Meg Day’s Last Psalm at Sea Level engages serious subject matter

Livia Meneghin || Senior Staff Writer

Meg Day starts off her book, Last Psalm at Sea Level, with an epigraph, presenting her readers with a striking question by Olin Ivory: “Who can face the sea and not inherit it’s loneliness?” It sits as a welcoming challenge for the reader, even before a line of poetry is read. I asked myself, “Can I? Is Day going to show me the sea?”

I was reminded of a video/photography project by French artist Sophie Calle called Voir la mar (See the sea). Calle captures a people’s first experience looking at the sea, filming them from behind as they stare at the Sea of Marmara. She told her participants, residents of Istanbul, that they could take as much time as they need, that they can react however they wish. The film of an elderly man who looks out onto the waves in silence was stark and potent. After about a minute he turns around gradually, almost hobbling, and stares back at the camera. The waves continue to crash behind him, and Calle slowly zooms in on his face. He does not smile, but a tear falls onto his cheek and the man uses a handkerchief to wipe his eye. It was a beautiful moment. Neither I nor Calle knew what was going on in his head, but we were able to empathize with his emotion. He now knew the sea; they were finally acquainted after so many years.

When I first got my hands on Last Psalm at Sea Level, I was ready to see the sea, or whatever sea Meg Day was living with.

Day is a multi-award winning poet, professor and activist. She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in 2013, and author of three poetry collections. Last Psalm at Sea Level won the Barrow Street Poetry Prize in 2014.

Day has previously taught at the University of Utah, and will come to F&M to teach poetry for the fall 2015 semester. I had the pleasure of meeting Day a few months ago when she visited campus. After a firm handshake and a genuine smile, we walked over to the dining hall to discuss student life, poetry and Lancaster. Along with other students at the lunch, I gave Day a little taste of what the sea of F&M was like. She told us about her students in Utah who found queer studies and gender studies foreign, and her life in California where she could surf and spend time with family.

The cover of Last Psalm at Sea Level resembles an the view from a beach, but the image is equine instead of aquatic. This texture is paralleled in the poems themselves. Fellow writer and friend Katie Machen ’15 described Meg Day’s poetry as “fresh and unforgiving, at once intimately specific and something that can be easily shared with a friend.” Like the feel of a horse’s body. Like the coolness of water. One quick look at the table of contents might make the poems feel intimidating at first, each title stacked up across a full double-spread. Titles such as “If I Tell You This Secret, You Have to Keep It,” “Things to Say in a Difficult Year, or To the Dying Man I’ll Never Meet Because I Am Not a Man,” and “To My Student, Who Asked, ‘Since When Does a Bunch of Normal People Standing Around Actually Change Anything,” immediately ask a lot of the reader. Day is initially challenging us to take her hand because while the journey will be tough, it will be as filled with awe and understanding as a sea.

Last Psalm at Sea Level undoubtedly takes real problems head on, including serious themes such as suicide, grief and the painful journey of self-discovery. In her poem, “Batter My Heart, Transgender’d God” (a subtle nod to her intriguing accent, in my opinion), Day writes, “Terror, do not depart/ but nest in the hollows of my loins… My Knees, bring me to them; force my head to bow again. Replay the murders of my kin until my mind’s made new.” Day muscles up to the challenge, putting her arm around fear, pain and suffering. She welcomes it as a point of deep discussion and human reflection.

The title poem also has an epigraph, a definition of the Welsh term “hiraeth” as “a homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe was.” That addendum strikes a chord against Last Psalm at Sea Level’s first and indented line, “Sorrow, I have nowhere to go.” Day gives the reader an honest profession of desperation. A reason to sing when she’s caught between home, the present, and the future. She’s at sea level, she can see below and above, the sky and the sea. She likens sorrow to a horse with imagistic verbs including, “hooves” and “hoofprints.” Day also admits, “she is a lighthouse/ & I do not wish to be the sea.” At times, however, truths and beauty are found at the point of unwillingness, and all it takes is a sort of friendship with hardships.

Vietnamese-American poet and visual artist Truong Tran says, “Her poetry is at once patient and urgent, provocative and profound.” Just like the sea.

Livia Meneghin is a senior staff writer. Her email is lmeneghi@fandm.edu.

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