Five Reasons to Read: STRAIGHT, by sam sax
// review by Brad Trumpfheller //
Poet sam sax has long been a name to watch. Coming from slam roots in the Bay Area (of which he was the two-time reigning Grand Slam champion), sax has spent the past years exploding onto the poetry scene. In 2014, he was named the recipient of the Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation. He is the author of the chapbooks A Guide to Undressing Your Monsters (Button, 2013), Sad Boy/Detective (Black Lawrence Press, 2015), and All the Rage (SRP, 2016). Earlier this year he released his third short collection of poem STRAIGHT, from Diode Editions. In it, he chronicles a life through the images of addiction, sex, and religion.
1. STRAIGHT behaves the way a haunted house might, and sax as its tour guide. Each poem builds itself into a self-contained room, and then fills the room with the ghosts of memory. Thus, the ramshackle mansion of this chapbook is born. As sax walks us through each room, I know that I was struck by both its beauty and its terrors. By the end of STRAIGHT, like the speaker, I had “come to humanity in amazement & returned trembling to my tortoise shell.” Even if you have no experience with drug addiction, sax paints these moments vividly enough that the reader will undergo the pains right alongside him.
“inhaling the drug / might cure / my lungs’ /
sickness / an animal skin / might loosen / so i depressed
the metal ventolin container / sucked in again & again / until i
not quite passed out / rather a lighthouse / rotated its bright ...”
2. As a writer, sax possesses a grotesquely unique lexicon of images and metaphors at his disposal, and it shines in every single poem. Whether it be a circumcision, a psilocybin trip full of operas & snakes & vultures, or an account of “the worst drug dealer” in high school, sax creates new and wretched planets, only to abandon them at the beginning of the next poem.
3. Perhaps an equally inimitable aspect of sax’s poems is his syntax : the poems in STRAIGHT shatter themselves to pieces and sax reassembles them with delicacy and immediacy. Often replacing line breaks with alternate forms of punctuation (double colons, underscores, and asterisks), sax allows the unfamiliarity of a poem’s form to give the reader a sense of feeling in the immediacy or lack thereof. A passage from the poem “Opium” uses spaces on either side of the periods (not as grammatical punctuation but instead as line breaks for sax’s fragmented sentences) creating a feeling of suspension within the reader, as well as slowing the movement of the poem.
“it felt like returning home . smell of a kitchen i’d never been
in but known my whole life . bag of black tar . bag of clay.
bag of light .”
4. The narratives relayed in STRAIGHT go beyond just being human stories. They incorporate elements of the body in all of its aspects: from the molecular level all the way to the spiritual. In his use of God as less a presiding higher morality and instead characterized often as benevolence in the face of addiction (no not a god at all), sax constructs his own sort of religion: one of chemicals and limbs, that burns and feels and contorts. In the poem “Cocaine”, sax compares a high with godhood - divinity.
“i took them both | in my slick & could swear | i felt something move
inside me | maybe a god | or no | not a god at all”
In STRAIGHT, even the most unholy things can be holy, and in this contradiction the chapbook finds its driving questions.
5. Even beneath the complications of his form, sax roots out any inhibition of emotional expression. In the penultimate (and the longest) poem in the chapbook, “Kaddish”, he tells the story of the death of the speaker’s first love due to an overdose. Following narratives of the speaker’s own addiction, the unapologetic grief of these moments is explored both holistically & unflinchingly. For sax, there is no purpose to tip-toeing around the subject matter: the poem begins “& just like that the first boy I ever kissed is dead.” But even those moments of honesty are transformed into haunting & beautiful lines.
what they found / when they cut him / open / wings i bet / i bet they found wings”
Family, drugs, addiction, sex, loss. These are all narrative & thematic threads that have been woven and unwoven before, and yet in STRAIGHT, sax still creates tapestries that relish within their originality. With form and language beautiful & thick with emotional resonance, he manages to do the job of any poet: tell an old story in a new way. The conclusions here are tentative in the face of so much pain, but the message is clear: being alive is itself a miracle.