“Madness”: A history of mental illness through poetry

sam sax’s Madness (Penguin Books, 2017) is a thorough exploration of mental health and its historical context in the U.S. This book is heartbreaking, showcasing the extremes of health and lack of and pinning the grief and discrimination those who have struggled (and are still struggling) with disorders, stigmas, addictions, and diseases. You will find yourself “damn”ing aloud with most of the pieces, zigzaging back and forth between astonishment and despair.

If, like myself, you have your own battles with one of the categories of the book, you ought to find solace and companionship in these pages. These poems are spiritual – and shouldn’t they be? Aren’t our very existences and perceptions created out of a spiritual interaction with the physical realm? This book argues that they’re intertwined: “On PREP or on Prayer” discusses the physical risks and spiritual consequences associated with being HIV-positive; “you either love the world / or you live in it…” sam writes in “Warning: Red Liquid”. “don’t ask me why i kept it / the bottle // i’ll lie…”

The mastery of this collection is evidenced in the range of ailments sam discusses with precise detail and emotional depth. Poems that are written about therapies that were practiced generations ago hit hard because sam creates a relevancy in each piece; he humanizes what so many have tried to forget.

I could keep advocating for this book, but first, it’s sam sax; what else can you expect but excellence? Second, I’m not qualified enough to talk at length about mental health. I’ve taken four psychology classes and three sociology classes and seen a cognitive behavioral therapist for over a year now, but this collection taught me in a way those things haven’t; these poems are the difference between “facts” and “people”. There’s a reason it was published by Penguin – it deserves to be held and reverenced and poured over and mourned and put down and read again.

Madness is listed at $18 and is available at a variety of online booksellers for between $12 and $18.

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