in an effort to save a dying language

we stockpile books                         balanced on the edge of legibility
in the basement of a modern building
                                            paid for by the dying

apply for grants to teach this old alphabet to children

From “It’s a Little Anxious to Be a Very Small Animal”

Sam Sax follows up their award-winning collection Bury It with Pig, a staggeringly layered collection that meditates on the many iterations of the pig, literally and figuratively. Sax again puts their mastery of the page on display, crafting poems that are at once starkly personal and profoundly philosophical. The poems within are sometimes humorous, sometimes uncanny, often visceral, and always befitting Sax’ knack for social commentary in the most unexpected ways. Pig is an absolute force that is sure to factor into conversations about the most exciting collections of the year.

The collection is organized into three sections: Straw, Sticks, and Bricks. These sections exemplify the level of nuance evident throughout the collection, cleverly invoking the children’s story Three Little Pigs. While the allusion may feel superficial, the effect is such that readers, in penetrating each section of the collection, must confront their complicity in assuming the role of the Big Bad Wolf. We effectively become the wolf at the door, consuming the poems within each space as we move through the book. The sections further signal varying levels of fragility around the iterations of “pig” that Sax explores in each section. But Sax extends the function of the book’s structure even further, including a butcher’s diagram of a pig and an epigraph that pieces out pigs and our consumption of them.

Sax opens with “A Brief & Partial History,” a poem which considers the origins of the pig and the ways in which humans quickly co-opted it for their use. The speaker juxtaposes religious mythos with anthropology, pivoting from “eve said pig & the world was” to “a man using blood/& flowers to throw up the pig on a cave wall.” The end of the poem situates the pig as a sacrifice that “offered its body so the world/might be built” before declaring that the pig will inherit the world when humanity collapses. Sax follows this with two poems centered on desire, aligning the pig with hardening the tongue in “Lisp” as the speaker describes how they “straightened [their] sound.” This straightening is compared to “the tongued isaac / a son against the stone of [their] soft palate,” thus signaling a correlation between assimilating to heteronormative society and being consumed by humanity. The final poem of the section, “On the True Ruminants,” resuscitates the reader as the pig in its closing lines, which describe how “the shohet/sharpens his blade & turns/his attention at last toward/the reader.”

The second section opens with a poem, “Author’s Note,” that juxtaposes raising pigs with the interplay of desire and degradation. Here, the speaker admits that they have “never bred pigs” or “castrated a hog,” but have “been called a pig” and “wore a pig suit to the back rooms of stank butcheries.” There is an implied understanding between the speaker and the pig, however, which manifests most abruptly when they “look into the eye of a pig…and [see] reflected back the blurred terror of this american world: children trembling between desks…” As the section progresses, poems invoke the religious through nuanced interrogations of “the market,” anti-Zionism and the dismantling of “that border/zone” by a bird flying “through an airport,” and images of congregants in a synagogue singing together in the wake of another mass shooting, this one in a synagogue during Passover. Near the end of the section Sax recalls dissecting a pig during school in “Experiments,” a palindrome which begins and ends with students sitting “behind bags of fetal pigs.” The poem pivots on the image of being “cut from our mothers/for the purpose of an american experiment,” building on earlier rebukes of the ways in which American society continues to sacrifice its children literally and figuratively.

The third section offers some of the most exciting experimentations with structure, including “Lex Talionis,” a poem which mirrors its title by invoking the word game hangman, and “Porchetta Di Testa, or Rolled-up Pig Face,” a poem which spirals in on itself. These poems visually reinforce one of the collection’s core themes: disrupting power structures. Sax effectively subverts traditional conceptions of the poem, reimagining the role of language and art in dismantling the various structures that seek to suppress and sacrifice marginalized communities. “Lex Talionis” vividly describes how pigs were once tried of human crimes, dressed in human clothes, and executed in exactly “the same punishment/reserved at the time for jews.” The dichotomy of the poem and the hangman structure that precedes it are a bold rebuke of our tacit participation in state-sanctioned violence and dehumanization of society’s most ostracized communities. “Porchetta Di Testa, or Rolled-up Pig Face” presents a dizzying chronology in which the speaker confronts their desire for an all-American boy fascinated with power and violence, further emphasizing our inability to separate ourselves from society even as it threatens our lives.

Pig is one of the most unique and thought-provoking collections of the year, reasserting Sax as a poet deeply committed to exploring the human condition with unfettered vulnerability.


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