bury it by sam sax
Wesleyan University Press, 2018. 83 pp.
Reviewed by Ina Cariño
The subject of the epitaph—from the Greek epitaphion, meaning “funeral oration”—is at once a fitting epigraph for sam sax’s latest collection of poetry, bury it, and also an entry point into the elegiac mode that sax employs throughout the book. He quotes English poet and literary critic James Fenton in the book’s epigraph:
The term “epitaph” itself means
“something to be spoken at a burial or
engraved upon a tomb.” When an epitaph
is a poem … and appears in a book, we
are aware that we are not reading it in its
proper form: we are reading a reproduction.
The original of the epitaph is the tomb
itself, with its words cut into stone.
If an epitaph is a poem, and a poem is a reproduction—if the real poem is the “tomb itself”—then are poets eulogists, charged with praising the dead? Is the poet a priest of sorts, assigning final rites onto those people and things that have passed or been lost? Or something else?
The speaker in bury it—a five-section volume bookended by two poems titled “Will”—paints a hauntingly intimate emotional landscape, tethered to complexities of gender and queerness, death and suicide, and the Jewish diaspora. “Bildungsroman,” the first poem in the first section, “Rope,” immediately solidifies the speaker’s specific and formative humanity, one touched with self-loathing and fear of his own body:
my biggest fear was the hair they said
would snake from my chest, swamp trees
breathing as i ran. i prayed for a different kind
of puberty: skin transforming into floor boards
muscles into cobwebs, growing pains sounding
like an attic groaning under the weight of old
Afraid of what he might become, the speaker recounts a family story in which he is held in his brother’s arms. The poem closes with the brother speaking: “dad it will be a monster we should bury it.”
Epitaph as poem, poem as body, body as multifaceted whole in a world with so much hurt. In “Ultrasound,” the speaker muses,
it’s not that we’re all born
genderless, though we are.
rather, once we were all small
women inside our mothers.
The third section of the book, “Stone,” is comprised entirely of a sectioned poem called “Kaddish,” and is a play on an ancient Jewish prayer sequence, a form of which is recited for the dead. The poem eulogizes “the first boy [the speaker] ever kissed,” who has passed away—the first boy who taught the speaker he was “worth such a simple thought as hunger” and that “lust could be a word / used to describe [his] own saturnine skin.” The loss of this boy, however, is not romanticized; rather, the speaker dwells in a state of subtle bewilderment, characterized by the poem’s fourth section, in which enjambments and white space imply double meanings:
Bury it offers more than explorations of a person’s inner life. The collection also touches on what it’s like to be a body in motion, a body dispersed in the diaspora. The poem “Diaspora” asks, “what’s the word for a man who returns to a home he’s never lived in?” The poems act, then, as home, as tomb, as place of rest—an inner world to which the speaker returns again and again. After all, it is there that a person’s sense of identity is, essentially, buried. The poem “Treyf,” the title of which is a Yiddish word meaning something that isn’t kosher, touches on word and language as body, body as impermanent, body misunderstood as transgressive. The poem begins by defining the word “feygele,” which means a male who is or who is thought to be homosexual:
feygele is yiddish for the way i walk into a room.
feygele, the anglicized spelling of angel
fallen into the dark earthen pits of fashion.
feygele from the german vogelein meaning ‘little bird.’
little bird, where do you flame from?
“[S]ure,” says the speaker, “[I]’ve memorized every word / for faggot.” He continues, “but see how hideous hearse-shined my feathers, / see my wings spread like a dead book of legs, see my brutal beak a seed-thief in the club light.” The collection is permeated with such tragically stark language—language that hints at the dissipation, the burial of the multivalent human self.
If poets are eulogists or priests—and further, if poets themselves are doing the act of burying—what is to be gained in this world? Perhaps an answer lies in the book’s final poem, the second in the collection titled “Will”:
to the living i leave, I leave the living
everything left. everyone i love is dying & i can’t let this be
tragic : haunted hunted seraph, abandoned plate of deer ribs.
“[I]nstead,” the speaker says, “let every leaf of grass be my family’s sick blood clean. / [L]et me trust every writ letter is alive & liquid & will survive me.” Perhaps, in burying the self—in planting the self in fertile soil, in poems—the living will be left not with the tragedy that is inherent in death, but rather, with a ritual of sorts, a cleansing with words, prayers for the damned, for the other.
Ina Cariño was born in Baguio City in the Philippines. Her poem “Feast” won the inaugural Sundress Publications broadside contest, and her poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction appear or are forthcoming in Tupelo Quarterly, Sakura Review, Nat. Brut, VIDA Review, New American Fiction (from New Rivers Press), One, and december Magazine. She a candidate in the MFA in creative writing program at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, NC. www.darlingchimera.com