Natasha Sajé’s Vivarium cannot be described in one word, but the one I will try to prescribe here is sonic. This isn’t to say that Sajé’s poems are sonic without meaning; Sajé actually takes the reader back to his or her most basic understanding of language and gives that understanding a violent and welcomed push. Vivarium, an abecedarian book, is pure, verbose kinetic energy. These are poems that we learn from. It is as if Sajé comes to life in them and sometimes reads to us, sometimes plays with us, and it is for each reader to interpret where each piece leads. Collectively, though, these poems force us to examine our darknesses. The result is beautiful.
In Vivarium’s opening poem, “Anathema,” Sajé establishes a tone of fearlessness: “Destroy my name under every religion and / Cut me off for my undoing from all such tribes— / So that I may live as if I am already dead.” Death has a profound effect on this living speaker, and in “D,” the speaker proclaims, “Death is not oblivion, and we are dying everyday. Dying takes the same work as being born.” I am fascinated by these separate perspectives on death, a darkness this speaker intends to illuminate. In “Anathema,” the speaker is determined to live without the preoccupation with living or dying that religious belief may suggest, but in “D,” the speaker is unaffected by the ease of death while considering becoming a demon upon dying. Readers can expect to be delighted by these dualities throughout the entire collection.
The most successful duality of all is Sajé’s ability to adhere to a form as challenging as the abecedarian while creating a gripping narrative. “E,” which details the eleven-year-old speaker answering the door for a neighbor, left me gasping:
[he] asked if he could come in
electric, from Greek, elektron, amber, because it produces sparks when rubbed
I said no, I’m sorry
euphemism, to speak with good words
we stood eye to eye
eutrophic: a body of water with so much mineral / organic matter the oxygen is reduced
until I slowly shut the door in his face
Eve, from Hebrew, living
pushing with both hands
Here, Sajé does what the abecedarian does best in forcing us to pay close attention to words. Sajé has also repurposed death as a central theme in causing death and danger to clash with innocence, and the conflict between memory and knowledge makes this poem a standout.
The odes to specific letters are the most memorable of Vivarium largely because of their inventiveness (“D” is in prose while “E” is double spaced to give each line as much possible emphasis). “R,” for example, makes use of images, and in this way, Sajé delights the child within her readers. “R” begins, “If you think a river is not an abstraction, / ask a fish. Or a raccoon.” Of course, I could be wrong. There are small icons of both animals rather than text, as well as a rake, a ring, and others. The reader also interacts with “Two Thieves,” a poem that consists of four sentences typeset into a large X. Vivarium is a visual experience as well as a sonic one; Sajé is never predictable.
The title poem is one that most demonstrates the theme of life that constantly communicates with the theme of death that recurs in these poems. The end of “Vivarium” is acknowledges what it takes to be alive:
oxygen, water, green things,
our exhalations absorbed by other spirits living
in our enclosures, voices buried
by the luxurious feel of moss
as I remember the next passing sadness
air condensed into droplets on glass
How thrilling that what is luxurious here is moss, what is sad here is air, and all of these organisms must cooperate for any of them to thrive. Let us imagine, like the title implies, that everything and everyone listed here is enclosed in a vivarium, that we are both trapped and not because what is holding us in is what keeps us alive. This is what Sajé has managed with this collection. By capturing words and sound and images into a collection of life, she has managed to keep something alive so the rest of us can thrive, too.
Sarah Dravec is a graduate student in the NEOMFA in Akron, Ohio, where she studies poetry. She is a poetry editor for Barn Owl Review. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in And/Or, Blast Furnace, Dressing Room Poetry Journal, *82 Review, and others.
Also by Sarah Dravec:
Review of Phrasebook for the Pleiades by Lorraine Doran