Book Review: Pig by sam sax

The first poem in sam sax’s collection Pig concludes with these portentous lines: “in the beginning pig offered its body so the world / might be built & when this world ends, / pig will inherit.” There are a lot of beginnings, endings, offerings, and inheritances throughout sax’s book. Even before this first poem, there is an epigram that invokes the final words of George Orwell’s Animal Farm: “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

Orwell’s quote is an appropriate introduction to a work that blurs the boundaries between the human and the porcine. From many diverse angles, and through a multitude of poetic forms, this book explores the historic and continually evolving interspecies relationship between humans and pigs. By engaging the appearance of pigs across cartoons and fairy tales, science and medicine, free market discourse and religious texts and notions of sexuality and policing and global food systems, sax illuminates the pervasiveness of pigs as both symbols and material beings existing within a wide swathe of human cultures.

sax (who uses they/them pronouns) identifies as queer and Jewish, and both of those facets of the writer’s biography are prominent in Pig. One poem bears the title “portrait of a drag queen with a pig nose,” while another offers an admiring homage to “miss piggy,” the Muppet whose iconic relationship with Kermit the Frog has “shown us how to love across identities arbitrary as phylum & species.” In “on the true ruminants,” sax addresses how anatomy differentiates pigs from other livestock and defines them as unkosher: “why would any god want / our meat many-stomached? / seems arbitrary & yet / to ruminate means to consider / to chew this life into something / more digestible.” sax wants to “praise the pig instead / for saving its own damned self / from the executioner simply / by swallowing everything at once / once & for all.”

The desire to “swallow everything” is one that many people have historically projected onto the pig, which is an insult buttressed by irony, given how frequently the behavior of our own species is defined by compulsive consumption. In “anti-zionist abecedarian,” sax explores how the unchecked urge to ingest leads “settlers” to “believe land can be possessed,” when in reality “we are / visitors here on earth.” Similarly, “hog lagoon” is based upon the ecological truth that an action taken in one corner of the globe will inevitably, eventually, have effects elsewhere: “what happens inside the factory can never stay inside the factory / no matter what the farm believes it pays.” sax is adept at using repetition, wordplay, and poetic forms that experiment with mirroring and flipping to cleverly tease out the self-destructive and self-propagating logic that fuels globalism, nationalism, colonialism, and extractive economies. In all of these violent systems, feeding a hunger only leads to a stronger insatiability.

And yet, while many of the poems in Pig offer frighteningly insightful explorations of how greedy consumption has driven our planet to the brink of climate catastrophe, it is crucial to the book’s success that it is by no means all dark. The poem “for my niblings in anticipation of their birth” extends a warm welcome to planet Earth, offered up to the poet’s soon-to-be-born relatives. It begins: “my brother, knowing my work well, asked i not / include any reference to semen in the throat / in this poem i’m writing you.” sax adheres to the letter of that law, but creates a wonderfully bizarre and beautiful meditation on “gossamer semen. / octopus semen” and the Callery pear, an ornamental tree whose distinctive odor, attractive to pollinating flies, has earned it the nickname “semen tree.” In this poem, sax celebrates material that is routinely debased and degraded in mainstream American culture, and sees in it instead the mysteriously magic seeds of life itself.

A different poem, “xenotransplantation,” marvels at the medical technology that enables the valve of a pig’s heart to prolong the life of a dear friend. In this poem the speaker’s friend is vegan, yet he gratefully accepts the fact that another animal’s life was sacrificed to prolong his own: “thin filament that set another / seventeen years going inside him. / if you listen with one ear / to his chest you can hear / the pig heart singing, calling / out to any listening animal: / all i. want is. to live. & live.” The will to live – and not only to live, but to sing and to dance while we are alive – is strong in Pig. These poems remind us that as scary as appetite can be, it is also a force that propels and propagates all life. Or, as sax puts it, “to deny oneself hunger is to deny oneself.” 

Even the most beloved pigs in popular culture, from Babe to Wilbur, emerge from narratives haunted with the threat of death and consumption. Many of sax’s poems are as well. But they are also intensely, messily, humorously, gloriously alive. Though the breadth of both subject and emotional register is wide-ranging in this collection, it returns readers again and again to the shared vulnerabilities that define the lives of all animals, be they hoofed or bipedal or otherwise.

sam sax
Scribner Book Company

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