Natasha Sajé’s Poetry

I occupied part of my leisure time this holiday weekend reading Natasha Sajé’s two collections of poetry, Red Under the Skin (1994) and Bend (2004). As I mentioned in my post from 15 February, Sajé is a colleague of mine. It was thus quite pleasing to find that I enjoy her poetry immensely. So much contemporary poetry simply bores me, but Sajé’s work is invigorating in both its language and its ideas. What follows are some reasons why this is the case.

Sajé’s poems flaunt their intertextuality in a way that isn’t showy name-dropping, but is instead an insistence that literature is essential and must be sifted through to find the gems that move us best, and also an affirmation of the poems’ rightful place within the tradition. One striking example occurs in “Between the Lines” from Bend, where Sajé asserts in regards to writing “What difference does the instrument make? Less / than the difference between pouring and spilling” (13), a direct retort to the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet Ron Silliman’s question in “The Chinese Notebook,” “I wrote this sentence with a ballpoint pen. If I had used another would it have been a different sentence?”

I am often struck by Sajé’s gift for metaphor. Examples from Red Under the Skin include “Reading the Late Henry James / is like having sex, tied to the bed” (3; this is my favorite poem of hers), “A Male in the Women’s Locker Room / is a shoe in the refrigerator” (17), and, describing a woman at her local swimming pool, “her thighs / have the heft of a good dictionary” (33-34), which reminds me of lines from Marilyn Nelson’s “Mama’s Murders”: “Her leg flies open like a dictionary dropped / the white fat sickens her till her blood / fills the wound….” Examples from Bend include “time as a river of milk whose blankness stretches // over my body” (24), and “She embraces error the way frogs walk” (29).

I appreciate the firm but not pedantic social activism in Sajé’s work, especially in Red Under the Skin. “Eating Crabs with Bob and Jim” is a memorial to the anguish of the AIDS crisis enveloped within one of Sajé’s numerous mouth-watering descriptions of food (I have had the pleasure of eating Sajé’s excellent cooking on a number of occasions, but her sensual descriptions of food throughout both books are so enticing that they would make me hungry even without this background knowledge), and the title poem is a moving exploration of the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s as it was happening.

Sajé also shows in poems such as “Tale” and “The Statues” from Bend that she is able to illustrate scenes from the fantastic just as adeptly as those inspired by real events. The seeming playfulness of these pieces epitomize why her poems are fun to read: they ensconce their wrestling with big ideas in finely crafted language that compels the reader to keep going. Red Under the Skin‘s language is more excessive (in a good way), like the palette of a Willem de Kooning painting, whereas Bend‘s poems are more like the measured, well-fitted work of a keen-eyed carpenter.

Both collections are excellent, though I have a slight preference for Red Under the Skin. I wonder, though, if this is simply because I am in the stage of life–my thirties–that Sajé was when she wrote it, and thus it feels more relevant to me now. Perhaps in ten years my preference will have flipped in Bend‘s favor. What is important is that these are both books that I will want to re-read.


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