“bury it” by sam sax

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During the spring of 2018, sam sax visited the Texas State MFA program, joining a long list of celebrated writers for the academic year such as Ocean Vuong, Martín Espada, Gabrielle Calvocoressi, and Pulitzer Prize winner Colson Whitehead. MFA students, both poetry and fiction writers, gathered in a circle in the Katherine Anne Porter House in Kyle, Texas, to interact with sax. The room was full. Everyone was shoulder to shoulder, expectant, hungry. The three-hour session with sax—a poet who lifts his middle finger to the traditional and the patriarchal by rejecting capitalization and embodying his queerness—was a highly anticipated event for the noticeably enthusiastic, young writers.

sax began with a Q&A. He answered questions about his own MFA experience, about his success at such a young age, and about his spoken-word background. His presence in the room created an intoxicating buzz. sax was electric. His offerings were funny—very funny. The room was warm with laughter. As an MFA student, one understands that you may never “make it” as a writer, but sax’s grit dressed the room in a hopeful garment. He detailed performing his poetry in pizza shops and grimy cafés, as well as the joy of performing poetry to earn a day’s meal. The room fell in love with the struggle of a poet’s life.

After the Q&A, sax had the group break away and find one nearby object in the room. The goal was to write about said object in extreme detail. He told everyone to “describe the shit out of it.” The room dispersed. Writers found pictures, books, trinkets, or admired clothing items of neighbors. The only audible sound for those next twenty minutes was the etching of pencils and pens on paper. The goal of this project was to make something ordinary come alive—give it a purpose—but what was intriguing about the exercise was the chance to slow down, to spend time with each word on the page. This experience translates into our readings of new texts. As readers it is our privilege to fall in love with the struggle (and tediousness) of poetry. In his first collection, madness (2017), sax says, “anything can be a drug if you love it.” Wrestling with language to find the right words makes sax an addict for poetry. It’s contagious and will give you a craving only the next poem can satisfy.

What I want to do now is “describe the shit out of” sam sax’s latest publication, bury it (2018). The anticipation I felt for this book release provided me with the same eagerness, the same hunger as that day last spring. sax delivered. This book of poetry encompasses so much. There are themes of darkness versus lightness, the relationship of death and transformation, and how history informs the present. All of these themes stem from the notion that from one experience—one action—another, perhaps unseen, experience is made possible.

The aesthetic of this book is best explained through the poem “Impossible Drama.” Each stanza in this poem is representative of an act in a play, but the most provocative is:

ACT FIVE

lights up on a blank stage. the audience’s breath troubles

the red curtains in the wings until it appears the whole theatre

is breathing. the moisture from their breath condenses

on the scrim until it begins to drip. it’s beautiful.

—blackout—

This is the sensation the reader will have while reading bury it, the feeling one gets awaiting a Broadway production or an award-winning performance: breath held for a display of drama. The first page of the book is blank (except the title looking down from the top left corner) while your breath reverberates, anticipating the first section of poems like a buzzing audience bracing for the first act. The opening section has only one poem, but that poem does the work of captivating the reader and bringing them into the theater of sax’s book.

The poem “Will” starts the reader on a journey through the dark, like falling into a grievous mindset, like getting buried alive. The poem repeats the words

after boy,

after boy,

after boy,

after boy,

until the words seem to lose all meaning. The reader begins to feel the light slowly slip away until—pure darkness. Each section of the book is divided by a completely black page acting as the stage curtain dripping with the reader’s breath. The stark difference between the black and white pages honors the themes present in sax’s book. The poems venture onto a tightrope, balancing above certain death, yearning for transformation.

The poem “Bury” begins with an interest in “death rituals.” As the text moves down the page, the words dizzy, balancing on the tightrope between two possible destinations: death or survival. Both destinations become one and the same. The transformation is the death; the death is the transformation. The language becomes a history, an opening to the past as well as a form of rebirth. sax writes:

i’ll say they

didn’t possess a written language,

which points toward interment

as a form of document. the body

is ink in the earth. the grave marker,

a gathering together of text.

The body, even in death, is a form of language. This duality is the director of the show, the voice commanding the rise and fall of the curtain.

Poems such as “Ultrasound,” “New God of an Antique World,” and “Hydrophobia” render a feeling of what if? Whether the speaker is looking back at boyhood, envying the fluidity of water, or reworking a memory about drowning a dog, the writing works to blend imagination with the past, with a history that informs the present.

The language moves in the dark to illuminate that which is transformative. In the poem “Naubade” sax writes:

                                 god bless the dark, where we all

become something better; he grows wings

or a spine if you want them, you soften

at his touch. the sun is just another instrument

of disillusion. pray instead we live forever

in the dark[.]

Similar to madness, the poems in bury it evocatively blend the self with the social. sax explores many histories: wildfires in Austin, Texas; gay suicide victims; the French Revolution. And he blends them with the speaker’s voice by crafting poetry that participates with these histories. The speaker is affected by these tragedies because we all are. sax’s poetry recognizes the significance of our interwoven human experience. This work entangles past and present, emphasizing the relevancy of all experiences—a meaningful tribute to the young gay men who died in the summer of 2010 during a series of highly publicized suicides. The reader becomes a part of the show because we are all cast members in this dark production called life. Like sax’s poems in bury it, each of us is a chapter in the production of our interconnected lives.

Moving through the poems, the dark becomes more encompassing. It is silencing, but it is reverent—a place to listen for the dead’s breathing to drip down the scrim with our own. Winner of the 2017 James Laughlin Award from the American Academy of Poets, sam sax’s bury it is a haunting reminder that personhood and vulnerability are the best cure for our hunger.

sam sax is a queer, jewish, poet, and educator. He’s the author of madness (Penguin, 2017), winner of The National Poetry Series and bury it (Wesleyan University Press, 2018), winner of the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Lambda Literary, and the MacDowell Colony. He is the two-time Bay Area Grand Slam Champion, author of four chapbooks, and winner of the Gulf Coast Prize, The Iowa Review Award, and American Literary Award. His poems have appeared in BuzzFeed, The New York Times, The Nation, Poetry Magazine, and other journals. He’s the poetry editor at BOAAT Press and will be a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University this Fall.

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