Pig / Sam Sax / Simon & Schuster, September 19, 2023 – $17

Sam Sax’s Pig follows the queer, Jewish writer and educator’s two prior successful poetry books, Madness (2017) and bury it (2018). Composed of poems published in The Adroit Journal, The Atlantic, Guernica, Poetry London, Tin House, and The Yale Review among other locations, Pig seems to be bent on success. While initial success is hardly a predictor of subsequent, extensive success for any creator, Sax proves in this collection that they are no two (book) hit wonder. Pig is as much of a poetic victory as Sax’s other two longer endeavors.

Pig is arranged into three sections or acts: Straw, Sticks, Bricks—a reference to the three building materials that the fabled three little pigs construct their houses of to ensure, by the hair on their chinny chin chins, that the big bad wolf isn’t let in. This is the first of many pig references that appear throughout the text. Through this reference, Sax prepares readers to act as the wolf. They ask us to ready ourselves to consume the flesh and history of the pig. And so, we prepare ourselves to consume, not by huffing, puffing, and blowing through the material, but by reading voraciously through Sax’s porcine accounts.

In the first two acts, we  learn our role in the fable. Sax begins at the very beginning of pigstory (pig + history), offering us “A Brief & Partial History” during which they detail the birth of the pig as a lesser species meant to be only offered and eaten. In the  next poem “Pig Bttm Looking for Now,” Sax is the pig, providing a penetrative picture of their body undone by an excess of pornographic visual stimulation or drugs or both. In essence, Sax offers their body as the pig—the animal, that is—in a fleshy, too intimate performance for our consumption. They affirm to readers that we are the penetrators, those that take the offered and demand performance (read “squealing”) from them…we are the wolves.

Sax is constantly concerned with the pressures of being performatively pig enough for us and the other wolves of the text; the pressure, you could also say, of offering the most digestible cuts of their flesh. For example, in “Lisp,” Sax understands their lisp—the curvature of the letter and its sound—as a component of their homosexuality. Sax builds a parallel between their extended speech therapy in grade school which attempted to straighten the curvature of the letter and remove the stigmatism and the wolf of societal heteronormative expectations which attempted to rid them of their homosexuality. At the end of “Lisp,” Sax offers us straighter letters like the heteronormative masculine “i” and “d” as a way of performing this heteronormative masculinity for the aforementioned wolves. 

The theme of performance becomes even more apparent in “I Have Affixed to Me the Dirt of Countless Ages. Who Am I To Disturb History?”—a direct quote from Peanuts’ Pigpen. Here, Sax’s mom is the wolf, demanding a performance of what she perceives Sax is not: cleanliness in the sexual sense. Sax discusses the pressures of performing sanitization to their mother and the bleaching of the “good bacteria” of touch that it requires.

Whatever the performance, we are closest to the pig in all its iterations in Straw and Sticks—perhaps, another nod to the big bad wolf’s ability to blow down the first two pig’s straw and stick houses. All of Sax’s poems are intensely informed by the parts of themself that are most integral: their queer and Jewish intelligence. They feel close as home.

In the third act, there is more hope for pig. Pig isn’t an outcast meant to perform different norms for different groups. I find that it is in this third act that Sax reclaims the term, makes it less penetrable and wieldable. (Appropriately, this third section is titled “Bricks,” the impenetrable material that all three little pigs hide in.) The term, in fact, doesn’t need to be wieldable against any outcast group at all because, Sax argues, we’re all pigs. It is important to note that this message of solidarity also appears infrequently in the first two sections, for example, in “Erasure of the Gerasene Demoniac” where Sax asks us “who hasn’t lived…unclean / cast in a hard / drowned in the sea?” However, the theme picks up in the “Bricks.”

In the first of the “Bricks” poems titled “Hog Lagoon,” Sax details the sight of a large state hog lagoon: dirty hogs here are fed by crops that are fertilized by waste. But because some humans that watch the hogs being fed mistake the spray of waste liquid for rain, “we all eat shit.” Sax asks us all to embrace filth as hogs do or even more directly, embrace the pig inside us all. Then, of course, “Xenotransplantation,” my favorite poem of the text, also unites us readers in the solidarity of our pig-ness. In this piece, Sax’s friend possesses a pig heart integrated deeply into his body—it is “sewn into a man’s ribs”—and that animates his actions. The pig heart in this friend’s chest pumps with the very human desire for survival, the hope of persistence: “all i. want is. to live. & live. / & live. & live. & live. & live.” Sax tells us that the pig heart rests at the core of all those humans that hope. If we hope, we are pig. We are all pig because we hope.

It is in this third section that Sax experiments the most with poetic structure. In “Lex Talionis,” Sax’s poem likening the cruel punishment of law-breaking pigs and those of Jews is accompanied by a recreation of the hangman game. The word we must guess is three letters, the three lines positioned below the game indicate. In “Porchetta Di Testa or Rolled-Up Pig Face,” Sax presents their poem about another deindividualizing experience with a man—the first two being “Interpellation” and “Pig Bttm Looking for Then”—in a spiral. I might have argued that this subversion of traditional poetic structure corresponded to the subversion of the previous two sections’ notions of pigs…if this were the case. But only the poems most reflective of the previous two sections and their discussion of pigs as outcasts and solitary creatures that strive for performance appear in such distinct formats. The changing attitude across the text requires, I think, intentionally deployed changes in form which I do not find here.

But Pig is also intentional in the best ways: My favorite part of the whole book/performance/history is the thoughtful presentation of the pig in every form. Pig is the police in “A Pig Pulls Us Out of Paradise,” pig is a term used to coerce and degrade while simultaneously representing desire, pig is the greedy capitalist regime in “Capital,” is the five little piggies that were butchered in the nursery rhyme, is disease in “H1N1,” is a feast in “Truffle Hog,” pig bathes in mud and remembers in “I Have Affixed to Me the Direct of Countless Ages. Who Am I To Disturb History?” pig is queer performance in many poems, it is queer icon Miss Piggy in the eponymous poem, and most importantly pig is the story of every hopeful human who squeals and fights to “live. & live. / & live. & live. & live. & live.”

In some ways, I hope that in reading this review, you the reader became desensitized to the word pig after all its mentions. Sax’s Pig has this same effect—not because pig means nothing but because it has the power to mean everything. “Pig” unbecomes as a word in their poems. Instead, pig is a vessel that takes on the meaning Sax wills it to in the many poems they write. Pig is a voice for servitude, yearning, reclamation, and hope. That we read Pig “must be enough,” Sax says, to understand these boundaries of humanity before eventual extinction. 

–Su Ertekin-Taner