reviewed by Maya Phillips
In Sam Sax’s second collection, which won the 2017 James Laughlin Award, queerness meets violence meets devastating grief in poems that mesmerize, especially in their darkest moments. “Bildungsroman,” the second poem in the collection, presents a grotesque origin story, introducing the speaker as something to be feared by his family: “my brother holding me in his hairless arms. says // dad it will be a monster we should bury it.” The book is divided into five titled sections—Rope, Draw, Stone, Toll, and Suspension, all descriptors of bridges—bookended by two poems titled “Will.” The bridge looms as an organizing structure, a symbol recalling the publicized suicides of several young gay men in 2010, one of whom was eighteen-year-old Tyler Clementi, who jumped off the George Washington Bridge after being cyberbullied. The speaker questions his own queerness in the face of this tragic legacy, wondering, “how deep am i indebted to the dead?” Some poems recount sexual experiences and romantic relationships yet still return to the themes of disease and death—imagery of bodies as machines, as beasts to devour, as meat to be devoured, as “wild / unripe fruit.” Poems like “Standards” recall the poems from Sax’s first book, Madness (Penguin Books, 2017), which use the afflicted body as a space of displacement: “and aren’t we all of elsewhere sometimes the nowhere places you make yourself / inside the hallowed chambers of the hospital.” Even when the poems revel in the ugliness of their circumstances, when “pleasure arrives / inelegant as ever” and bodies meet with the muscle memories of “all their past beds / & public toilets,” the language itself remains refined, alluring even, not despite but because of its humanity and visceral grief.
This review originally appeared in American Poets, Fall-Winter 2018.