The Poetry Project

The Hog is a Lonely Hunter: On Pig by Sam Sax

Joshua Gutterman Tranen

I was originally commissioned to write this review by The Poetry Foundation. On October 8, 2023, the day after the Hamas-led attack that killed 1,400 Israelis, and the day before the review was to be published, my editor at The Poetry Foundation informed me that he was going to hold off on publishing. I immediately objected; the review examines nuances of Jewish anti-Zionist politics, and I felt that the war in Palestine was more not less of a reason to publish. Over the course of the next week, and despite the growing evidence that Israeli forces were committing war crimes against Palestinians in Gaza, I was told that The Poetry Foundation did not want to be seen as choosing a side in political events, and that there was no plan to publish the review “for a while.” I decided to pull the review.

This review was written before the massacre of October 7, 2023 and the following aerial bombardment of the Palestinian people in Gaza and the renewed ethnic cleansing campaigns by armed settlers in the West Bank. I have made minor edits to the review, but have kept the majority the same. As a critic, I do not believe it is ethical to make Sax’s collection respond to events that preceded it. Lastly, in a moment when Jewish anti-Zionist solidarity with Palestine is crucial, I encourage reading my criticism of Sax’s anti-Zionist politics as a dialogue between two anti-Zionist Jews—in the pages of this magazine, rather than a Beit Midrash—on how to interpret their shared history. From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.

— Joshua Gutterman Tranen

The first time I tasted prosciutto was in college on a date at an upscale wine bar. I was happy with just my glass of red wine, but when the man I was with learned I’d never had prosciutto, he insisted on ordering some. Minutes later, a bespoke wood serving tray laden with marbled strips of delicately folded ham appeared before us. I watched as the man carefully selected a piece, plopped it in his mouth, and pushed the last bits of stringy meat into the corner of his lips. One bite, I thought. I can do that.

I thought I was going to vomit.

In truth, the pink ribbon of flesh didn’t taste bad—as far as meat goes—although I wasn’t prepared for its intense saltiness. No, my near regurgitation was cultural, not culinary: I was a Jew eating pork. Although I’d stopped keeping strict kosher nearly two years earlier, there was a difference—at least in my mind—between eating chicken that hadn’t been slaughtered according to Jewish custom and going full ham, literally and figuratively. As I gulped down the uncooked meat, I reminded myself that according to the Torah and traditional rabbinic law, the punishment for gay sex (death) is much worse than the punishment for eating pork (39 lashes). And I’d had plenty of gay sex. So why not eat some pig as a prelude to becoming the pig this man wanted in bed?

More than just the tale of losing my pork virginity, my memory testifies to the wide range of meanings and emotions that have been foisted upon pigs and the unexpected places where they collide. In their new collection Pig (Scribner, 2023), Sam Sax identifies similar places of pig convergence to examine the contradictions of American life with a focus on queer and Jewish experiences. At first, Pig’s argument appears relatively straightforward: historically, pigs have been what humans needed them to be—a food source. But as Sax’s poems demonstrate, eating pig does not alone explain the semantic burden we have placed on the animal, especially given the impossibility of pigs meeting our epistemological demands. Pig rolls and snorts around in our porcine contradictions and asks us to consider how and why pigs play such a vital role in the most intimate human experiences.

One central figure Pig explores is the queer pig. An identifier primarily used by queer men, “pig” denotes someone who desires uninhibited, raunchy sex. Though a top can be a pig, pigs are usually bottoms who submit both to their tops and to their own feral desires. Two general elements define the queer pig. The first is a metaphorical transformation from human to pig, a movement into a contradictory state of being in which one inhabits both the subject position of a human and the object position of a pig. The second is the desire for a top to “breed” their ass, a term for ejaculating in someone without a condom.

Importantly, both elements borrow from livestock husbandry to articulate queer sexual desires. Queer pig discourse takes for granted a human-pig relationship wherein pigs are subordinate objects that humans breed, kill, and consume. The violence that undergirds hog production is not incidental to queer pig culture but rather one of its defining features; in queer pig sex, one can experiment with passivity, objecthood, ownership, and consensual non-consent within defined parameters.

More than the violence of hog production, hygiene—or the lack thereof—may be the queer pig’s most powerful appropriation. Queer pigs reconsecrate the pig’s “uncleanliness” while welcoming the dehumanizing aspect of that association; to be a queer pig is to gaily roll around in cum, sweat, and piss like a pig rolling in shit. As scholars such as Tim Dean and João Florêncio documented, queer pig fetishes emerged in the late 1990s and early 2000s after the introduction of HIV antiretrovirals but before the introduction of HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, when condomless sex was much more likely to result in HIV transmission. At a time when morally charged and stigmatizing words such as clean and unclean were regularly used to describe a person’s HIV status, the queer pig’s eroticization of HIV through breeding made those terms irrelevant. In the queer pig’s world, everyone was dirty.

With an eye toward the violence of desire, Pig offers an ambivalent view of queer pig sex. If the sheer range of examples Pig marshals—from the police to Winnie the Pooh’s Piglet, from Deliverance to Miss Piggy—reveals the imbrication of the pig in everyday life, Sax’s pig sex poems do something similar for queer culture. Though not all queer men identify as pigs, and “pig sex” still exists as a specific fetish, pig culture has nonetheless permeated the wider field of contemporary queer male desire. Radicalized within HIV bug-chasing subcultures, breeding has, in the time of PrEP, become ubiquitous in gay pornography and in everyday gay life. Yet, despite breeding’s shift from the margins to the mainstream, the term nonetheless maintains traces of its older usage—a hint of violence, the transition from human to animal-object—that brings pig sex into a larger field of sexual identification. Rather than asking if one should (or shouldn’t) engage in pig sex, Sax understands that choice as false. In a world in which a previously kinky request to be bred is now just pedestrian sex on PrEP, we are all already queer pigs.

However, this doesn’t mean that Sax thinks alternatives to pig sex shouldn’t or can’t be explored. In “squeal like a pig,” Sax considers how filmic depictions of rape informed their early understanding of queer sex and foreclosed pursuing nonviolent fantasies. The poem borrows its title from the infamous scene in the 1972 movie Deliverance in which a “city” man, out in the woods for a weekend of camping, is captured by one of the local “country” men, stripped to his white briefs, and forced to “squeal like a pig” while being raped. “this is how men were / meant to touch / i believed,” the poem begins, recasting the scene of rape, which one could argue is devoid of specific sexuality, into what Sax thought queer sex was supposed to look like.

But then the poem ventures into unexpected territory. The speaker recounts that they

never imagined

i could leave

become the trees

eating light

while all these men

blur & dilate

around me

Although pig sex isn’t explicitly called out as such in the poem, I read the final lines as providing an alternative. If pig sex offers a fantasy-driven way to defang the violence that scenes such as the one in Deliverance literalize, it also fulfills a secondary wish: the desire to exist, momentarily, as something other than oneself. The poem reconfigures the latter desire with less violence. Turning away from the choices of “boy hurt” and “boy hurting,” the speaker learns of a third option: “become the trees / eating light.” The men the speaker desires don’t disappear but instead “blur & dilate,” undergoing a similar boundary crossing, one that imagines queer sex as a blurring of porous bodies. Moving from the literalness of the rape scene to the airy, metaphoric transcendence of the final lines, the poem suggests an open-endedness to the question of how to find less-violent ways of satiating desire.

For those who do become pigs, queer pig sex poses questions of ontology: What is the state of the bottom—pig, human, or both? What can humans know about the pig bottom, and what do they know about themselves? In “pig bttm looking for then,” an invocation of a common screenname on gay apps such as Grindr and Scruff, Sax toys with this (un)knowability. The poem finds a post-coital speaker lying in bed next to a wealthy man he just hooked up with; the man is asleep, and the pig bottom asks,

what buys this ease

to sleep with a stranger in your bed

or do i now somehow seem known

to him? having opened like the back

of a picture frame. having came

& stayed. what drove me here?

to seizure and breed?

The speaker’s pointed questions put pressure on sexual scripts, questioning what can be known about someone whose subjectivity has been siphoned off to become an animal of desire. However, the tension that emerges from these questions is not the result of roleplay or anonymous sex but rather the wealthy man’s forgetting that there is more to the pig bottom than what he’s made of them. That the wealthy man feels comfortable sleeping with a stranger in his bed is precisely a function of this forgetting. In his mind, the pig bottom is only an object, harmless as a picture frame, into which he’s slipped the image of his desire.

In an unexpected turn, Sax ends the poem by flipping the violence associated with the submissive and dominant roles. The pig bottom reflects,

this is the most tender i’ve felt:

how easily i could kill him

it is enough to let him sleep.

With this ending, Sax redirects the violence of pig sex away from the bottom and onto the man—who, it is important to note, remains a “man” throughout the poem, a man and not an object. In a reversal of the discursive violence that becoming a pig entails, it is the pig bottom who reanimates as subject, not object, a speaking subject capable of murderous desire. With this twist, Sax asks readers to consider what happens after the transition back from animal object to human and questions whether one can ever move between these states without slippage between them.

How does one become a pig, anyway? For Sax, it’s often a visual process, with spectacle and exhibitionism aiding the project of objectification. Rather than seek out a physical encounter, in “pig bttm looking for now,” the speaker logs onto a website where one can watch men masturbate live and be watched masturbating in turn. I’ve been on sites such as the one Sax describes; the thrill isn’t so much from watching others pleasure themselves but from being watched as you pleasure yourself. On these sites, fantasy takes over: everyone is a screen for one’s projection, and imagining that the hot man you’re watching—the one grunting and making encouraging faces—is also watching you is easy.

But in Sax’s poem, the speaker takes drugs and passes out, severing the two-way connection necessary to complete the circuit of desire. Without a conscious body to use for their projection, the other viewers on the site become “angry” at the speaker; they “don’t like to see a body emptied of its spirit. / draws attention to their own, body i mean.” What Sax astutely understands is that the viewers aren’t angry about not getting off but because they’re forced to confront the process of objectification the website fosters. Just as one might become a pig bottom to momentarily exist as something else, so too the one objectifying the pig bottom might find temporary relief through domination. The poem ends with an uncomfortable suggestion: perhaps as pigs we become what our human selves cannot tolerate.

What, then, does being a pig mean today? Or, more specifically, what does it mean to be a pig in the age of PrEP and the scientific confirmation that HIV with an undetectable viral load cannot transmit the virus? Although some still fetishize actual transmission, the introduction of PrEP turned condomless sex into standard sexual practice, not the mark of a sexual avant-garde. Yet breeding, a term that arose after HIV and is historically rooted in the eroticization of the virus, maintains its rhetorical power. Rather than a sign that people have moved beyond their fears of transmission, the fact that so many queer men desire pig sex and breeding reveals that HIV still occupies a central place in sexual psyches. Put another way, this is a time of overlapping temporalities: on the one hand, medical advances have allowed men on PrEP to stop worrying about acquiring HIV. On the other hand, for some people, the history of HIV/AIDS still structures conscious and unconscious sexual desires. Instead of making bug-chasing anachronistic, PrEP merely opened the playing field, allowing more queer men to enact their HIV fantasies without risk of infection.

Sax articulates the tension of these overlapping temporalities in “poem written inside a leather pig mask.” In this poem, Sax tries on a leather pig mask at an adult store and finds themself

transposed & transpossessed back

inside the living cow in its lake

of cows outside some missouri

township all knowing they would die

but none imagining they might be

remade into the perverted image

of a different living animal

then worn by a man wanting

to be regarded as livestock.

The present-day Sax exists simultaneously as living cow and dead hide, feeling both the terror of guaranteed death and the violent pleasure the mask represents. Still wearing the mask, Sax watches porn about “two men now surely dead” play on the store’s TV. The poem ends with

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.

Braiding the image of the two men fucking with that of the dead cow, the poem suggests a mirroring of their experiences. If the now-dead cow knew its death was all but assured, what, if anything, did the men in the video know? If the men could see where their porn was playing now, what would they say? And should the answer to either of those questions change the “yearning” that Sax feels from within the mask?

I returned repeatedly to this poem and to Sax’s loneliness in the final lines. Perhaps it’s because I, too, recognize the loneliness evoked here, one that is both individual and communal, the inheritance of queers seeking pleasure in the shadow of HIV/AIDS. I close my eyes and picture Sax as they are in this poem: wearing a mask molded from the skin of a dead animal shaped into the form of an animal that represents sexual objection and violence, a mask to be worn for the same acts that might have transmitted HIV to the men, now likely dead from AIDS, fucking on screen. How could Sax not feel alone, torn as they are between two competing impulses: pursuing queer pleasure and honoring the dead that lubricate pleasure’s arrival?


Queerness is not the only generational inheritance Pig examines. Many of the collection’s poems address Sax’s Jewishness, the role of the pig in Jewish history, and the American-bred Zionism that millennial and Gen Z Jews were force-fed. To my surprise, Sax’s treatment of the latter topic troubled me and not for the reasons one might expect. Politically, Sax and I agree on anti-Zionism; I, too, hope for the day the Israeli apartheid “borders / collapse under the weight of their own split / databases.” Instead, what concerned me was Sax’s downplaying of the role land has played within Jewish history, a move that flattens, rather than adds nuance, to their anti-Zionist politics.

In “anti-zionist abecedarian,” Sax uses the second-person pronoun to address the Israeli state and its Jewish occupants. The abecedarian, an ancient acrostic form in which each line begins with the subsequent letter of the alphabet, was first used in the Hebrew bible. In Judaism, the most famous abecedarian is Psalm 145, which comprises the majority of the ashrei, a prayer usually recited twice a day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. The abecedarian’s ties to Jewish liturgy therefore make it the perfect form for an anti-Zionist prayer. What better way to speak back to Jewish ethnonationalism and religious Zionism than using their own linguistic structures?

Yet I have the eerie feeling that despite the poem’s second-person addressee, the true audience of “anti-zionist abecedarian” are non-Jews who are watching Jews talk to one another about Israel. For starters, nowhere in Pig’s notes, which otherwise provide important context for many of the book’s poems, is there mention of the abecedarian’s history, and the poem itself does not allude to the Jewish origins of the form. I’d be willing to chalk these up as missed opportunities if it weren’t for the poem’s surprising gloss of “home” in Jewish belief:

for us

home never was a place in dirt or even

inside the skin but

just exists in language.

What? Even accounting for the centrality of text-based learning in Jewish culture, one would still have to ignore thousands of years of literature, philosophy, prayer, and the Hebrew Bible itself to claim that home was always a metaphor and never a literal place. Just as intriguing as this claim is the explanation that follows:

let me explain. my people

kiss books as a form of prayer. if dropped we

lift them to our lips &

mouth an honest & uncomplicated apology—

nowhere on earth belongs to us.

And here we get to the root of the poem’s politics. Suddenly, the second-person address drops out and is replaced by a third-person address to a non-Jewish audience. How else does one read “let me explain. my people / kiss”? If another Jew was the intended audience, why not write “let me explain. our people / we kiss”? Or why explain at all?

“anti-zionist abecedarian” is not the only place in Pig in which Sax claims that a Jew’s most authentic state is as a wanderer, but the slippage between the intended addressees—Jew and non-Jew—tells me the most about the possible anxieties of the poem’s production. “anti-zionist abecedarian” exemplifies Sax’s understandable desire to separate themself from the actions and ideology of Zionists. What better way to do so than to claim that home was always a metaphor, that thousands of years of Jewish history just happened to get that part wrong? With one word, never, Sax gets to posit their anti-Zionist Judaism as authentic and banish Zionists as land-hungry, colonizing aberrations of the faith.

If only it were that simple. To pull off this feat, Sax must create a version of Jewish history in which land is pure metaphor. But even a passing familiarity with Jewish history reveals that a place called yisrael plays a star role, literally and metaphorically, in Jewish belief. While I am sympathetic to Sax’s politics of doikayt, which prioritizes the “hereness” of localized and diasporic Jewish communities over the “thereness” of a Jewish nation-state in Palestine, I fail to see why it must preclude the recognition that yisrael—the geographic region of Palestine—has functioned, for some, as one place of “thereness” long before the Israeli state was created. So why pretend otherwise now? Sax’s politics represent a fear I’ve encountered before in anti-Zionist Jewish spaces: that acknowledging the literal role land played and plays in Jewish history somehow supports the Zionist project. But to ignore the many roles land has played in Jewish history is to let the Zionists win, because to do so tacitly suggests that the only conceivable way Jews can interact with the land is through settler colonialism.

In one of the collection’s earlier poems, Sax writes “how is it we are always where we’ve been / even when unaware of it?” My reply: what if this is who we’ve always been, even if we don’t want to admit it: a people displaced from many lands, victims of a Holocaust in Europe, and yet capable of inflicting a genocide on Palestinians in their own land? Rather than deflating one’s anti-Zionist politics, acknowledging the centrality of land in Jewish history makes one’s politics stronger. First, it allows coalitions to develop through histories of displacement: my people have been displaced, and therefore I refuse to continue to allow my people to do the same to you. Second, it allows anti-Zionist Jews to actively choose the shape future Jewish relations to the land will take, to decide that the narrative of metaphor must supersede the literal if Jews are to live ethical lives. Finally, to recognize that a physical relationship to Palestine cannot be a priority for contemporary Jewry because Zionism has weaponized that history to barbaric ends—and not because land was always a metaphor—leaves open the possibility for literal, non-colonial Jewish relations with the land to one day exist.

The challenge of writing a book like Pig is one of cohesion: how does one make all the pig meanings amount to something more than their individual instance? Sax’s solution of using the pig as a metaphor to probe larger questions of identity strikes gold in the collection’s queer pig poems. By treating queer pig culture as worthy of serious attention, Sax successfully articulates contradictions of desire, examines what living with inherited trauma means, and does so with understanding, not judgment, for the queer men who find pleasure and even healing in the violence of pig sex. But whereas Sax treats queer pig sex with nuance and specificity, they opt for an idealized version of Jewish history that doesn’t account for our political reality. Of course, the stakes are lower in pig sex than in Palestine, where apartheid, ethnic cleansing—and now genocide—are a fact of everyday life. But this is poetry, not a policy paper. And if a queer, Jewish poet can’t fully inhabit the contradictions of contemporary Jewish life in poetry, where can they?

#274 – Fall 2023