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CJ Sage

The Poet

Keats’ elegant description of Autumn as “the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” strikes a particular chord with us.  Our efforts to secure Californian poet CJ Sage for an interview and showcase have indeed borne fruit.  There is little in the way of mist to be cleared though – CJ Sage’s poetry is both accessible and compelling.

The sublime Sonnet For Carryhouse and Keeper is from her latest collection The San Simeon Zebras (Salmon Poetry, 2010) and has unusual imagery, a haunting quality and certain whimsical charm all of its own:


 

Sonnet for Carryhouse and Keeper

I met a man who’d kept a snail as a pet
beneath a cold stone house which held no wife.
(Too dank for even long-stray cats to thrive.)
Inside an old fish tank his snail friend slept.

The man’s round back was proof he’d not forget
to spend good time just keeping things alive
between his care-filled self and his shelled bride.
All day he’d curve around her as she crept

among the leafy shadows of his hands;
he’d trace her pearl-string trails with his fingers,
his breath would set small clouds into her glass.

The day he set her free she took one half
a day to slip into good-bye; she lingered
in the lovegrass, like the lovelorn, said this man.

For those as yet unacquainted, Ms. Sage has many strings to her bow. Juggling roles as Editor in Chief of The National Poetry Review, accomplished poet, with a day job as a professional realtor is keeping a lot of balls in the air all at once. 

In addition to her published works listed below, CJ’s poems have appeared in The Antioch Review, Barrow Street, Black Warrior Review, Boston Review, North American Review, Orion, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah, the Threepenny Review, The Literary Review, and Smartish Pace amongst many others. CJ holds an MFA degree in creative writing and has taught at De Anza and Hartnell colleges. 

Her love of writing and literature is uniquely combined with a passion for animals and nature – she is an animal rights activist, a vegetarian, a feminist, a self-confessed “goof ball and a bit of a clutz.”

 

Books

CJ Sage has published three well received collections:

The San Simeon Zebras (Salmon Poetry, 2010), which is her most recent and excellent collection which we shall concentrate on here.

Odyssea (Word Press, 2007), which is a unique and ambitious retelling of the Odyssey from a modern female perspective.

Her first collection was Let’s Not Sleep (Dream Horse Press, 2001).

In addition to her own published works, CJ has edited a collection of animal rights themed poems entitled And We The Creatures (Dream Horse Press 2003) and a literature textbook, Field Notes in Contemporary Literature (Dream Horse Press, 2005).

 

The Poetry

CJ Sage is a poet who enjoys playing with language using a varied palette of clever devices – homophones, synonyms, puns, partial rhymes and alliteration are evident throughout her work.  She also enjoys toying with various rhythms, meters and forms.

Her most recent collection The San Simeon Zebras (Salmon Poetry, 2010) is overflowing with her love and wonder of all things living and demonstrates her unique style in all its myriad variety.

There is at least one animal in almost every poem, and these animals are used very cleverly as prisms through which to view mankind and the human condition. There is something of Aesop in our guest – each poem can be read as a little fable and some have a strong moral message for those prepared to find it.  We should all emerge from this book with a deeper understanding of Humankind’s place within the greater order of species, and hopefully be a little more humble for it. 

Much has been written of man’s inhumanity to man, but far less examining man’s inhumanity to animals.  The San Simeon Zebras is certainly no animal rights sermon though and has many poems which look for instance at how human behaviour mirrors that of the creatures we share our planet with.

First let’s have a look at the Sea Canaries, a nickname for the endangered Beluga Whale. This little homage of a poem is packed full of word play.

 

Sea Canaries

The small white whales in packs of pods
keep their pacts with us, the fated beasts.
They wail their songs and the water wavers,
and we who signed them waive our rights
to have them. Here is where they belong,
all right, and here is where I leave them:
their pale, bountiful bodies to the sea.
I see a pail of fish and I would rather
feed on palm wood than palm one up
to shed it to those seabirds. To bate the brink
of bygone beauty, I bring no bait. A thatch shed
on the shore would keep me closer. O idol
of the gulls and wingèd seagirls and idle guitar
players, paddle deep and far off from my kind
who peddle our wares like love-me-kindly petals.

We have homophones and virtual homophones galore – we have the homography of palm/palm, and heterography of pale/pail.  We also have the in-betweens the close-to homophones of pack/pacts and paddle/peddle/petals.  Our personal favourite is however the perfect juxtaposition of gulls/seagirls.  Some of CJ’s poems require linguistic gymnastics, but they are such good fun to read aloud, like little not-quite-tongue twisters.

On witnessing some sparrows attack a wounded nuthatch, we are invited to consider our attitude to those not of our own human clan, to examine the primordial fear of the outsider who does things somewhat differently to ourselves. 

 

The Nuthatch

He is lying there, young thing,
                 center road. He pitches to one
side, disfigured, broken wing
                 collapsed against hot concrete, sun
and hordes of little sparrows come
                 on down hard on him. At first
you'd think that they were just a thrum
                 of siblings, heartening a thirst
for flight—not that they were hungry,
                 small predators of likeness.
But he's not like enough. They’ve seen
                 his kind perched upside down—bless
his silly soles—and cannot stand it;
                 they bring keen beaks for one who does not fit.

It’s hard not to find this little poem cute and disturbing in equal measure. We can’t help but recognise elements of the sparrows’ behaviour within the human realm – they are the equivalent of locals turning on an incomer. Their beaks are the pikes and pitchforks turned on the innocent who “does not fit”.  Yet the playful pun in “his silly soles” feels somewhat incongruent in this otherwise unsettling little sketch of an avian mugging. Below, in the title poem Sage again addresses displacement:

 

The San Simeon Zebras

Like many,
they are out of place:

stolen and content.

So wild in expressing
their reserve, they are wholly

hidden; their hides are more
dizzying than their presence:
dark and lightness,

confused as to the meaning
of their being
here, as they are.

—What an invitation!—
that wire-slatted hillside. —

Largely overwhelming
as the masses
of an outcast, homeless people.

—Lost so completely
everyone is, in passing, interested.

Perhaps it may have been unintentional on Sage’s part, but I read the word “reserve” as having a dual meaning – on the surface referring to the behaviour of the zebras and contrasting with their “wild” nature, but also suggesting the area they are corralled in, like the native American reservations of the late 19th and early 20th century. The parallels are strong – two populations displaced and becoming a spectacle for those who are “in passing, interested”. Unlike the zebras the issues are never black and white. Can we really assume that they are “stolen and content”? Up ahead next is an interesting poem which examines how creatures, and by extension we ourselves are defined:

 

Goat

Hoofed culler of things ignored,
pointy-bearded opportunist,
bedroom-eyed, steel-jawed hoverer on land,

you charm and chump
with your yellow iris, remorselessness
unflinching as a pitchfork among hay,

bailing piles upon piles over a shoulder.
There’s a feast wherever you forage,
no lawn for long wherever you live;

you are blamed for lack, the cause of all corrosion.
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.

His outward appearance is less important than his appetite, which more effectively describes what he is – his “sum is in his hunger”.  The last line sums up the fable – we are what we do.  The goat “charms and chumps” and is somewhat unfairly condemned for his indiscriminate devouring.  The “bedroom-eyed” description jars slightly with this reader, which only serves to illustrate that we all see things through our own eyes and judge them by our own parameters. On to the next poem, Skunk Hour is great fun!

 

Skunk Hour

At dusk the skunks all come in droves,
they fill the field’s manicured, lush grasses,
they nose the groves and benches.

Hungry, therefore self-assured, they do not fear
the weary strollers late to leave the paths
(for we the wise know better than to bother).

Our solar leverage now is gone; the sea
of creeping black and white now floods the bashful
meadow round the lake. O the boats of love
are blood-stained — it's mostly lust we make.

Because a ready moon unpales itself,
our sails lean light along night's shelf.


 

There are no wild skunks here in Scotland, so my personal knowledge of the monochrome, malodorous mammals is restricted to the cartoon character Pepe Le Pew. Childhood viewing of Pepe’s solitary and rather licentious habits did not prepare me for the reality.  I can barely imagine “droves” of skunks gathering to “nose the groves and benches” in the urban environment, unworried by the proximity of humans.

The rhymes are opulent particularly in the terminal couplet – “Because a ready moon unpales itself/our sails lean light along night’s shelf”.

The ending of the third stanza takes us back into the human realm and might be interpreted as a damning assessment of human relationships - “O the boats of love are blood-stained – it’s mostly lust we make”.  We hope that the first part is metaphorical, perhaps not – what is certain is that CJ loves to drop in the odd nugget of contention to keep the cogs turning away. Her work is always thought provoking and open to personal interpretation, which means that it avoids the extremes of simplicity and obscurity and is never boring.

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi is an unashamedly animal rights themed poem.  It is clear that this is a most visceral response to witnessing an atrocity visited upon helpless dolphins.  We are all aware of the highly developed intelligence of these creatures which makes the scene all the more disturbing.

 

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

The dolphin lay
along a rocky shoreline,
slowly dying, gray backs

pressed into sand,
white bellies stomped—
maligned beneath a fisher's foot

as if they’d once bullied him,
as if they’d been trespassers.
He'd grind them with his heel.

Oh the way the animals sang
out beneath the briny boot,
the way their bodies bucked.

Of tragedy what is the meaning?
I took it as a living sign,
that bloody waterscape.

Blessèd be the mammals
who curve like splines on daubed,
impasto canvas, above the schools of fish.

Blessèd be the fish
for they are meek and tiny
toothed. Blessèd be the sea,

it bears much without judgment.
And then the men would find their way—
the one man with the rest—

back home, and on the catch
they'd dine by candlelight
with wives & children.

Love, they say, and God—
enshrined in wood and plaster
for them to call a home.

Again we have the effective use of alliteration in a poem which screams out in disbelief at the scene it is describing.  Ironically adopting a biblical turn of phrase to lay bare the hypocrisy, Sage delivers a powerful case for the prosecution.  Sage demonstrates her mastery of classical forms with a Villanelle, sonnets – standard and Petrarchan, and my personal favourite here, the sweet and tender The Terza Rima of Bird & Fish:-

 

The Terza Rima of Bird & Fish

It’s a reef of refrain in thunder
that opens the briefcase heart, that opens the bank of stay
in this utterly rain. No plunder

plumes a plain of play-
fed flame—this fire knows no misery, no grief
that lasts, no gloom, no jay

frantic with its thievery.
My love is a leak of rapt in the roof,
my love is a leaf fish

rising, a bucket of hundred-proof
leaves—they tumble, calm, and sublimate
the rain (it claws and hoofs

a land-locked heart); they bait
the hungry pelican; they fill her bill
with stems, the fish of wait.

Beneath each weedy hill
and sympathetic willow? The little songs
of frogs; the loiter rain. The gulls,

before, bombarded always with their longing.
Hither only lovebirds now, crazy with their pawning.

The ABA, BCB, CDC rhyme scheme works perfectly combined with the sumptuous use of alliteration and peppered with internal rhymes and partial rhymes – this is a little tour de force - “plumes a plain of play-fed flame” is just such fun to say out loud!  Sage paints some vibrant images too and tops it all off with the delicious partial rhyme in the final couplet.

It has again proved extremely difficult selecting a half dozen from a collection of thirty-five excellent poems – but the inevitable restrictions of time and space dictate that we must.  We hope that we have succeeded in sparking an enthusiasm in our readers to seek out this wonderful book and enjoy the collection in its entirety. The San Simeon Zebras sees four time pushcart nominated CJ Sage at the very top of her game and we look forward with great anticipation to reading new work from her in the future.


Oliver Lodge, October 2011


Please click for Oliver Lodge's interview with CJ Sage.


Please note the artwork throughout this feature by CJ Sage, originally created in acrylics and mixed media. http://artfortheocean.seashepherd.org.au/index.php/artists/11-cjsage