Reframing Sus Domesticus: A Review of Sam Sax’s Pig

Cover of Pig by Sam Sax: A beige background with PIG in bold black letters and the author's name SAM SAX beneath the title in bright orange and pink. The bottom third of the cover features a black line drawing of a pig with a white flower behind its ear and three grey fence posts with a bright pink and orange backing.

Pig by Sam Sax

Scribner, 2023

112 pages, $15.81

Review by Donna Vorreyer

Before this collection even begins, Sax quotes the end of Orwell’s Animal Farm where the pigs are indistinguishable from men, the very thing that they were rebelling against. As Orwell’s famous allegory uses animal metaphors to reframe political ideologies, Sax’s Pig looks at the pig in just about every possible permutation to explore themes of desire, shame, obsessions, queerness, sex, power, Judaism, and the cultural and natural landscapes in which we dwell. 

Sax names each section after one of the pig houses in the famous fairy tale (Straw, Sticks, Bricks) and includes with each subtitle a list, a mini-wiki of sorts, about the animals. Butchering cuts for Straw. Non-food products made from pig parts for Sticks. A list of literary pigs for Bricks. This is a book that takes its obsession seriously, not only documenting and including details about the actual animals but also inspecting the myriad ways in which the pig has become a part of popular culture, literature, and language.

The animals themselves—as farm dwellers, as products, as companions to ancient armies, as disease carriers, as fodder for dissection, as tender-eyed city pets—drive this collection. In “Rainbow Queen Encyclopedia,” an imagined pet pig becomes a symbol for a desire never fulfilled, which Sax argues is better than loss—  “better to have existed only for a time in imagination—to never have to die.” 

In “Author’s Note,” Sax lists his lack of actual knowledge or experience with the animal until “but once did look into the eye of a pig behind a hardware store in brooklyn and saw reflected back the blurred terror of this american world,” declaring at the end:  “now i’ve stopped eating the animal/i see the animal everywhere.” 

In “Nearly Every Invading Army Brought Pigs with Them to Feed Their Soldiers,” he describes the animals—  “adaptable, they followed, devouring towns and forests, so soldiers ate the worlds they invaded.” A poem called “H1N1” reflects on the transient nature of lust and disease. “Hog Lagoons” gives us factory farms where waste spray is used to fertilize feed crops, reminds us

what happens inside the factory can never stay inside the factory
no matter what the farm believes it pays
no matter how thick the walls
we all eat shit…

Other poems feature headlines about possible COVID outbreaks in pork plants. About Miss Piggy as a role model and queer icon. About being pulled over by police. About pigs who devour their own young in unsafe conditions, printed on a tear-out page where the reader is asked to devour the name of a beloved. 

But every poem in this collection is really about being human, about learning to love the appetites and frailties in ourselves, about claiming the animals we are through the pleasures and pains of the body and through language itself. In “Xenotransplantation,” the speaker’s vegan friend has a pig valve, yet

“believes the pig in him is vegan/since it eats what he eats, speaks when he speaks…” “Poem Written Inside a Leather Pig Mask,” a rumination on queer desire, opens with the speaker wearing the mask in a leather shop while watching “two men surely now dead perform at pleasure on a screen.” Later in the poem, the speaker ruminates about how the mask is made of cow leather to resemble a pig and thinks: 

right now this is the queerest thing
i can imagine:
the animal yearning
within the animal within the animal.[…]
i’ve never been lonelier than i am
right now, inside this pig mask
made out of a cow, watching
these men break into each other
again & again, two men
who will never die.

A discussion with a grandfather revealing that he used to castrate pigs in “Sic Transit Gloria Mundi” ponders the strangeness of coincidence and the way obsession can shape our knowledge of ourselves:

one moment you’re drinking a cheap beer
in a velour jumpsuit and the next
you’re the descendant of Jewish pig farmers

what would i learn if i were to write
this book on an entirely different subject:
antique clock repair, the sex lives
of astronomers, joy

The end poem, titled after a quote from A.A. Milne’s Piglet “It’s a Little Anxious to be a Very Small Animal Surrounded by Water,” considers what will be left behind in a world where humans are bent on destruction from every angle. And in a poem that begins with the words of the timid and tender Piglet, how appropriate to end with:

instead dance with me a moment
late in this last extinction

that you are reading this

must be enough.

There are so many layers that this collection requires multiple readings to appreciate its depth and breadth. In Pig, the pig both condemns us and becomes us, lays bare the ways we snort and wallow through the slop of our own small lives. 

Donna Vorreyer is the author of To Everything There Is (2020), Every Love Story is an Apocalypse Story (2016) and A House of Many Windows (2013), all from Sundress Publications. She hosts the monthly online reading series A Hundred Pitchers of Honey.

@djvorreyer on Twitter, @djv50 on Instagram and Donna Vorreyer on Facebook.