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Sarah Day’s "Tempo"

Updated: Aug 16, 2019

by Tara Walker

In Tempo, Sarah Day’s seventh collection of poetry, the poems are at their best when they capture the detail of an ordinary moment. The words maneuver deftly through these moments; each is chosen deliberately, treading lightly on its subject. She creates impressionist paintings with her words, employing concise, careful strokes.

The “tempo” referred to in the book’s title seems to be the steady beat of passing time—there is a kind of untouchable nostalgia that echoes through the collection. Nostalgia for what was known, and for what can never be known, only guessed at: the last vestiges of emotion experienced by those forever frozen in ash at Pompeii, or the locked memories of people living in an Alzheimer ward.

Her pieces are also at their most powerful when they round out observation with a light touch, a lasting image in the mind of the reader, or a lingering sensation of memory just out of reach. The poem “In Time, Pompeii,” provides a glimpse into ordinary life—sealed in time by volcanic ash. Day finds a way to magnify the quotidian details of a terrifying moment:

Here, the cast of a dead dog

looking like a modern de Bruyckere

caught in the knowing instant

inside the sprung coil of its spine

narrow paws crossed front and back,

guileless and devout,

two millennia tumbling from its open mouth.

“Seed Vault of Longyearbyen,” finds a similar theme—ancient objects sealed in time. These poems meditate on the temporariness of existence and the strange fact that seeds and ash last much longer than human life. In this poem, the act of saving seeds is an attempt to achieve some kind of immortality. The poem begins with the line, “The pharaohs would have understood/ the need to circumvent the afterlife,” connecting the saved seeds with the preserved bodies of ancient Egyptian rulers. Day ends the final stanza by describing the seed vault as a “mausoleum to the Afterwards.” While the seeds once had the means to create life, they are locked away in a chamber that means to protect them, and yet also suffocates their potential.

In “Port,” Day examines another kind of forgetting —landscapes changing irreparably, and the new built over the carcass of the old. She references urban development that erases memory even as it re-builds: “At Hobart’s port, the past’s tucked away/behind a tight veneer,” “grain silos/entombed in river-view apartments,” and “History has been sand-blasted cleaner/ than a stone-free quarry.” Reflecting upon the discrepancy between what Day remembers and what she actually sees, she writes that “everything rearranges.” These words could very well be the ones that best encapsulate the motif of the book: the relentless march of time, and with it, change.

The final piece in the collection is “Sleep,” a meditation on the vulnerability of lying down to rest at the end of the day. It is a fitting end to the book, suggesting a momentary hiatus from the constant tempo and flux of life, time, and memory. Day writes that each night we are “practicing the aloneness of coffins,” a thought startling in its truth, and referencing the earlier images of a sort of memorialized moment of death explored in “In Time, Pompeii.” Sleep is an activity we are truly alone for, and we give in to blind trust that our bodies will know to wake up; but here we have an awareness of sleep as rehearsal for death. Sleep, to Day, seems to be a form of “letting go”: “The dumb humility, the angelicness/ this nightly disrobing of the self.” Sleep confronts us with our impermanence, where we surrender to stillness—yet it also “disrobes,” revealing and distilling us into the essence of who we are.

Stillness, to Day, is a gift that enables us to see loveliness in the ordinary. Her other poems in the collection remark on a cow’s eye reflecting the lights of a passing car, the profile of starlings sitting in a tree, and the haunting slither of a black snake in a garden. These poems echo moments clearly and precisely for the reader; they do not force a particular agenda, they only provide a mirror to the ordinary. And sometimes, when we take rest in the middle of a constant tempo, that is more than enough.

Glebe: Puncher & Wattmann, 2013, 74pp.

ISBN: 9781922186379

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