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Jim Sagel's Unexpected Turn

By Blake de Pastino

OCTOBER 13, 1997:  Española author Jim Sagel has earned a large and fond audience for both his poetry and his sharp, humorous stories. Sometimes it's hard to tell which is which. Many of his poems tell stories and tell them in a simple, conversational diction--a voice firmly rooted in everyday speech (New Mexico-style). And the best stories in his earlier books, Tunomas Honey, El Santo Queso/The Holy Cheese and Garden of Stories, achieve an unpretentious, feet-on-the-ground poetry with their economy, color and unerring detail. Sagel's newest, Unexpected Turn, finishes off what's left of the distinction between poetry and prose by serving up a collection of poems in prose.

The prose poem must be one of the hardest nuts to crack, so few writers have really mastered it. Rimbaud, Kafka and Cortazar come to mind, but not too many others. Of course, the best examples of the form somehow manage to look easy, and the more successful pieces in Unexpected Turn are no exception. Maybe that's the most thankless of a poet's tasks, spending hours, days and weeks carving those raw chunks of language down until they're not only perfect, but appear to have been dashed-off like quick diary entries. But look closely: Sagel's best pieces are as thoughtfully and solidly constructed as the old adobe buildings that sometimes appear in them, from the near-story-length poems to those composed of a single, elegant sentence.

These short pieces are, in fact, strikingly diary-like. Unexpected Turn is Sagel's most autobiographical book. The portraits and cuentos for which he is known are here in miniature, but they take a back seat to meditation, lyric declaration and self-portrait. Like all of Sagel's other books, Turn is bilingual, combining Spanish and English often within a single sentence--sometimes even within a single clause. That's to be expected in a story whose speakers live in a small northern New Mexican village. But in "When the Zacate Grew Wild in the Llanos," Sagel speaks wonderfully for himself when he says: "As you fried eggs and potatoes over the wood fire, I felt an appetite grow so big inside me, I needed two languages to express it. Al fin sabía lo que era el hambre. At last I had found what I was hungering for."

There are poems in the collection that falter and some that overreach. Because Sagel is such a superb prose writer, it's a disappointment to see him occasionally strain for effect. A few of Unexpected Turn's pages aspire to an elevated diction but achieve only an inflated and amateurish "poetic" noise--moments that fall far short of Sagel at his best. And he should be chided for the occasional banality: "Each night is a little death."

But those are exceptions. For the most part, Sagel gives us tight-framed, detail-perfect snapshots of the New Mexico landscape--a landscape that in these poems is both external and internal. White Sands: "I trace a circle in this desiccated sea, but a grain of sand has lodged, like your absence, in my eye." Santa Clara Pueblo: "The new H.U.D. houses ... are laid out in a line straight as a parochial school ruler." The satellite dishes mounted between ancient adobe houses, the old apple orchards now "ripening with doublewides," are such precisely rendered pictures, it's easy not to notice at first that they are also internal pictures.

Unexpected Turn does take a turn into territory that is both new and familiar to Jim Sagel. New, and in places a little uneasy, in form, but the concern and the sensibility are familiar to readers of the author's earlier books. Admirers of El Santo Queso/The Holy Cheese will read Unexpected Turn like a batch of wonderful postcards from a friend whose long letters have been a source of pleasure for years. (UNM Press, paper, $9.98)

--Jeffrey Lee


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