Pig is Sam Sax’s triumphant third poetry collection, ready to join their past two critical successes Madness (2017) and bury it (2018) as another experimental tour-de-force that employs a ludic approach to form and voice. Sax is a queer Jewish writer who has been widely recognized for their poetry, winning the Jame Laughlin Award, and a two time Bay Area Grand Slam Champion. Their writing has been published in The New York Times, The Atlantic, and Poetry Magazine. In their debut collection Madness, Sax attempts to locate the nexus between desire and addiction, examining the category of sanity itself as they explore their own familial history with mental illness and the treatment of mental health patients and practitioners. In bury it, Sax delves into the recent mental health crisis among the gay youth as they once again contend with death and desire in intricate, turbulent verse.
On the surface, Pig might seem the most light-hearted of the three: in place of mental illness or the thorniness of desire, the collection appoints the pig as its central muse. The book is divided into three distinct parts: “Straw,” “Sticks,” and “Bricks,” employing the lens of the childhood nursery rhyme as a conceptual framework for the overarching anatomy of the collection. Sax manages to connect the pig to every facet of their life, reinvigorating these topics through the new perspective. In “Pig Bttm Looking for Now,” Sax writes:
“i take pills & pass out in front of cameras. / an overdose on a live streaming jerk-off site…we all leak behind screens. i close my eyes only to open/ ten on the same country. open them on a man / braying like a dial tone, a group of girls laughing / in tacoma, messages asking: you okay? you dying?”
The animalizing force of desire is part of its humiliation. While all of us are animals — that is, all of us possess desire — an asymmetry of vulnerability can construct power dynamics that are painful, despite the potential for intimacy that desire can produce. Sax executes another compelling examination of the pig metaphor in our society in “Lex Talionis,” in which a pig is put on trial for eating the face of a sleeping infant. “…when found guilty of the crime,” Sax wrote, the pig was “maimed, dressed in human clothes, / then hanged by its feet o die, / which was, as you’ve likely heard too, / the same punishment/ reserved at the time for jews.” While this comparison between pigs and Jewish people seems uncomfortable at first, Sax complicates matters by mentioning that his grandfather used to castrate pigs as a child — indeed, Sax came from a line of pig farmers.
However, regardless of the imposed moral weight of the pig, Sax maintains that we can not live without it — and as a consequence, cannot live in denial of this animal part of ourselves. In “Xenotransplantation,” this inextricable idea is made literal:
“my friend’s got a pig heart in him.
my friend’s got part of a pig’s heart.
a piece, his heart’s part pig…
my friend takes drugs so his body
doesn’t reject the organ. my friend
takes drugs so he can keep on dancing.”
That the pig heart has become a part of Sax’s friend, and necessary for his survival, brings into question divisions such as natural versus artificial, animal versus human, and inborn versus acquired — not so much their existence, but instead their ultimate relevancy.
Beyond telling personal anecdotes, Sax extends the pig metaphor toward contemporary political metaphors: the pandemic, Zionism, the police state, even 9/11. Sam Sax compares himself to the pigs that he had been dissecting in class on the day of the plane crashes, remembering “… what else could we do but leave / to call home? leave that room… preserved in formaldehyde for when we’d return / to this memory, finding the animal somehow alive / inside plastic, cut from our mothers / for the purpose of an american experiment.” What does it mean to exist under a government, and under what existential stone does dignity lie?
In the allegory Animal Farm, taught in high schools around the Western world, George Orwell portrays pigs as exploitative political leaders who use their relentless cleverness to subject the innocent animals on the farm to their moral filth, a symbol of evil design that has persisted for over half a century. In Spirited Away, Chihiro’s journey in the spirit world begins when her parents turn into pigs, symbolizing the gluttony and greed that stems from a loss of innocence. There is no dearth of pig pontification in our society — indeed, the pig seems so burdened under cultural symbolism that it seems all but impossible to see the pig for what it actually is.
Sam Sax’s Pig is an attempt to redeem the pig without idealization, to use all of its parts to create not only a portrait of the pig, but a portrait of man as well. Beautifully written and so creative that it warms you, Pig is a fantastic collection that teaches readers about the slipperiness of metaphor.