C. J. Sage. The San Simeon Zebras. Knockeven, Ireland: Salmon Poetry, 2010. 72 pp. $21.95, paper.
I’m generally not a fan of tightly themed collections. I don’t want to read, say, fifty poems about pyramids. This is because, turned inward on subject, a poet can become a tiresome one- (or two-) trick pony. Thankfully, this is not the case with C.J. Sage’s newest book, The San Simeon Zebras.
While most of the book’s poems can be said to be “about” animals, the animals are vehicles of their messages as much as any human persona might be. In an era marked by increasingly surreal violence, Sage clearly understands what Abraham Lincoln did—that our relationships with animals reveal our humanity.
There’s a fierce connectivity in these poems. Though I’ve never met Sage and don’t profess to know her religious views, I’ve gleaned from our editor/writer relationship (my manuscript won the 2010 book prize at Sage’s press) that she is an outspoken champion of animal rights. This voice parlays spiritually in her poems, as in “Memorandum on Human Being”:
that fish hold a slippery secret: don’t think
there is a lasting flesh. The lines of lips
and their hooks will part—there is always
this promise of When.
Like Bishop before her, Sage marries image and theme to unanticipated end. As Bishop’s fish is long-suffering relic let go, Sage’s is sage messenger of a covenant that the speaker and the speech are united but for a finite time.
Similar issues of connection (and missed connection) abound in this collection. In “Ostriches” (lest we bury our heads in the sand) the speaker laments:
I wasn’t here yet, and so knew nothing of breaking.
How I’d have to bust out of my shell,
kick the egg walls in toward the dust nest,
go it alone, dig myself up out of that crater,
and live the dry life—
The opening poem, “Landscapes with Elephant Seals and Umbrellas,” explores the fragility of contact:
In the city I once saw a herd
of quick umbrellas open all at once—
all the owners purposely not touching—
Rarely, one of them brushes another.
as well as the hope that the innocent among us might reestablish that link:
To either side of the rows they make
lined up along each other there is a mile
of empty beach. Only a child makes use of it.
These poems cause us to feel things in new ways, and—warning—the emotions aren’t always comfortable. The poem “Field Notes,” for example, cinematically depicts a single buffalo’s demise by lions, and the players (“The hunters” and “one buffalo [who] strides into the water / to lick the victim’s wounds / [she kisses them] awhile”) could be a metaphor for any social scenario in which people compete for resources emotional and physical.
Sage’s poems use the imperative to bridge the strangeness and highlight the beauty in our interspecies interactions. In “How to Hold a Hummingbird,” directions such as “Understand why, for her, the mouth is most important” also call us to “Draw a warm bath—wrap her / like a canna leaf—she loves that.” “Sonnet for Carryhouse and Keeper” depicts man’s devotion to his pet, even as he figures God-like in her world: “his breath would set small clouds into her glass.”
In other poems, the language matches the motif, taking on a distinctly Biblical assignment:
Giver of ears
to kings and fools,
carrier of saints and baggage,
o wooly, cross-backed wanderer
we keep corralled, o dove-
gray guide and deliverer
of goods, you take our hay and keep us.
The redemptive power of animals rests in the interplay between humans and beasts, and it’s never lost on the reader that humans are themselves not exempted animals, even as the speaker in “A Wilderness” acknowledges “There is a wilderness in me.”
While the occasional didactic statement creeps in, as in “Sea Canaries”: “Here is where they belong, / all right, / and here is where I leave them,” when it does it’s quickly redeemed by thoughtful lyricism: “To bate the brink / of bygone beauty, I bring no bait.” Such carefully packed sound catapults Sage to the head of the wordsmith line. Here are linguistically rich and evenly crafted pieces that feel fully vested (only one poem, “Aubade,” doesn’t seem to fit thematically). The rhyme in “For Food,” for example, tethers us to its urgency and beauty:
on the drive home, orange and aglow,
see a thousand rows of spiny safflower heads!—
how they keep the local farm afire.
Who needs the opiate of poppies!
The rage of radish blossoms
fills a plate with flame.
The cumulative effect of long vowels in “home/aglow/rows/local/opiate” and “rage/plate/flame” becomes as meditative as the author’s vision. Sage’s finely tuned ear is stamped on powerful endings like the one in “Goat”:
We leave our gardens unattended, our backs
to both your province and your teeth,
our pant legs at your feet.
The bulk of you is not your horns;
your sum is in your hunger.
There is a hunger in these poems, a longing for salvation, compassion, and equality for the inhabitants of Earth. And though the final gesture is a despairing one (“I was born into captivity and I will leave a captive of this world”), the sum of Sage’s collection hinges on faith of “a living sign” that “men would find their way.” Indeed, these poems provide the guide.