Campbell Corner Poetry Prize

The Poetry of Natasha Sajé: Winner, 2002

Welcome, Reader

In Search of Lost Time

Divine Plan: Eastern State Penitentiary

Welcome, Reader

to the cellar where you'll be pointed
at the cement ceiling and its drips of condensation.
How will they tumble, each unpredictable drop?

A whole cloud of philosophy condensed
into a drop of grammar.
Will you think of me
in my sunny kitchen with its pots of basil

and rosemary, baking blueberry crisp, opening the door
now and then to let the scent waft down? Or napping
under a comforter, dreaming of you? No, reader,

because if you're in the basement, so am I,
and we'll have Wittgenstein: the world is everything
that is the case: everything is, as it were, in a space

of possible atomic facts. Think of the space as empty
but not of the thing without the space.
That'll make time
crawl, our sentence a sentence, a term hard

to change. We'll be the Houdinis of our quaint bunker,
and the deeper we go, the more the pleasure of digging
will be its own reward, pleasantly tired arms, not the glow

of China in the distance. The limits of our language mean
the limits of our world.
Sure it'd be easier to live in a
shore house built on pylons of treated lumber,

but who wants air underfoot? Trust me, soon
the rooms upstairs will seem garish, department store
aisles filled with everything we don't need.

In Search of Lost Time

If you find yourself being questioned about a crime you did not commit,
resist at all costs the impulse to be helpful.
Social psychologist Richard Ofshe, UC-Berkeley

-Marcel at the Station House


          Where were you the night of July 10?

I am unable to say from what place, from which dream, anything comes.

          If you were to commit a crime…

I would prepare the hundred masks that must fit a single face.

           You would plan it?

How many persons, cities, or roads does jealousy make us eager to know? I'd think about details.

          Like hair and fibers?

Like boeuf à la mode, like water lilies, like Vermeer's View of Delft.

          You went out to dinner that night?

I observe, I speak with servants, I remember.

          But sometimes you do the things you think about?

Nothing is as satisfying as the imagination's rendering of it.

          Because you have a bad memory?

Hours go by and I remember the tremors in my thighs.

          So how do you…

I like to watch famished rats clawing and biting each other.

          Are you kidding?

The day my mother died she took her little Marcel with her.

          And how did it feel when you first put your hands around her neck?

A slight ripple, like sipping linden tea or feeling a fingernail trail against a taut stomach.

          What was she wearing?

A Fortuny gown, pleated red silk, and diamonds. Red shoes, of course. Everything of those days has perished, but everything was born again.

          Did you love her?

I prefer to remain closeted with the little person inside me, hymning the rising sun. He would make me happier than she.

          There's a lot of evidence. We have a lot of evidence. We have your hair.

I'd curl it to face the photographer. I'd wear my velvet jacket, and the apple trees would expose their broad petals of white.

          You were nervous? You pitched the body in the trunk?

No, I would have laid it on an old satin coverlet, after which I would have consoled myself, if I felt well enough, by walking along the avenues. I would have taken my walking stick, I would have sung at the top of my voice. I would have taken a few grams of Veronal.

          Are you sorry?

Ars longa, vita brevis.

          Which means?

I am acquainted with sin, in one form or another. Dostoevsky writes about murder, but did he commit it? Laclos was the best of husbands.

          But you?

I don't invent things. I've become braver, thinking of my journey into the self like rappelling down a well without a rope.

          You used a rope?

Oh! The trinity of braided strands, the coarse erotic fibers.

Divine Plan: Eastern State Penitentiary

Ruins now,
                              in a cherry orchard
                                                                                on a hill above the city-

          white-washed cells
                                        around a central observation point: a divine plan

                                        by the Friends of Philadelphia in 1820.

It would, said the Friends, counter the promiscuity of the gaol
          with its alcohol, its garnish, its dishonest

Counter the chain gang,
                                                            the sport of the vicious working in public,

                                                                                                              not punish bodies

                                                                      but reform souls.

                                                            No more stocks, pillories, tortures.

                                                            Think monastery-inmates
                                        asked only to pray
                    each in his own quiet cell, skylit, windowless, his own voice

                                                            Think penitent, from Latin, to be sorry.

If you go see it,
if you walk the deserted corridors, place yourself in the

mid-point of the starfish

                                                  you are the guard watching all the arms
                                                  with a clever system of mirrors.

                    But if the prisoner,

your food is given to you through a slot in the sealed door,
you have no work, no book except the Bible.

You do not see a human face or hear a human voice for years.

                                                                                           Complete and austere,

          secret from the bustle of the city.

          Thick inside walls, your punishment acts deeply
                              on your heart,
                              on the soft fibers of your brain.

                                                            Its radiant form, its gossamer sticky web-
                                                                                          the seed of experiment-
                                                            like bindweed, like staph

                    with you, this very moment its object.

                                                                      Though you have committed no crime,

                                                                                 though you are not imprisoned


                                                                                                     or surveyed.

                                                                                                                You can sleep soundly.