Uncovered to the Bone – The Eyes and Poems of Sam Sax

American poet sam sax.

from On Syphilis

I know the easy treatment meted out to me
comes directly from their suffering

I know all things are this way

a single injection trails with it hundreds of thousands of sick
wrapped in heated blankets, electrocuted, & poisoned to sweat
out their madness

stare at any serum long enough, it unbraids

sam sax from Madness, Penguin Books, 2017
If ever there was a poet who looks at the world the way American poet Linda Gregg
says we should look at the world: eyes open, uncovered to the bone, it’s 
sam sax. This young man, with eyes so wide open to the bone it hurts to see what he
sees, especially what makes him hurt, is a self-named American Jewish queer poet 
whose 2017 poetry collection, Madness, from Penguin Books
won the National Poetry Series Award chosen by Terrance Hayes, no stranger to these pages.
To see a video of one of his spoken word performances please
click here.

To say sax’s pages shook me up unlike any other book of poems I read in 2017 is an
understatement. Sax takes me under the surface of the everyday, what I take for granted, 
and blows that simplistic truth all to pieces. He shows me my world wilder, scarier and
more sorrowful than I can face easily. A world of horrifying medical experiments behind
life-saving cures, a world where the darker truths of alcohol (every time I drink I lose 
someone) and drugs are writ large. Here for sure are what Canadian poet Patrick Lane 
calls poems of greater concern and of the best kind. With a passionate detachment! Lyric
power and mystery intact!

To try and wrap my arms around the impact of sax’s book on me I wrote this poem:

Reading sam sax

I don’t know
how to walk them, these are not straight
streets you (is it a narrator or really you?) howl from
to some other obscured moon, 
                           these streets, not straight, 
not ones I know how to travel. Your wants, its many faces: a syringe on the prowl,
and a cock, any cock-a-doodle will do, echoing out
of rooms and through sheets I am scared to see,
let alone touch, these places, things, more like the heaven
you claim isn’t a place: more a wound I make and pass through.
And desire, is it like your heaven, desire, miniscule or over-sized, is it true,
a wound? And love? Is it a rusty knife I’ve been too afraid to be wounded by
unlike you: When I was young I’d make love to anything with a pulse;
too afraid to ask
to be fucked by every terrible brilliant thing at once.

I do know
how to walk your pages down streets and surgical theaters
and call out to the you in your poems, especially the you in younger years, lonely
as a window even the light refused to pass through;
to call out to a you 
half calamity and half bitter cream;
to say “no you don’t” to the you relapsing into drug use: 
whatever happens next/ you deserve it
and I do know I haven’t tasted the slightest taste
of the desire you feed on, that feeds on you, the root of desire
when touched by your tongue
it ends up torn out of my mouth.
Like my tongue
when I feed on your words, it too,
torn out of my mouth.

Richard Osler, unpublished ( A response to Madness by Sam Sax, Penguin Books 2017)

Reading this book I am struck by this paradox, how its poems, filled with so many
darknesses, also make me feel more alive, more aware. A book where beauty and love
might hang their heads, where he would like to believe after a winter genocide;
that spring grew nothing along the highway// that the flowers weren’t devastating
in their beauty.

Somehow, after the initial shock of sax’s words I am left with such gratitude for
a world where flowers still grow in the shadows of horror, that in this world hope
and love still abide. I am grateful that sax has not been defeated by this world in
spite all he has witnessed, all he has read. I am grateful to remember that in a life
the word blessings is more than a word.

This is not a book for the faint of heart. Like a surgeon he peels the skin away
to show something bloodier there. His titles give some of this away: On Hysteria,
On Mass Hysteria, On Syphilis, On Trepanation, On Alcohol and, particularly scary,
On Conversion Therapy.

What a number of his poems remind me: the little-remembered suffering at the heart
of progress, especially medical progress, for example, experiments on a generation
of American natives infected with syphilis. His rage at this: every peoples have been
paraded before white men in the name of science, been caged & splayed & made
unliving in books & in life & in glass jars. in the beginning western medicine
was a human heart drinking formaldehyde…

But no matter which dark alleys of medical, personal or other histories sax takes us
down he does it with an informed and quick intelligence. Take this fragment from his poem
On Hysteria:
    *  *  *

it’s beautiful
how technology can move
from its corrupt origins
into pleasure

I have to remember the internet
began inside the murder
corridors of a war machine

each time I link to a poem
or watch two queers kiss

    *  *  *

sam saks, ibid

I am always on the lookout for poems dealing with addiction and this book has more than most.
This one, Sax’s alert and curious intelligence evident, was featured in Poetry magazine in 2017:
On Alcohol

my first drink was in my mother
my next, my bris. doctor spread red
wine across my lips. took my foreskin


every time i drink     i lose something


no one knows the origins of alcohol. tho surely an accident
before sacrament. agricultural apocrypha. enough grain stored up
for it to get weird in the cistern. rot gospel. god water


brandy was used to treat everything
from colds to pneumonia
frostbite to snake bites

the patients were placed on ethanol drips
tonics & cough medicines
spooned into the crying mouths of children


each friday in synagogue a prayer for red
at dinner, the cemetery, the kitchen


how many times have i woke
strange in an unfamiliar bed?
my head neolithic


my grandfather died with a bottle in one hand
& flowers in the other. he called his drink his medicine
he called his woman
    she locked the door


i can only half blame alcohol for my overdose
the other half is my own hand
that poured the codeine    that lifted the red plastic again & again &


i’m trying to understand pleasure     it comes back
in flashes    every jean button thumbed open to reveal
a different man     every slurred & furious permission


i was sober a year before [          ] died


every time i drink     i lose someone


if you look close at the process of fermentation
you’ll see tiny animals destroying the living body
until it’s transformed into something more volatile


the wino outside the liquor store
mistakes me for his son

Sam Sax from Poetry (May 2017) and Madness, Penguin Books, 2017

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