KYSO Flash
Knock-Your-Socks-Off Art and Literature
Issue 12: Summer 2019
Prose Poem: 464 words [R]

Learning to Breathe Water

by sam sax

It’s funny—in life, there are some things you need to be told before you know them, and after, it’s as though you’ve known said thing your whole life. You might look back on the time before knowing this thing and remark, “Who was I then, that did not know X?” For instance, basic shit. The classic: don’t put your hand on that hot-as-fuck stove, unless you want to leave a layer of your hand behind. Or, you can’t breathe underwater no matter how hard you try, without not breathing anymore. Or, don’t eat butter knives, Sam, just because the word “butter” happens to be in the name. The electrical socket, also probably a bad place for the butter knife. So is your wrist. So is your upper thigh.

Basic shit. You can’t cram an entire gram of cocaine into your lungs without also becoming high on cocaine. Don’t look strange men in the face, unless you want them to look back. You can’t carry your body around like it’s covered in sequins, or worth shit, without making everyone uncomfortable, Sam. Don’t blame the world for how it wants to get its hands around your throat. You’re the one who showed up with a throat to begin with. You can’t wear that dress, faggot, even if you own one and it’s fly. Even if you are one, unless you want to end up dead. All this, I learned and have been unable to forget. Learning is just the brain’s neuro-pathways being beaten into a new shape by life. Once you touch a glowing hot stove, some synapse collapses in your head, and you know never to touch a glowing thing again.

When the first boy I loved died, something broke. And nothing trained me how to fill that absence. It’s funny—some things you don’t need to be told before you know them. He died, and the weeping was immediate, an infection tended by white blood. I wept and everything after was different. I wonder who I was then that did not know grief; how best to make it plain. The drugs he’d taken in him, the same drugs I took in me; his body, my body. He died, and my heart started breathing water. He died, and all the knives began to rise up from my skin. Who was I then that did not know love? Language—language is a bizarre inheritance. How, when I say “faggot” in front of an audience, something inside me starts burning; a stovetop littered with skin. Something passed down, and calloused. How, when I say “love,” I wonder if it’s nothing more than the chemicals flooding my heart and brain. How, when I say love, I pray it means something more than that.


—A spoken-word performance in Button Poetry (13 August 2014); text appears here with poet’s permission.

sam sax
Issue 12, Summer 2019

is a queer, Jewish poet and educator, the poetry editor at BOAAT Press, and the two-time Bay Area Grand Slam Champion. His books include Madness (Penguin, 2017), winner of The National Poetry Series, and Bury It (Wesleyan University Press, 2018), winner of the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets. He’s received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Lambda Literary, and the MacDowell Colony. He is also author of four chapbooks, and winner of the Gulf Coast Prize, The Iowa Review Award, and the American Literary Award. His poems have appeared in BuzzFeed, The New York Times, The Nation, Poetry Magazine, and other journals.

Poet’s website:

More on the Web: By, About, and Beyond

Prayer for the Mutilated World in Poetry (September 2018)

Grief, Ritual, and Estrangement: An Interview with sam sax by Emily Sernaker in Los Angeles Review of Books (23 January 2019)

Minds, Medicine, and the Mad: An Interview with sam sax by Sarah Gross in Sampsonia Way (30 May 2019)

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