December 6, 2014

Where The Wild Things Are: A Review of Sam Sax’s A Guide To Undressing Your Monsters by Angele Ellis

cover credit: Button Poetry
A Guide To Undressing Your Monsters by Sam Sax
Button Poetry/Exploding Pine Cone Press (2014)

Reviewed by Angele Ellis

Each section of Sam Sax’s first poetry book—a runner-up in the 2013 Button Poetry/Exploding Pine Cone Contest—ends with a drawing of a monster undressing itself. Akiva Levi’s illustrations, reminiscent of Maurice Sendak, reveal the monster to be an ordinary boy—but a boy whose melancholy face is faded and incomplete, as if lost in the clouds of his own and the world’s making.

Like Sendak, Sax is a gay Jewish man haunted by his cultural and historical past, and seeking illumination and redemption in art. Unlike Sendak, the myths that Sax explores and recreates are not for children but for adults, and their wrenching transformations promise no resolution.

Variations and continuations of one poem, “Bestiary,” begin the five sections of A Guide to Undressing Your Monsters. The fabulous beasts that Sax catalogues become, in the poet’s intense and sometimes violent imagery, lovers whose intimacies are fraught with danger. Beware the lover/monster most when he is sleeping, as Sax seems to be saying in the following passage from the first “Bestiary” (his use of backslashes in these poems intensifies the warning), because of what may happen when he awakens:
… / go to sleep / beside the man you love
& wake up next to a dog / maybe the moon brought it out of him /
… / or maybe
it was there inside him / howling all along
The poems that follow each “Bestiary” are lyrics of sexual longing and initiation that carry, along with the urgency of desire, the knife’s edge of potential destruction and even disgust. In “When Researching Public Sex Theatres for a Poem,” the very seats of the theatre are repositories of viral guilt, as in Sax’s pungent description:
… who uses cloth seats anymore, anyway?
         you read they hold disease better than mosquitoes,
              feel the swarm beneath you as you sit,

each tiny needle sucking you down.

isn’t it funny how you once believed nothing
in this whole world could disgust you?
In “Fishing,” the knife is figurative and literal. Sax’s adolescent narrator and his friend Daniel, with whom he is infatuated, butcher still-living fish from the ocean as bait to catch more. The process is both seductive and brutal, as in this passage:
…fish don’t have throats to cut, so we stabbed
         wildly. my first knife, bright as a smile, sectioned their
seizing bodies. my smile, my knife.
That night, sleeping in Daniel’s mother’s house, the narrator “want[s] so badly / to be a knife… to take [Daniel] / apart in pieces” after he has “… in the dark… [run] my fingers through / his hair, brought them to my face and tasted salt.” “Fishing” becomes a vivid fantasy of lovemaking and completion in the final lines of the poem, as follows:
…or perhaps, i wanted to take him
        into my mouth, to feel something sharp
break inside of me,
        to be pulled up
                  into the screaming air
                                 somehow whole.
The fruitful consummation of love between men is woven into “Folktale,” a rich and humorous prose poem written after Marge Piercy, but also with the flavor of Issac Bashevis Singer. It is told in the voice of the narrator’s “zedee… from her creaking wood body buried in her creaking wood chair.” In the grandmother’s words, the proximity required by sleeping bodies in the bitter Ukrainian winter creates more than children:
… i don’t know if you know this sam but when two men make
love, they also make bread, the slow yeast and butter, yolks
breaking in the hand, sugar poured until it makes you sick…
you know the older the man the richer the bread, so hashem
rose the body temperature of these men until they all sang
like ovens. they labored indoors and birthed perfect loaves.
that winter, we ate how kings eat.
But consummation also can be cannibalistic and parasitic. In the Kafkaesque “The Hunger Artist,” the body that is devoured is so similar to the narrator’s as to fuse with it permanently. The horror of this union is demonstrated in the poem’s last stanzas:
… the job of any competent
parasite is to convince

its host of their relationship’s

… & when i was at last inside him,
i couldn’t make a sound.
Silence is transformed into “shrieks” from both the screen and the movie audience in the prose poem “It’s Alive!” that unreels on the page like a strip of film. Told from “the point of view / of the [gay] monster,” the poem/movie’s inevitable narrative becomes a defiant cry of pain and protest, as in these lines:
                               … it’s not
till you love a boy & make him
like you         that   you’re   able
to  curse         the    civilization
that  assembled    your    fiction

                       … & audiences
in darkened   theatres   release
a  collective  sigh    of    relief
as you perish,   as credits  roll
back  like  eyes…
Sax ends A Guide to Undressing Your Monsters with a return to childhood in “Boys & Bridges.” Beneath a veneer of roughhouse and innocence, however, his boys are “gods” of “flame & melt.” The narrator knows not only where the matches are, but also where the bodies are buried. “[A] dog… below the corn. /… there because of us… once it opened / its mouth to howl & all of god’s green dirt / spilled in.” Another dead dog “spill[s] out” of a bag pulled from a river.

Although the boys burn the forest in anger, and return “home to our undrowned / dogs,” a forest of civilization rises to contain them. As Sax says in the book’s final sentence, “we’re still climbing out.”

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