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Sage, C. J. The San Simeon Zebras. County Clare, Ireland: Salmon Poetry, 2010. ISBN: 978-1-907056-22-2. €9.60. Do order directly from Salmon Poetry's website. [Support literary presses by reducing the gross discount jobbers demand.]


C. J. Sage is an exceptionallyfine poet whom, I regret to say, I had not read prior to obtaining a copy of The San Simeon Zebras. Sage takes what many nature poets, following traditions extending back beyond Thoreau, would take and turns those traditions on their heads. Just for an example, the first few stanzas of the first poem in the book, "Landscapes with Elephant Seals and Umbrellas." The poem begins much as any of us who have read magazines like Orion or have read American nature poetry from Willilam Cullen Bryant in the 18th and early 19th centuries to Mary Oliver today might have come to expect:

In the water solitary creatures,

the elephant seals gather close on land

to mate and molt. They slough their skin,


then off they go again into the sea


Not astonishing: a description of the natural behavior of elephant sealsalmost a textbook on "how to write a nature poem." But then, Sage tweaks what she is doing, inserts her description into an urban setting. She links the image she played with in the first two stanzas with something, some form of metaphor or analogy,we are not used to seeing in what is a nature poem and, at the same time, is much more than that:

In the city I once saw a herd

of quick umbrellas open all at once—

all the owners purposely not touching—

Sage does that in her poetry: introduces you to something that seems fairly common and then, without even a wink to foreshadow, moves the reader past that to something unusual, something astonishing, an unexpected linkage among human and non-human societies.

This bestiary called The San Simeon Zebras is, for the most part,a collection of animals in prison or damaged by human society, behind cages and fences as are the zebras occupying their poems. In prison, striped suits and all, the zebras stare out at our own prison, "near[ing] the barbed wire.... // Their heads are full of high grass / and long shadows. They dream / of low land lions grifting gazelles." The safety they have behind the wire cannot compete with the possibility of lions. When I read a poem like this, I think of my own safety and what was surrendered for it. And yet, it is not for message that we come to Sage's poetry but for the sheer audacity of language, of the juxtaposition of image with startling otherness. Anyone can make the assertion about safety, only a true poet can make such an assertion sing. "heads...full of high grass / and long shadows/...dream / of low land lions grifting gazelles." Wow! This is worth reading, the cadence carries you through from "hooves and hooves and hooves" (that sound mimicking the sounds of huge herds in the savannah) to "dust and dust and dust— / safe in their target-striped caps!"

So much to read and enjoy in this brief book: "Field Notes" with its amazing narrative of a buffalo hunted by lions and betrayed by its herd; or "Sic Transit Gloria Mundi" with its image of the dolphin lying on the beach losing its luster just as a coal's ember fades, followed by Sage's own beatitudes, "Blessed be the mammals, who..., blessed be the fish / for they are meek..."; or a stunningly crafted poem called "The Terza Rima of Bird and Fish":

It's a reef of rain 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.

The poem continues beautifully, but I wanted to point out the technical accomplishment of the terza rima rhyme scheme, the flashes of plosive alliterative strings.

The San Simeon Zebras is a small book, only 51 pages of poetry, but is tightly integrated, each poem informing the poem before and after. It is a beautifully-designed book, just the right length to be enjoyed slowly for a long time. The poetry, sometimes formal, most often is in structured stanzas but free and demonstrating that "free"does not mean "loose"or "sloppy." Do yourself a favor and buy this book. After that, keep it and revisit it from time to time.