time with his poems than Day’s have with hers; his poems might be easier for them to use as models for their own early efforts. Black’s vision is brilliant, but he isn’t as far-out as Day: he deals with the primary and secondary colors that most of us encounter and process every day and night. Undoubtedly Day, being part of both the deaf and gay communities, has had to contend with obstacles most of us haven’t and has thus learned to hew her own fierce path in a jungle of words and voices. Hence the extreme individuality of her writing. Black’s lapidary and more dramatic style owes less to the Metaphysicals than to Sylvia Plath (at least to my mind). I suspect his poems will last. We are lucky to have both these new voices. As I said, the future looks good.

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