A Review of “Lisp” by Sam Sax

One of my favorite poems that I have read so far in workshop is Sam Sax’s “Lisp”, an eye-opener for me in terms of manipulating alliteration to suit both form and content. The poem is one stanza long, and the line breaks at the end end in relatively the same places on the page. All of the text is in lowercase, except for the singular letter s. This lowercase appears muted, whisper-like, but also draws our attention to the phrases, instead of the names and proper nouns like it would if there was capitalization. A forward slash separates each phrase, and sometimes it ends a line, sometimes it does not. The line, traditionally used in literary analysis to separate lines of prose from one another, becomes warped in this poem, halting the reader as they read for a phrase, stop, and continue reading. There is very little punctuation throughout the poem, and the refusal to abide by traditional grammar standards (as seen in the lack of capitalization) indicate a speaker who is not interested in the grammatical rules as well.

Each phrase in the poem has at least one “s”, which the speaker indicates is true, that it “/ has sibilance / ” (Sax, 2) Sibilance is the repetition of “s” sounds in a phrase, such as “Sally sells sea shells by the sea shore”. The theme of self-awareness, and self-criticism and neuroticism, play very important roles throughout the poem. Initially, the speaker speaks from an objective lens: “there are more Ss in possession than i remembered / / my name hinges on the S”, but then makes a sudden left turn into the mystical: ” / is serpentine / “. (Sax, 1-2) When I saw the word “serpentine”, I thought of the serpent in the Biblical story of Adam and Eve, a trickster who tricked Eve into eating the forbidden fruit by virtue of his persuasive tongue. The Old Testament and the Hebrew language is a common motif in this poem, and is mentioned in lines 13-16 when the speaker states “… / the S / is derived from the semitic letter shin / meaning / / my swishiness is hebraic / is inherited / it’s semantic / no / matter what was sacrificed / the tongued isaac / ” The “s” sound that the speaker struggles with is linked to ancestral tongues, and bringing up the story of Isaac, a son Abraham was prepared to sacrifice to God, ties back to the story earlier in the poem of his parents taking him to a speech pathologist. Guilt, shame and familial angst are tied into the speaker’s understanding of his Jewish culture and of his lisp, but his Jewish ancestry is not the only motif in the poem which has an impact on his lisp.

Another prominent motif in the poem is the speaker’s homosexuality, specifically a certain type of effeminate gayness that could make him a target in a homophobic/femme-phobic world. Lisps are often used in stereotypical portrayals of effeminate gay men, and it can be both used to mock homosexual men or as a signal to other gay men that they are gay. The first mention of the speaker’s homosexuality is when he states “a stigmatism is the homosexual mystique” (Sax, 6) “a stigmatism” is a very clever double entendre: with a stigmatism, or different eye strengths, being something that people can correct or see a specialist about, and the idea of homosexuality being a stigma. However, as the speaker’s lisp is corrected throughout the poem, his homosexuality is also forced into the closet: “when i sang sick men tore wings from city birds / / so / i straightened my sound / into a masculine i” (Sax, 12-13) Whenever there’s a mention of homosexuality and sickness, a common association with those two topics is HIV/AIDS, although what the sickness these men are suffering from is unknown. However, the idea of the speaker “straightening his sound / into a masculine i ” reveals that the lisp is associated with Jewishness and effeminate homosexuality, two identities that are opposed to the societal default of Christian, heterosexual, and masculine. Near the end of the poem, there is further mention of the speaker’s effeminate nature, one that is “straightened” out: “… / sisyphus with the sissiest lips / parseltongued / assassin / sassy & passing for the poisoned sea / now / when i say please / let me suck your cock / ” (Sax, 19-21) The two words in these lines that are ascribed to effeminate behavior: “sissy,” and “sassy,”  both have multiple “s” sounds. The speaker’s effeminate homosexuality and his lisp are now out in the open.

As you all could probably tell, I could talk about this poem all day. I thought these two aspects of the poem were particularly important, so I focused on those instead of the myriad narratives that were going on alongside these two motifs. If there is anything that I said that is unclear or that needs correcting, please let me know, I don’t mind being told that what I said needs fixing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.