Paul Scott Stanfield reviews Sam Sax’s second collection of poetry.
Sam Sax, Bury It (Wesleyan University Press, 2018), 88pp.
Sam Sax’s Bury It is the winner of a distinction that may lead one to think him a relative newcomer—the James Laughlin Award, given for a poet’s second collection of poetry—but his book reads like it has a long evolution behind it. Sax has twice been the Bay Area Grand Slam champion and published several chapbooks as well as first collection, Madness, a National Poetry Series selection. In short, he is not new at this, and it shows. Although the poems in Bury It are often about fear and vulnerability, they impress by their confidence and audacity. They are the work of a poet with an empowering understanding of his own strength.
Bury It, like its predecessor Madness, testifies frequently to Sax’s ongoing participation in slam poetry by its headlong, unstoppable rhythms, by its fondness for anaphora, and particularly by its confessional intensity. Sax’s poems draw on a personal history enmeshed in a range of high-risk behaviors: unprotected sex, sex with strangers, unprotected sex with strangers for money, and all the above in combination with drugs. Yet even the grittiest, most candid details are shot through with lyricism: “my first time for money I was so quiet / he could hear coins falling inside me.”
Together with the spontaneity and honesty of slam poetry, however, the volume has architecture—a term I will have to use advisedly, since its five principal sections are named after kinds of bridges, rudimentary (“Rope”), mutable (“Draw”), ancient (“Stone”), government-regulated (“Toll”), and seemingly gravity-defying (“Suspension”). Bridges connect, they cross over, which makes them a place of decision. In Bury It, the recurring decision is whether to jump.
The book particularly recalls Tyler Clementi. In 2010, after his kissing of a man in his college dorm room was surreptitiously recorded on his roommate’s webcam, Clementi leapt to his death from the George Washington Bridge; Sax’s poem “Surveillance” is composed of phrases from stories about Clementi’s death. And Tyler Clementi was but one in a series, as the book graphically points out in its first poem, in which a fisherman “lowers his line into the dark” and “pulls up boy, / after boy, / after boy, / after boy…”—a phrase the poem repeats fifty times. For “Gay Boys and the Bridges Who Love Them” (another poem’s title), the bridge is a place to step out of a hostile world: “it is the wreckage / spilling from the wreckage. // it is the light / throwing its last shade.”
Bridges are also a way to get from here to an otherwise unreachable there, and the book may be invoking the despair of these young men as a way of imagining an alternative, a crossing over. By immersing itself in individual despair, the book seems to be seeking to enable community; Bury It is dedicated (as Madness also was) to “my family, blood and otherwise,” evoking two kinds of intimate community. We also have signals of yet another community, Sax’s Jewishness. His poem “Treyf” (Yiddish for “non-kosher food”) riffs on the Yiddish slang term for a gay man (“feygele is yiddish for the way i walk into a room”). An elegy for “the first boy i ever kissed,” the book’s longest poem and the keystone of its arch, is titled “Kaddish” after the Jewish prayer for the dead.
Sax may be referring to the almost unbearably eloquent “Kaddish” later in the book when he sardonically mentions “I was paid a thousand dollars for writing a poem about a dead man who hated me,” as though the poetry world of grants and prizes was just another hustle. But poetry too appears in the book as a community—furthermore, one that transcends time. The book recalls (without naming him) “the poet who leapt from the deck of a ship,” which I take to be that great American laureate of bridges, Hart Crane, another gay man who jumped out of an impossible life. The same poem goes on to allude to another bridge and another poet—John Berryman, who leapt to his death from the Washington Avenue Bridge between Minneapolis and St. Paul, imagining a plaque it has not yet occurred to the authorities to place there:
this is where the man lived
this is where the man broke
this is the man
this is the man stretched
between two cold cities
you are standing
on his back.
“There’s nothing left for us but his poems,” Sax writes, but poetry may be a bridge too, with its double capacity as exit point and way to take us to new ground. By dwelling on the exit point, Sax succeeds in taking us to new ground.
Paul Scott Stanfield was educated at Grinnell College and Northwestern University, and has been a member of the English Department at Nebraska Wesleyan University since 1989. He is the author of Yeats and Politics in the 1930s and of articles on Yeats, other Irish poets, and Wyndham Lewis.