Natasha Sajé,
(Tupelo, 2004)

Born in Munich, Natasha Sajé grew up in New York City and New Jersey. She now teaches at Westminster College in Salt Lake City and the Vermont College MFA in Writing program. Her poetry has received numerous awards, including the Utah Book Award for Poetry for Bend.

I've been nose-to-nose with this collection for some weeks now. Sajé's poetry has been called sensual, contemplative, delightful, sardonic and, of course, challenging. These are pretty much the reactions any poetry worth reading garners these days, and so we discover vanishingly little about the poet's work from the enthusiastic response of other poets.

The poems in Bend are rich with references to other writers, from Ben Jonson to Ludwig Wittgenstein, as Sajé takes their words and, as often as not, turns them inside out to examine them against her own impressions of the moment. This leads to some surprising metamorphoses, as in "Welcome, Reader," in which Wittgenstein's "cloud of philosophy" condenses into drips from a basement ceiling; his limits of language become a deliberate boundary on experience. Similarly, social psychologist Richard Ofshe's advice, "If you find yourself being questioned about a crime you did not commit, resist at all costs the impulse to be helpful," quoted at the beginning of "Marcel at the Station House," leads into an exchange between Marcel and his interrogator that combines elements of Lewis Carroll and the Theater of the Absurd (which are, after all, not so far apart). There is, in fact, a thread of surreality that runs through the entire collection.

There are, to be sure, moments of seduction, the kind of intrigue that any poem must create to be successful, but for the most part, they never quite jelled. All too often I was left waiting for the punchline, and poetry doesn't normally shut me out like that -- even Jorie Graham and Robert Duncan make sense after a while. In part, I think some of the images are strained -- "nubile as a pitchfork" doesn't really connect. There is always, of course, the appearance of poems on the page, which I think is often of overriding importance; in some parts of Bend, Sajé has played such extreme games with spacing and indentation that it seriously impairs intelligibility. I can't really hear these poems in my inner ear, and I do confess to a bias toward performance poetry, meant to be spoken aloud, as against academic poetry, in which the actual sound is of secondary importance. This is definitely the latter.

Sajé's poetry seems to tread a path somewhere between Jorie Graham and Wislawa Szymborska, reaching for Graham's deep meanings while maintaining Szymborska's sense of unreality imposed on the mundane world. It's not necessarily an untenable position, but based on the work collected in Bend, she's not there yet.

by Robert M. Tilendis
22 July 2006

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