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Vivarium by Natasha Saje 
Tupelo Press, 2014. 86 pages. 
Reviewed by Virginia Bell

There are writers whose works we should pick up to read again, whose works we should not forget. We all have our lists. Mine includes Phyllis Wheatley. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Charlotte Brontë. I also recommend returning to Natasha Sajé’s Vivarium (2014), her third full-length poetry collection, which is equal parts emotionally and intellectually electrifying. Although playing seriously with the abecedarian form, the title Vivarium signals a radical appropriation of the epistemology of empire--and it is high time indeed.  

I cannot hear the word vivarium--and its seductive plural, vivaria--without thinking of the London International Exposition of 1851, a naturalists’ celebration of the peak of the British Empire. The glass cases that held live plants and animals, which we now call terrariums and aquariums, positioned nature as metonymic of the display of power. As Michel Foucault suggests in The Order of Things, to know through Linnean binary systems was to assert--with a mask of innocence--an encyclopedic control over the globe (1). Brontë remarked after visiting the exhibit, “It seems as if only magic could have gathered this mass of wealth from all the ends of the earth.”

In Sajé’s poems, however, she re-constructs the vivarium to house displays of power and resistance, attachment and refusal, and erotic and cultural agency. The poems combine musical lyricism with an obsession with the materiality and archeology of language to produce heat and energy on every page. In “E,” the speaker recalls one of her earliest acts of resistance:

edentate, lacking teeth

asked if he could come in

electric, from Greek, elektron, amber, because it produces a spark 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

From the hauntings of human history in the Americas and elsewhere (see “Milk River,” “Sacrifice: An Interview,” and “Slovenia”) to attentiveness to the experience of animals (see “Dear Fisher Cat [Martes Pennanti]” and “The Sheep’s Tail”), to late capitalism’s commodification of subjectivity (see “Ode to eBay”), the speakers are relentless in their fascination with the energy of struggle. I don’t mean that the poems have simplistic or strident political messages, but that they wrestle with what’s beautiful, humorous, sensual, confounding, and horror-filled all at the same time, in a complex tangle of insight and feeling.  The results are refreshingly honest and relatable, even if challenging at times on the first go-round.

In the sestina “Sluice Pool Turn,” for example, the end words do literal and figurative work in every stanza, work that also varies from stanza to stanza (sometimes surprising with synonyms), but never feels forced:

Toxins everywhere; who on earth

knew (Pliny did!) that unearthed

asbestos, plus what we burn,

flush, and dump, (not to mention cell

phones), would shadow us, wings

of a bird of prey?  We’re the mice, glued

and trapped by our precipitates.

So much for drinking rain

Such heartbreaking, but smart, poetic work reminds me of Harryette Mullen’s Sleeping with the Dictionary (2002) and Anne Carson’s Nox (2010) and Float (2016). As I kept reading, I became aware of the need for solace and connection. If you pay attention, Vivarium delivers and addresses that need as well. As if smashing the glass of a Wardian case to remove the invisible wall between the seer and seen, between the one who knows and the object of study, under “T” we find the poem “Essay on Touch.” It contains images of violent touch, to be sure, but also a morphing series of insights. For example:

of shampoo. Nurses know it’s friction--

not just soap--that kills microbes, and it takes

a full minute to do it right.  That’s

singing “happy birthday” twice,

or one eighth of “MacArthur Park.”

When my father was dying I could

only stroke his arms and wait, and wish

I’d done more of that before.

If you haven’t read it already, or even if you have, step inside the language exhibit that is Sajé’s Vivarium.  You will leave smarter, radically attentive, and pricked alive.

1 ) The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences by Michel Foucault. Original Title: Les mots et les choses [words and things]. (1966)


Virginia Bell is the author of From the Belly (Sibling Rivalry Press 2012). Her poetry and essays are forthcoming in RiverSedge and NELLE.  Her poetry, essays, and reviews have also appeared in Kettle Blue Review, Hypertext Review, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Rogue Agent, Gargoyle, Cider Press Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, Poet Lore, The Nervous Breakdown, The Keats Letters Project, Blue Fifth Review, Voltage Poetry, and other journals and anthologies. Bell is a Senior Editor with RHINO Poetry and teaches at Loyola University Chicago. www.virginia-bell.com