The Genius of Poet Thomas Lux
Poet Thomas Lux fairly much defies description, combining the plain speak of diligent journalism and the eloquence of an other wise taciturn poet who will use an word or a phrase that takes a contrary turn other than where you expect it to go. He is the Poet of Unintended Results, a story teller very much in the John Cheever mode where the omniscient narrator begins yarns of folks with ambitions, intentions, desires for all manner of things making their way through their routines, only to have them interrupted and , as a consequence, find themselves to the larger world ,with what were once nuances and pesky inconveniences of fact now looming over them in a crazy state of I-Told-You-So.
Boil it down: feet, skin, gristle,
bones, vertebrae, heart muscle, boil
it down, skim, and boil
again, dreams, history, add them and boil
again, boil and skim
in closed cauldrons, boil your horse, his hooves,
the runned-over dog you loved, the girl
by the pencil sharpener
who looked at you, looked away,
boil that for hours, render it
down, take more from the top as more settles to the bottom,
the heavier, the denser, throw in ache
and sperm, and a bead
of sweat that slid from your armpit to your waist
as you sat stiff-backed before a test, turn up
the fire, boil and skim, boil
some more, add a fever
and the virus that blinded an eye, now’s the time
to add guilt and fear, throw
logs on the fire, coal, gasoline, throw
two goldfish in the pot (their swim bladders
used for “clearing”), boil and boil, render
it down and distill,
that for which there is no
other use at all, boil it down, down,
then stir it with rosewater, that
which is now one dense, fatty, scented red essence
which you smear on your lips
and go forth
to plant as many kisses upon the world
as the world can bear!
This is a poet who witnesses human experience and of life itself as process that goes on regardless of the fine personal and community philosophies we’ve written for ourselves to abide by. Life is a raw force that will continue to pulse, change, destroy and create anew regardless of how well can describe it. We can describe life’s circumstances, we cannot control them. But there is heart in Lux’s work, a sympathy, that sense of the struggle of humanity trying to create meaning in a world that defies logic and yet remains a species that continues to dress the world in a wonderful cosmology of expectations. There is wit, dark humor, tenderness, a wonderfully terse lyricism in Lux’s finest writing.
I once told Thomas Lux that I considered him “the Poet Laureate of Unintended Results”, a description he rather liked. He took it for the compliment I intended it to be because ,I think,he understand that the “unintended results” that make up the material of his work allows him a way to achieve any number of effects — comedic, dark, tragic, bizarrely funny or horrifyingly sad, his is a body of work that investigates the latter day consequences of hubris.
What I mean, of course, is that what Lux specializes in is the detailing of plain facts and events of matters we can recognize, with a protagonist’s attitude conspicuous and anticipating a set of desired results as their agenda is set out, only to find himself (or herself) confounded and contradicted by interventions that changes the meaning of everything. The beauty of his style isn’t that he starts with an abstract, clouded inference toward an infernal contradiction, then working his way to a clarity from which one might suppose the characters should have started. He reverses it and starts off simply, clearly, adding layers of incidental detail, skipping over days, years, through significant events and celebrations and attending tragedies, bringing the reader (and his character) to a situation where nothing is like what they thought it would be. It’s a beautiful technique he’s developed; he may be one of a handful of poets who understand irony as an effect achieved through a carefully moving around of narrative elements that come into conflict.
A LITTLE TOOTH
Your baby grows a tooth, then two
and four, and five, then she wants some meat
directly from the bone. It’s all
over: she’ll learn some words, she’ll fall
in love with cretins, dolts, a sweet
talker on his way to jail. And you,
your wife, get old, flyblown, rue
nothing. You did, you loved, your feet
are sore. It’s dusk. Your daughter’s tall.
Beautiful. The image is on the tooth, the joy of watching a young child being able to eat solid food. The next you know she’s eating meat from the bone and learns the language to make her mischief , and before it’s all over, late at night, you realize you’re old and tired and you wonder what happened when you were young and at what moment did your baby start developing the skills to have a young, vital life you can hardly keep up with. I love the last line, the second half, when what was a simple memory that lead through a fast-forward to the current moment: “…It’s dusk. Your daughter’s tall.” The shock of recognition, you could say. You wonder where your youth went and then see it in front of you, on your child’s face and in her arms and legs, full of the energy you gave her. The implication is clear; we don’t lose our youth, if we’re lucky. We just pass it on.The open ended quality is the beauty of the poem. It does imply that it will be the formerly teething daughter’s turn to do all those things now that she is taller, full grown, almost an adult. But I also like that it’s suggested and not spelled out. The resonance of the last sentence “Your daughter’s tall” comes at us as revelation, the startled response to a bright light coming on in a dark room. It’s a sentence that ends the poem and yet demonstrates how this small moment is profound in that it summarizes a life that has been and forecasts a life that is yet to be lived at length. The poem continues off the page, something like a conversation you’ve been listening to as you walk the street and then the people you’ve been following turn the corner or enter a building, cutting off the discussion in mid sentence. One can only imagination the possibilities that might yet emerge from a host of plausible guesses, and this inconclusive quality is what makes this a fine poem.
The ease with which he’s able to merge plain speaking with with unaffected turns of phrase, dark irony with darker humor, hard realism with lyric sweeps which make me to pause in my own work and consider the next line I’ll write harder than I normally would. Great poets inspire that.Lux is one of my favorite poets — I can’t think of anyone else who crafts a free verse poem with better care and intriguing twists of perception than he does.,He is exactly the poet people should read when they want more from comprehensible poems than Billy Collins’ unceasing tours of his neighborhood He will show you how matters invade expectation and undermine a grand view of how one’s life is working through the weeks.
CUCUMBER FIELDS CROSSED BY HIGH-TENSION WIRES.
The high-tension spires spike the sky
beneath which boys bend
to pick from prickly vines
the deep-sopped fruit, the rind’s green
a green sunk
in green. They part the plants’ leaves,
reach into the nest,
and pull out mother, father, fat Uncle Phil.
The smaller yellow-geren children stay,
for now the fruit goes
in baskets by the side of the row,
every thirty feet or so. By these bushels
the boys get paid, in cash,
at day’s end, this summer
of the last days of the empire
that will become known as
the past, adios, then,
the ragged-edged beautiful blink.
An agrarian scene, we assume at first, made dense and surreal with Lux’s painterly descriptions, but there is something subtler, deadlier underneath. This poem for me addresses invading armies, albeit disguised in fruity metaphor. Overwhelming forces invade homes, destroy homelands, cart off citizens and vital resources, and then are gone when use is exhausted , in a blink that Lux fuses with Yeat’s “terrible beauty”. This poem has more to do with the metaphorical devices nations and electorates will use to distance themselves from the real damage their country inflicts for some greater, glorious good. Suffering is discounted, and the blood on one’s fingertips is said to taste like honey. This is a provocative poem from Lux.
Lux is so skilled with his language that it gets scary. Of all the poets with a realist bent, Lux I think is the one who is truly subversive of his own and, by extension, his reader’s assumptions of the world. It is a neat and meaningful leap for him to go from a narrative that mimics, shall we say parodies Hemingway’s hunting persona that reveals , at the end, a bizarre twist in Papa’s Romanticism masculinity, equating the resemblance of the monkey’s small hands with those of children, and fantasizing in the last instance that monkeys “can be taught to smile.”
You smile, indeed, you chuckle, you get the joke and wonder how on earth he came up with this unexpected yet fruitful turn, and then there is the additional, delayed realization that what Lux has offered up is a brief and cutting critique of hunter mystique. Rousseau himself would shiver at what comes up with. Lux is one of our best.
More like a vault — you pull the handle out
and on the shelves: not a lot,
and what there is (a boiled potato
in a bag, a chicken carcass
under foil) looking dispirited,
drained, mugged. This is not
a place to go in hope or hunger.
But, just to the right of the middle
of the middle door shelf, on fire, a lit-from-within red,
heart red, sexual red, wet neon red,
shining red in their liquid, exotic,
in such company: a jar
of maraschino cherries. Three-quarters
full, fiery globes, like strippers
at a church social. Maraschino cherries, maraschino,
the only foreign word I knew. Not once
did I see these cherries employed: not
in a drink, nor on top
of a glob of ice cream,
or just pop one in your mouth. Not once.
The same jar there through an entire
childhood of dull dinners — bald meat,
pocked peas and, see above,
boiled potatoes. Maybe
they came over from the old country,
family heirlooms, or were status symbols
bought with a piece of the first paycheck
from a sweatshop,
which beat the pig farm in Bohemia,
handed down from my grandparents
to my parents
to be someday mine,
then my child’s?
They were beautiful
and, if I never ate one,
it was because I knew it might be missed
or because I knew it would not be replaced
and because you do not eat
that which rips your heart with joy.
Like Don DeLillo in his novels, Lux gives the history of a consumer culture’s love affair with the objects they purchase and attach their happiness to, only to fall out of love when a wire is too frayed, a motor stops running, or a newer, sleeker design replete with more gadgets hits the showroom floor; so much history, family is contained within this refrigerator, memories that grow faint as children grow, parents die, people move to places out of town. A poignant picture this is, a deserted refrigerator on the back porch for years, something you pass daily, perhaps, knowing there is history and stories attached to it’s existence as a working machine, all of it unknown and unrecoverable like singular drops of rain into a stream.
“So You Put the Dog to Sleep” is one my incidental favorite poems of the last ten years.In it Lux categorizes within a routine, if excruciating ritual of middle class life , the skewed habits of mind, suggesting here the weirdness John Cheever could get at with his tragi-comic stories about New York suburbs. He additionally subtly indicates how we handle the minor tragedies in our lives.
SO YOU PUT THE DOG TO SLEEP
“I have no dog, but must be
Somewhere there’s one belongs to me.”
— John Kendrick Bangs
You love your dog and carve his steaks
(marbled, tgender, aged) in the shape of hearts.
You let him on your lap at will
and call him by a lover’s name:Liebschen,
pooch-o-mine, lamby, honey tart,
and you fill your voice with tenderness, woo.
He loves you too, that’s his only job,
it’s how he pays his room and board.
Behind his devotion, though, his dopey looks,
he might be a beast who wants your house,
your wife; who in fact loathes you, his lord.
His jaws snapping while you sleep means dreams
of eating your face: nose, lips, eyebrows, ears…
But soon your dog gets old, his legs
go bad, he’s nearly blind, you puree his meat
and feed him with a spoon. It’s hard to say
who hates whom more. He will not beg.
So you put the dog to sleep, Bad dog.
Cheever might be the best writer to compare Lux with, as the two of them have established the elegant yet clear-eyed tone of a narrator who can affectionately, intimately describe the conditions and contexts of the scenarios and yet remain seemingly detached , uncommitted, reserved if only to not break into laughter or tears as to the outcome. With “Dog” the situation begins with love, affection, an owner’s dutiful care for his pet in exchange for the animal’s unqualified love and loyalty. Later, as the dog grows older, his love and loyalty turns into dependence as he ages and becomes infirm, while the owner’s affections sour into resentment. It constructs how the thinking is geared to allow us to dodge guilt. As with farts, missing homework and soiled carpets, blame the dog for his own demise.