C. J. Sage’s The San Simeon Zebras, published by the Irish press Salmon Poetry, is filled with poems as exciting as the animals they portray. The pieces are quirky and gorgeous. Sometimes they become so overexcited with language they fall off the ledges they’re playing on.
The first poem, “Landscapes with Elephant Seals and Umbrellas,” begins with the image of molting elephant seals and ends with human nudes sunning themselves on a beach. This sets the tone for the rest of the bestiary, where many of Sage’s animals seem about to molt into humans in the same way her humans might molt into beasts. “How to Keep a Setter” and “How to Hold a Hummingbird,” both cleverly placed after “An Aftermath”—about the grief of a man who loses a woman who he “never would bother to tell…what most needed telling”—seem as much about certain types of humans as they are about animals. “Sonnet for Carryhouse and Keeper” is a love-story about a man and a snail.
Here’s how Sage describes a crane: “Your beak is a plier; / your head is all jaw.” A pelican: “back she throws her head to throat the little fish.” For one of her typically satisfying endings, she finishes “Lamb”: “At rest alongside the greatest beast, / your belly is to the earth, / and your little ear.” Her title poem, “The San Simeon Zebras” ends:
as the masses
of an outcast, homeless people.
—Lost so completely
everyone is, in passing, interested.
Sage’s lines are so lovely that everyone should be interested, but her occasionally overwrought language may put many potential readers off. She has a fondness for words like “verily,” and sometimes overuses alliteration and archaic accents and “O’s.” The best example is this excerpt of “Sea Canaries”:
…To bate the brink
of bygone beauty, I bear no bait. A thatch shed
on the shore would keep me closer. O idol
of the gulls and wing`ed seagirls and idle guitar
Although restraint would stop Sage from sliding into ridiculousness, her language makes her more academically interesting, especially when placed in the larger context of the New Formalist movement. Her subject matter, the conscious artificiality of her sinuous language, and her non self-aggrandizing use of the authorial “I” could arguably earn her the formerly derogatory title of “poetess.” This term has been reclaimed by the Queen of the New Formalist movement, Annie Finch, in articles such as “The Poetess in America” and “Confessions of a Postmodern Poetess” in The Body of Poetry. (Finch’s influence on Sage is highly visible. The journal Sage edits, The National Poetry Review, sponsors an “Annie Finch Prize.”) Sage’s old-fashioned language weakens some of her poems but, if given the right promotional spin, could also increase their visibility.
Another piece, “Memorandum on Human Being,” also contains an absurd final stanza. The amount of alliteration on accented syllables—two to three per line—makes the language over-bearing. The first lines read:
I have seen the mighty blueprints of belonging:
they are blue, of course, and beautiful and blurred.
I went and brushed them up against my body—
The good last line could be considered justification for the silly-sounding “B” sounds, though. It would come from their relief-filled absence in the first part of the line and the marvelous long-e rhyme: “I’d heard Delight is the equal of becoming.” This also demonstrates the other main reason to read Sage’s The San Simeon Zebras: the delight of watching a fine wordsmith develop through play.