Natasha Saje

Natasha Sajé’s first book of poems, Red Under the Skin (Pittsburgh, 1994, 2nd printing 1996, 3rd printing 2004), was chosen from over 900 manuscripts to win the Agnes Lynch Starrett prize, and was later awarded the Towson State Prize in Literature.  

Her second collection of poems, Bend, was published by Tupelo Press in 2004 and awarded the Utah Book Award in Poetry.  Sajé was born in Munich, Germany, and grew up in New York City and Northern New Jersey. She earned a B.A. from the University of Virginia, an M.A. from Johns Hopkins, and a Ph.D. from the University of Maryland at College Park, for a study titled, "'Artful Artlessness': Reading the Coquette in the Novel, 1724-1913."  Her honors include the Bannister Writer-in-Residence at Sweet Briar College, the Robert Winner Award from the Poetry Society of America, the 2002 Campbell Corner Poetry Prize, a Fulbright Scholarship to Slovenia, and grants from the states of Maryland and Utah and Baltimore City; Sajé was a Maryland poet-in-the-schools 1989-1998. 

Her poems, reviews, and essays appear in many journals, including The Henry James Review; Essays in Literature; Kenyon Review; New Republic;  Paris Review; Parnassus; Chelsea; Gettysburg Review;  Legacy: Journal of American Women Writers;  Ploughshares; Shenandoah; and The Writers Chronicle. Sajé is an associate professor of English at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, where she administers the Weeks Poetry Series, and also teaches in the Vermont College MFA in Writing Program.

Bend by Natasha Sajé (Dorset, Vermont: Tupelo Press, 2004).Reviewed by Madeleine Mysko 

A Good Distance: Natasha Sajé’s Bend                             

 Is the title of Natasha Sajé’s second collection of poems—Bend—a noun or a verb? And if bend is a verb, is it a simple imperative, or is there a suggestion of the transitive (Bend this or that)?  In poetry, of course, the answer to such questions may be “All of the above,” and that is the case here.  Sajé is a poet who delights the reader with a gusto for language to match her apparent gusto for good food. She takes delight not only in the unusual word (bilbo, alewife, festinate, catamenia, felly) but also in the seemingly ordinary word, which she will press for every drop of essence from its root to its current usage. 

A reader who savors piquant language will not be disappointed upon turning to “A Minor Riot at the Mint,” the poem Sajé has placed pointedly as prologue to her collection.  The word-riot here is incited by the Ben Jonson epigraph comparing language to “current money” and warning that “we must not be too frequent with the mint, every day coyning.”  The poet responds by making much of the “current money” metaphor:  “Into my pocket slips a folded note, creased/ like labia, cached with private promise.”  Playfully, the note in the pocket works both as paper money and as a “missive” to be cached (as opposed to cashed).   The lines that follow are recklessly set a-sail on Jonson’s “current”:

The ship rolls through open water,

dirty in the bay around Rio

I'm a crazy sailor on the gravy boat,

a woman of means.

                How delightful—that coining of “gravy boat.”  The term embarks from Jonson’s archaic “current money” and rides on the slang “gravy,” at the same time abandoning the common “gravy train” for the more felicitous “gravy boat.”  But there is more to Sajé’s riot against constraint (“O my mackintosh/ my bilbo, my cistern, my confiture”) than clever play, more than a crazy waving about of word-wealth “where any frigate bird can snatch it.”  Sajé’s gravy boat “rolls through open water” into other poems that explore how language bent on desire can be as useful as it is delightful. 

Within the collection, the title word is lodged as the first line of “In the Garden.”  Here it is indeed the imperative:

Bend and make the horizon disappear

Desire's a hardy trifoliate

orange with thorns

It’s a quirky poem, in shape and in argument, but a careful reader will take up the challenge to catch the poet’s drift.  True to the task, a good number of Sajé’s poems provide the paradigm for bending in order to make the horizons—the limits—disappear.  Moreover, this collection is so intelligently assembled that sometimes the very horizons between individual poems seem to waver.  The ship, for example, seen earlier as the crazy gravy boat, reappears poignantly in “Wave.”  In this poem addressing the struggle to remember, the backward glance takes an ominous dip: childhood pictured as “swallowed, the way the ocean absorbs/ debris, even the occasional ship.”  From the last line of this poem, one can look to the title and read it as an imperative to wave goodbye.  Later, the ship sails amusingly into the poem “Heaven,” as an ocean liner now, a floating writers’ colony of an afterlife, where the poet travels with those she has loved “or might have loved.”

In a like pattern down the pages, fruit and letters and cats and coins keep appearing—with import.  The flat of sour cherries squeezed between the fingers in the sensuous prose poem, “Fruit,” is echoed in the letter poem, “Heloise to Abelard”:

If you were here, my love,

I would tear the pages of my books

pleat them into baskets for collecting cherries

the kind that do not bleed.

                       

One appreciates a book in which the poems inform each other across the pages, and in Bend, there is the added delight in discovery.  In “I See,” the glee of the cats “playing with a rose fallen/ from a wreath: a stiff silvery stem/ topped by a dark pink ball” makes the poet “bend,” and in so doing see that the rose is actually a “long dried tail and entrails of a rat.”  So too the poet’s glee in the roam and play of language is what makes the reader bend, and in so doing see that the limits—of our language, of the world as we might have seen it at any one moment in time—have disappeared. 

In an affectionate address to Henry Fowler, author of Modern English Usage, the poet contemplates Fowler’s “scrupulous care in life as well as work,” and takes on the mantle of that same care in her own work: “If you were here, Henry,/ you’d advise exactitude.”  Exactitude in language requires the poet to  “love/ the narrow distance” between words, such as the distance between “broad” and “wide”:

A distance that separates

the limits, an amplitude of what

connects them. Some words refuse wide,

admit broad: blade, spearhead, daylight.

And some allow them both: A wide door

open to miles of snowy peaks

 

The emphasis on distance in the intimate direct address—“If you were here, Henry”—will return in other poems, as it does only a few pages later in “Heloise to Abelard” (“If you were here, my love . . .”), and again near the end of the collection in “Dear One”:

Between us a city of monuments

flitting roof to roof.

 

High above the street I write to bring you near,

or rather to find the best distance between us.

 

Fowler’s imagined advice to “love/ the narrow distance,” is key to understanding the work of these poems.  Although Sajé provides the reader with a range of tones—wry, contemplative, arch, sensuous, humorous—the poems channel into each other, and thus Bend seems all of a piece, the work ultimately being that of narrowing the distance. For in the end, the moment of a good poem is indeed “the best distance” between the one who writes and the other who reads.  

Also addressed in these poems is the distance between the poet and those she has read herself.  In addition to Ben Jonson and Fowler, we find Cotton Mather, Nietzsche, and Proust, among others. “Channel,” a poem patterned after Henry Vaughan’s “The Water-fall,” is a sly exercise, in that Vaughan himself is known as a great borrower from other poets. Like its seventeenth century model, this poem begins with an address to Water—“you are, not were nor will be—/ as cataracts & creeks, as river brown as trout,/ as kidney and as skin.”  But whereas Vaughan’s “Water-fall” ends with a statement of religious conviction (“Thou art the channel my soul seeks”), Sajé makes a turn on the question: “What channel does my soul seek?”   Striking images—snow melting on trees and “salt desert water swollen with birds feasting/ on brine flies feasting on algae,” and water “siphoned through sulfurous rock, glacier/ old as amaranth”—cascade to the answer in the last line: “To be useful, to be clear—”.

The final dash is worth the attention it demands.  The careful reader will have noted the same device in an earlier poem, “Open That Door,” wherein the final dash wraps the last line around to the title, concluding what would otherwise be an interrupted thought.   “Channel” would appear to end in the same way, the dash again providing a channel back to the start, so that the concluding thought becomes an imperative: “To be useful, to be clear—Channel.”   And perhaps, because this is the last poem in the collection, it is not carrying it too far to read the dash as returning to the title of book.

There are poems in Bend that delight on first read, such as the sparkling and zestful “Song of the Cook.”   The other poems—those which may require some work on the part of the reader—are seldom coolly intellectual, for one senses the presence of the poet herself, working hard to narrow that distance.  On subsequent reads, the channels begin to appear—equally delightful, clearly useful.    

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 Madeleine Mysko’s work, both poetry and fiction, has appeared in journals, including The Hudson Review, River Styx and Shenandoah. Presently she divides her time among teaching, writing, and working as a registered nurse in a retirement community in Baltimore.  

REDACTIONS POETRY & POETICS Issue 4/5 Spring/Summer 2005

 Saje, Natasha. Bend. Dorset, VT: Tupelo P, 2004.

 A certain poet lamenting about his newest collection of poems—it not having enough good poems—shared his uncertainty about the book with Ezra Pound. Pound, trying to put the new collection of poems & the poet into perspective, commented something like, "If you are lucky enough to have one or two good poems in a book, then you have a good book." Saje's book has more than a couple of good poems, & one great poem—thus a great book, if we extend Pound's line of thinking. "I See" is a poem I keep returning to. It is an intelligent poem that "bends" Gertrude Stein's "A rose is a rose is a rose." But the poem itself is not heavy-intellectual, like Stein can be; it's the reverberations that create this intelligent poem—& so far the reverberations have sustained themselves for over a year with the reader. This poem, among others, shows how the lens of language can "bend" perception, can bend what isn't into what is, so as to realize "then what can't be mistaken / for something that it's not?" This poem also succeeds because the poem makes us experience what the speaker experienced & in the same manner, & I suspect in the same amount of time. The experience traveled to the page & all the way over to this reader, which is what a great poem does. I'd love to quote more of the poem, but the experience needs to be had in full. Nonetheless, Bend is filled with more intriguing stories/experiences that bend unexpectedly, more lyrics that twist freshness from the mundane or anticipated, & more dialogues between language & perception, but all the while the poems stay clear & inviting. The language is always fresh, always moving, & always bending. TH