I first picked up sam sax’s new book Madness (winner of the 2016 National Poetry Series Competition and hot off Penguin Books’ press as of two weeks ago) because I love to judge books by their cover (art). This black-and-yellow cover foregrounds a stick-figure body disassociated from its head; where the head ought to be we instead find the collection’s title Madness as well as the eye of a hypnotic swirl, spiraling outward and out of the cover’s frame. I was enthralled.
And the text between the covers does not disappoint. sam sax, a queer Jewish writer, presents us with a mesmerizing collection of poems that explore encounters with troubled family histories, queerness, sex and desire, addiction and recovery, and institutionalized concepts of order, disorder, and treatment. Dense with rich, lyric language and poems that call to one another across pages, Madness is a nuanced, socially engaged collection that at its core grapples with what it means to be “mad” both today and historically, and grapples with the relationships between sexuality and queerness and mental health.
Madness opens with quotes from French philosopher Michel Foucault and writer Mary Ruefle. Foucault, who wrote The History of Madness in the 1960s, writes, “I’m no prophet. My job is making windows where there were once walls,” and I think in a lot of ways this book responds to Foucault’s idealism: the speaker finds himself in dehumanizing narratives again and again that he would “rather not talk about anymore”—and so he uses these situations “as a window out of the poem” (38). These windows, which also appear frequently throughout the collection, are a sort of reconceptualization of intimate space, a “crawl[ing] / through [a] mother’s midnight-window”—as well as a response to historical interpretations of madness that dehumanize queer folks, women, and people of color (13). Of course, following Foucault’s quote, Mary Ruefle also observes, “When you go crazy, you don’t have the slightest inclination to read anything Foucault ever wrote about culture and madness.” The juxtaposition of these two quotes introduces a prevailing tension throughout the collection between the historical context of madness and its individual immediacy.
And again and again Madness acknowledges and questions past definitions of madness and the actions societies—governments, doctors, spiritual leaders, individuals—have taken in the name of its treatment. Poems take on, among a wide host of “madnesses,” hysteria, transorbital lobotomies—“sour mess. sour mash. mash-up. macerate. / cut a rug. jitterbug. wonder-drug. gutter. tug. suture. lacerate. / erasure. erase. raced. deadened. dead- / end. replace. / … / your relative made new & easy to manage”—trepanation, and homosexuality (10). The collection’s opening poem “NOMENCLATURE” lists with cool frankness mental illnesses included in the first Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) published by the American Psychiatric Association in 1952: between “Gain in weight” and “Hypothermia” the text lists “Homosexuality” (1). Some pages later, “On Conversion Therapy,” lists with the same frankness “treatments” that the queer speaker’s grandfather (a psychiatrist) finds upon “look[ing] to history / for the ways [the speaker] could be fixed”:
hypnosis : group talk : cocaine : bladder washing : electroconvulsive
shock therapy : strychnine : chemical & nonchemical castration :
rectal massage : bicycling : institutionalization : inducing vomit
while looking at homoerotic images : orgasmic reconditioning :
cold showers : prayer : satiation therapy : psychotropic medicines. (57)
When sam sax lists these horrors, when he reminds readers that state-supported doctors maintained unethical medical practices at Willowbrook State School, when he reminds readers that “at the tuskegee institute the u.s. government conducted / a forty-year syphilis study of black sharecroppers, monitoring / & refusing to offer treatment,” when he reminds readers that “it was once believed illness / was a punishment / from god” and that “once, before science / drew its maps, / you might have cut / open a dead man’s stomach / & watched a masque of old horses / come dancing out,” he bears witness (12, 41, 71 33). He frames madness within a historical context in which our perceptions have fluctuated over time. He asks us how much of our concept of madness stems from culture and how much from science, asks “who were we before germ theory / back in the liquid days of humors // when tumors grew from an imbalance in black bile. / who were we back // in the miasma days” (8)? Who? When you strip us away from our preconceptions of ourselves, who?
On a structural level, what I find exciting about Madness is that, in a way, it textually revises and expands its poems as the collection progresses, similar to how our society has historically revised its definition of madness. Throughout, we encounter multiple poems of the same, or similar, titles: four different versions of “Psychotherapy,” three versions of “On Prep or On Prayer,” and three diagnosis-centered poems (“Pre-Diagnosis,” “Diagnosis,” and “Postdiagnosis”). The concept of madness does not only historically fluctuate but also textually fluctuates.
This seems most clear in the poems “NOMENCLATURE,” “ MEN ,” “ AT E,” and “N ATURE,” a series of erasure poems that introduce the collection’s four interconnected sections. These poems all center on the same found text, a page of DSM-I that lists what the American Psychiatric Association conceived as mental illness in 1952. The first of the series, “NOMENCLATURE,” is entirely in bold font and prefaces its list with the line “order / disorder,” the slash suggesting the interchangeability of the two, especially poignant in a poem whose title otherwise calls for classification (1). The subsequent poems are erasures of “NOMENCLATURE.” The body of second poem in the series, ““ MEN ,” features the same text, only here the words are faded. The only remaining bold segments include “I” following “DSM” and the poem’s punctuation. In the third poem “ AT E,” the only bolded text is “ATE,” “I,” and the punctuation (35). Finally, in the fourth poem, “N ATURE,” only the words ‘nature’ and “I” are bolded along with the punctuation (63). In this last rendition, the list of illnesses is no longer visible at all. Foregrounding “I,” the self in relation to varying nomenclatures—men, ate (which I take as ingestion), and nature—and otherwise leaving only the punctuation, grammatical placeholders, in bold font seems in conversation with other poems in the collection that refer to previous madnesses that have faded only to be replaced by others.
When I think of this series of erasures, I think of them in relation to “Fairy Tale,” a poem that has stayed with me days after I first read it. The poem begins
a boy’s kicked out of his house
so he moves into the baths
+ becomes the steam
men breathe in + out again
+ this is a kind of homecoming…. (69)
In this poem (which you can read in full on BuzzFeed), sax posits fantastical bodily transformation as a ‘magical remedy’ to a too-familiar history of exclusion and homelessness that many queer youth experience: the boy’s family tosses him out and suddenly his body becomes “the steam / men breathe in + out again,” “god as he’s sucked back up / inside a body,” “you…passing through / a man unseen,” “an idea or disease” that “reemerge[s] years later / through his speech or semen.” The boy’s faux happy ending is that he is reduced to “matter” and “can never be created or destroyed, / that same idea, / just much / much sadder” (69). The reconceptualization of spaces and how we transverse them is here representative of larger questions of desire and intimacy and survival and madness—questions that emerge throughout the collection and that call back to Focault’s profession that he “mak[es] windows where there were once walls.”
These are poems that question the relationship between madness—the naming and categorization that entails—and legacies of ourselves that resist traditional narrative, that seek out humanity and humility in the face of dehumanizing—mad—situations. Read Madness and you will discover a poet deeply engaged in how histories of madness has formed and continues to form our selfhoods. You can learn more about Madness (available on Amazon) and sam sax and his work on the poet’s website and Poetry Foundation.
Yasmine Kaminsky is a first year poet at Virginia Tech. She is a poetry reader and blog editor for the minnesota review.