Feature > Essay
Chard DeNiord

Chard DeNiord

Chard deNiord met Tom in 1985 at the Iowa Writers Workshop. They became fast friends and remained close for the next 32 years. Chard is the new Vermont Poet Laureate. The author of five books of poetry, most recently Interstate, The Double Truth, and Night Mowing, he is Professor of English and Creative Writing at Providence College. In 2001, he co-founded the New England College MFA Program in Poetry, where he worked as program director until 2007. He lives in Westminster West, Vermont with his wife Liz.

Ode to Tom


We just started walking in Uruapan one afternoon after a long week of working too hard in Patzcuaro. Tom said, "Let's go for a walk. See where we end up." He pronounced Uruapan Yuripan. I said, "Sure. Why not?" I had always trusted Tom and was happy to accompany him on a walk through Uruapan. We walked through one neighborhood after another, two gringos with no idea where we were going or the danger we were in. Tom just seemed to enjoy walking, maintaining a quick pace, smiling at the children in the street, saying very little. After what seemed like twenty minutes, I looked at my watch and noticed that an hour had passed. I mentioned this to Tom, but he seemed unfazed, completely at home in a foreign city, fearless and happy. We were lost, yet confident with no reason to be confident that we could find our way back to the casa where we and several others from The Spirit and Letter Workshop were spending the weekend. And since neither of us spoke Spanish, we couldn't ask for directions. We continued to walk in silence, as if in two worlds at once, until we reached the edge of town and then somehow found our way back along the main road that led into town. I felt I was following the guide in Frost's poem "Directive" who only had "at heart [my] getting lost". Tom had been there before in several different cities. I could tell by the smile on his face and the poems he had written.

                         ...

I met Tom in 1983 in Iowa City where I was a student at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. We became fast friends and continued to meet up in Boston, Putney, VT and Atlanta. Our friendship only deepened over the next thirty-four years until his abrupt passing on February fifth. I can't explain the mystery of our friendship, only that it endured and grew deeper as we aged. Even though Tom was six years older than I, he seemed both younger and older. Younger, because he enjoyed being even more puerile than I was, taking great glee in shooting June bugs out of the air with his pellet gun and spraying the water in the creek behind my house in Putney with buck shot. We were silly, but also serious, walking through foreign streets with no idea where we were one minute and talking poetry the next. And even though months might go by sometimes without our hearing from each other, we always picked up right where we left off, as if time was no concern to our friendship. We entertained eternity unconsciously, agreeing tacitly to ignore our mortality as best we could. When Tom's dear friend Kurt Brown died in 2014, Tom turned to me and said, "Don't you be next." I said the same back to him. I think it was the first time we had spoken in such mortal terms to each other, as if our spoken concern for each other were also a spell to ward off death. Once was enough. When Tom got sick last fall and told me over the phone that he had cancer, I tried to assure him that he would beat it. He also seemed confident that he would, but I didn't hear back from him. He grew deeply private and quiet, which I understood and respected, but all the while holding out hope. On February 5th, I wrote him this text: "Tom, thinking of you. Love Chard" It was the day he died.

The grief I feel following Tom's passing haunts me as a lost part of myself, a part that Tom conjured in me as an antiphonal partner who played the straight man one minute and the joker the next. In our back and forth, we never took each other too seriously, while nonetheless often talking about serious things: poetry, our children, our wives, our failures, politics. In Tom's absence, I reach for my phantom brother whose physical presence I still feel, especially his risible, compassionate voice. Grief possesses a compound nature that is both selfless and selfish, mourning the lost friend as a vital separate entity on the one hand and essential lost part of one's self on the other. I can think of no truer lines about the loss I feel in the wake of Tom's demise than these lines from Gilgamesh.

     All that it is left to one who grieves
     Is convalescence. No change of heart or spiritual
     Conversion, for the heart has changed
     And the soul has converted
     To a thing that sees
     How much it costs to lose a friend it loved.
     It has grown past conversion to a world
     Few enter without tasting loss
     In which one must wait a long time
     For something to move one to proceed.
     It is the that inner atmosphere that has
     An unfamiliar gravity or none at all
     Where words are flung out in the air but stay
     Motionless without an answer,
     Hovering about one's lips
     Or arguing back to haunt
     The memory with what one failed to say
     Until one learns acceptance of the silence
     Amidst the new debris
     Or turns again to grief as the only source
     Of privacy, alone with someone loved.

                             (translated by Herbert Mason)

                         ...

Suddenly there at my classroom window at the Putney School one warm day in the spring of 1993: Tom! Instead of walking into the building to find my classroom, Tom had walked around outside the building until he spied my class from the vernal knoll on which the building sat, whereupon he raised the large unlocked window and climbed into the classroom, almost tripping onto the floor as he jumped off the sill. My students sat stunned as he greeted them and then joined me at the front of the classroom. "Students," I said, "please welcome Thomas Lux, poet extraordinaire." At which they all said, "Hello, Thomas Lux." Tom replied, "Hello, Chard's class," and then proceeded for the next hour to lead them in a word-by-word analysis of Theodore Roethke's poem "My Papa's Waltz". “Poets come in through the window," I told my class the next day. "Remember that." "He was great," one of my students said. "Yeah," he was really great," another said. "Can he come back?"

                         ...

Tom knew how brutally uncertain the life of the poet is in America where thousands of poets vie for one brief moment in the spotlight among so few actual readers of poetry. His gratefulness for his fame lived side by side in him with doubts about the worthiness of his fame, a trait that wedded his humility to his humor. His generosity was legendary. He gave away large sums of money on the spot to the needy, sometimes almost all of it, wrote blurbs for practically anyone who asked, believing they might in fact become strong poets one day, visited his ailing elderly parents almost monthly in Massachusetts, even after he had moved to Atlanta, invited dozens of poets to read and teach at Georgia Tech, loved his daughter, Claudia, with abiding deep affection, and honored his friends, especially those he felt had fallen undeservedly by the wayside, like Bill Knott whose poems he admired immensely and spent the last six months of his life editing and writing an introduction for in what he called "the most important work of my life."

                         ...

Tom and I were talking in his room at the guesthouse we were staying in during our teaching stint at the Sarah Lawrence Summer Writing Program in 2010. He seemed quite sad about something but reluctant to express it. Then suddenly he said, "I don't think I'll ever fall in love again." He had experienced a desultory love life over the past thirty years with several intense relationships that had ended for one reason or another. I told him, "You don't know that. You can't know that." He said he was pretty sure about it. I listened compassionately but said nothing further. He appeared to feel so certain about his diminished prospects for meeting someone "new", there was very little I felt I could say to convince him otherwise. A year or so passed before Tom did in fact meet someone new at a workshop in Long Island. "Her name is Jennifer Holly," he told me over the phone. "You'll meet her soon." It was all I could do to refrain from telling him, "I told you so." He was too happy to remember that lugubrious day at Sarah Lawrence when he felt so certain about his bleak romantic future. I did meet Jenny Holly and then married the happy couple in July the following summer. Jenny seemed to fall out of heaven and land at Tom's side. How happy they were and well-matched. How suddenly joyous they both were, as Tom declares in his epigraph to Child Made of Sand, which he dedicated to Jenny: "Joy, shipmate, joy!" Their love for each other was insatiable and selfless. I would say Tom's prayer had been answered, but he would deny that he had ever prayed for a new love, only missed her in his unwitting wait to meet her.

                         ...

Tom loved life more than he could say, which was one of the reasons he kept writing: to express that love anew in some surprising, recondite way. He also suffered occasionally from what he called the "black dog," which he walked from time to time. These walks humbled him, deepening his life-long ethic of what he called "politeness". He put it this way in an interview with Joy Biles for The Writers Almanac:

     I never (I hope) laugh at my own humor. I was taught that is impolite.
     Most of my humor would fall under the heading of satire. A small
     percentage of it would fit in nicely with the Three Stooges, e.g., Moe
     running a cheese grater across Curley's face. I do seem to combine "the  
     heartbreaking and hilarious" in many poems. It's not terribly conscious.
     Maybe it's a survival instinct. There is, I believe, a saying that goes: 
     "There's nothing so serious as a joke." I don't think I've ever cried reading
     one of my own poems. It's been implicit since childhood that that's    
     improper — it could seem like self-pity.

Tom's forays into the dark led back to the light, instilling his poetry with courageous reportage of his forays away from the light. Such poems as "Snake Lake", "Like a Wide Anvil from the Moon The Light" and "The Darkness Comes on In Blocks, In Ice" in which he writes:

     It's not light,
     nor is it the absence of light, but
     oh, it's sweet sweet like ink
     dropped in sugar, necessary and invisible
     in squares, in its containers of space,
     as bread, as sad as a haymow
     going over and over a stubble field,
     as routine as guards
     climbing to gun towers
     along penitentiary walls, clicking
     on their search lights
     against it.

Just how Tom arrived back home to the light so often, without his black dog, testifies to his indefatigable struggle to return to joy, although he curiously never included himself in the numbers of the joyful, as if to do so would deprive him from walking with those he called "the joyful ones". "That they walk, even stumble, among us is reason/ to praise them, or protect them," he wrote in "Ode to the Joyful Ones". His "unique distance from [his own] isolation," a phrase that Philip Larkin made famous in his poem "Talking in Bed", betrayed his humble sense of unworthiness to join the "joyful" as a full-fledged member. "Even the sound/ of a lead slug dropped on a lead plate, even that for them," he continued:

     is music. Because they bring laughter's 
     brief amnesia. Because they stand, 
     talking, taking pleasure in others,
     with their hands on the shoulders of strangers
     and the shoulders of each other.
     Because you don't have to tell them to walk toward the light.
     Because if there are two pork chops
     they will serve you the better one.
     Because they will give you the crutch off their backs.
     Because when there are two of them together
     their shining fills the room.
     Because you don't have to tell them to walk toward the light.

This rare poem of uninterrupted praise appeared in Tom's last book, To the Left of Time, when I think he felt compelled simply to sing his gratitude without irony or "agitation", forgoing his usual double-edged strategy that he described in this way during an interview with Cerise Press in 2009:

Usually, the speaker of my poems is a little agitated, a little smartass, a little angry,
satirical, despairing, Or sometimes he's goofy, somewhat elegiac, full of praise and
gratitude...I think one uses humor/satire to help combat the darkness. I do.

In the last ten years of his life Tom expressed more and more unagitated gratefulness in almost a religious way, although he was not religious in the least and used to challenge his fundamentalist students at Georgia Tech by requiring them to read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. But Tom did believe in prayer; he called it "work" in his interview with Joy Biles in The Writers Almanac, commenting, "I think Paul Celan said something like ‘real attention, intense focus, is a kind of secular prayer.’ I call it work." But he also wrote a poem called "Dawn Walk and Prayer", which appeared in his book Sunday that concludes, "—I'm thinking about my neighbor, To be deaf// and practically blind and now also with a cough:/ That's why I'm making this prayer." And in this same book he actually invokes "the Lord" in his poem titled "Poem in Thanks":

     Lord Whoever, thank you for this air
     I'm about to in- and exhale, this hutch
     in the woods, the wood for fire,
     the light—-both lamp and the natural stuff
     of leaf-black fern, and wing.
     For the piano, the shovel
     for ashes, the moth-gnawed
     blankets, the stone-cold water
     stone-cold: thank you.
     Thank you, Lord, coming for
     to carry me here—-where I'll gnash
     it out, Lord, where I'll calm
     and work, Lord, thank you
     for the goddamn birds singing!

                         ...

Good evening. It gives me great pleasure to introduce Thomas Lux. Tom has been mining poetic gold for over forty years, finding startling new ways to negotiate the elusive line between the real and surreal, while discovering in the process that the surreal is often only an approximation of the real and that the real is far stranger and more haunting than anything he or anyone else could make up, although he comes close. In poems that amuse and frighten at the same time, Tom fixes on the hard, strange evidence of the everyday and witnesses to both its inherent ironies and blessings. In what he calls "the gray backside of the mirror", he regards the face of mystery cheek to cheek with the ant, the snake, the beloved. "The dumb ants pray it doesn't rain before/ They've done their task," he writes in his poem "Lump of Sugar on an Anthill," Or else they will drown in sweetness,/ but drown nonetheless." Often reading one or two works of non-fiction on a specific subject before putting pen to paper, Tom weds curiosity to knowledge in language that smuggles hard truths into our psyches on the mules of humor, irony and detail. How, one wonders, does he manage to keep gazing into that "gray backside of the mirror" and return with the news of the underworld that is also this world. This is his gift and magic, for he is humbled by his visions and speaks both as a hierophant and common man.

                         ...

Tom read mainly non-fiction tirelessly—everything from books on leach farming to biographies on Joseph Goebbels. In fact, there were just as many books of non-fiction in his sizeable library as poetry. But no fiction. I once gave him a novel for his birthday, which he promptly gave away, and then joked about it. "You know I don't read fiction," he said in his laconic voice, as if almost to chastise me for giving him such a book. So there were gaps in his reading, but gaps he didn't feel ashamed about in the least. He enjoyed his vatic role as poet of the strange, researching natural facts that often exceeded even the most feral confabulations of his imagination.

But Tom's love for realism occurred only after his initial forays into surrealism, which dominate the subject matter of his first three books, Memory's Handgrenade, The Glassblower's Breath and Sunday. He turned away from his surrealistic muse that Richard Damashek described in the reference work Contemporary Poets as "tormented and tortured, full of complex and disjointed images reflecting an insane and inhospitable world." While Tom's early surrealist poems do contain "complex and disjointed images," such as these oneiric lines from "The Day of the Lacuna" in Memory's Handgrenade:

     No more foolish swordsman
     trying to marry
     the weightlifter's daughter.
     Climbing trees
     with your hands in your pockets,
     vacationing on ice-floes,

they also contain such memorable "human" poems as "Man Asleep in a Child's Bed", "Poem in Thanks", and an eerie elegy whose opening lines foreshadow Tom's own terminal malady:

     Here's to Samuel Greenberg
     who died of bum lungs, age 23,
     in 1916 penniless,
     leaving only a few notebooks
     as a gift to Hart Crane who died of bum lungs (i.e., filled
     with seawater), age 33, in 1932.

Tom's maturation as a poet occurred more organically than dramatically, contrary to Richard Damashek claims to the contrary—claims that overlook Tom's inchoate moves toward greater coherence and pathos. Tom cut his teeth on surrealism in the 70s, but matured as a realist poet during the last half of his career, chronicling the strangely true and often brutal realities of the world with "a cold eye". Realism and pathos would comprise his "flood subjects" for the remainder of his career. But what existential event precipitated this remarkable maturation? What "terror", as Emily Dickinson would say, triggered his shift from his brilliant but often forgettable surrealist poems—poems that had made him famous—to a more evocative parallax vision in which he apprehended the complementarity of realism and tenderness? He was ready, but why? I would speculate that his courageous transition had a lot to do with his decision to undergo a 12-step recovery program for his alcoholism. Although he had, along with John Ashbery, James Tate and Bill Knott, helped revive the absurdist conceits of André Breton with new American élan, he felt compelled following his completion of his 12-step program to write more like William Carlos Williams than Breton, reveling in the "twiggy stuff of bushes," that is, metaphorically speaking, the real stuff that grows along the road on the way to the "contagious hospital." Or in Tom's case, on the way to "the leech farm".

In 1986, Tom's new, less tormented muse made her first strong appearance in Half Promised Land. His poems were no less wild, but now they possessed unabashed empathic notes. Poems such as "After a Few Whiffs of Another World", "The Thirst of Turtles," and "Tarantulas on the Life Buoy" betrayed a new tenderness rooted in actual experience. Tom seemed to take overdue joy in expressing candid, personal sentiments he had previously avoided in favor of surrealistic imagery. Risking even sentimentality at times, he forged ahead anyway, writing such lines as these for his father, who never missed a day's work in seventeen years of delivering milk to his neighbors in Easthampton, Massachusetts: "Along with gentleness,// and the sane bewilderment/of understanding nothing cruel,/ it was a thing he did best." And these from "It's the Little Towns I Like" which serve as a trope for "the town" of his poetry:

     The towns
     are real, so fragile in their loneliness
     a flood could come along
     (and floods have) and cut them in two
     in half...
     It rains, it rains
     in these towns and, because
     there's no other way, your father gets in a rowboat
     so he can go to work.

Tom's sobriety instilled an artistic courage in him that continued to draw on his fascination with "all things counter, original, spare, strange" (Gerard Manly Hopkins), while anchoring him at the same time to very real things. Forsaking the certainty of his beguiling surrealism, he immersed himself in those criteria that comprise John Keats' definition of "negative capability", namely, "uncertainties, mysteries, doubts".

                         ...

Tom, Jenny, and I were standing in a circular garden at Tom and Jenny's wedding at the Copper Beach Inn in Essex, Connecticut. It was a beautiful summer day in July and the flowers were in bloom. About fifty family members and friends had gathered for the occasion and were standing at the center of the garden listening intently. I was reading the famous passage about love from the New Testament that Jenny had selected for the ceremony: First Corinthians 13. As I neared the end of the passage which reads, "When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways," Tom leaned over and whispered into my ear just loud enough for most to hear, "Like hell I will." Jenny blushed, and then smiled. 

                         ...

The more I read Tom's poems the more I'm struck by their similarity to James Wright's poetry, despite their obvious stylistic differences. Both Tom and Wright found language that crossed over from themselves to their reader in an ironic alternating current that ran through their lines, transforming difference, strangeness, wildness, and "the other" into highly charged compassionate expression. Nothing could have been better for Tom's poetry or more fortuitous for his career than the risk he took in embracing realism with both spare disinterestedness and genuine sympathy. Within ten years of the publication of Half Promised Land, Tom received a Guggenheim grant, the Kingsley Tufts Award, and three NEAs. Perhaps he described his shift to a more emotionally complex style best in an interview he did in the same 2009 interview with Cerise Press mentioned above: "There's plenty of room for strangeness, mystery, originality, wildness, etc. in poems that also invite the reader into the human and alive center about which the poem circles."

                         ...

Tom was happy but also overjoyed to be back in his hometown of Easthampton, Massachusetts in the summer of 2013 to read from his new book at the time, Children Made of Sand. The local bookstore, White Square Fine Books & Art, had advertised Tom's reading, but I think the townspeople's word-of-mouth spread the news just as widely. The place was packed with Tom's high school classmates, family friends, cousins, and former workmates. Tom had worked several jobs growing up in Easthampton as a pot washer, mill worker, and assembly-line hand at the now defunct factory that made elastics for undergarments. Gary Metras was also there, the publisher of Adastra Press and old friend of Tom's who had printed several letterpress chapbooks and broadsides of his poems, including "A Boat in the Forest". People who hadn't seen him in decades stood in line to give him long hugs. When he finally started to read, his voice began to catch, and then tears welled up in his eyes. He ceased reading for a few moments that seemed to condense the time he had been away into a few seconds. He had returned also in many of his new poems to his childhood and adolescent memories of growing up at his family farm at the base of Mt. Tom that loomed over his house like a pastoral prophecy—his native Parnassus. He was back home and everyone was young again, hanging on his words, although most didn't read or care much for poetry. Tom had broken through time's door and suspended his old friends and fellow townspeople in both the timelessness of his new poems and his love for his town that emanated from his familiar voice, his poems, and his childhood stories that suddenly appeared to him with so many forgotten but now remembered details in the mirrors of the faces turned toward him. He knew they wanted to hear the simple truth. Nothing fancy or too poetic. Nothing too sophisticated or "thinky thinky" as Tom often referred to postmodern poetry. But something clear, moving, and accessible on first reading. And he obliged with poems that bore no trace of the surrealism that had lured him away to Boston and then Iowa so many decades ago. He concluded, if my memory serves me correctly, with this poem:

Dead Horse

At the fence line, I was about to call him in when,
at two-thirds profile, head low
and away from me, he fell first
to his right front knee
and then the left, and he was down,
dead before he hit the...
My father saw him drop, too,
and a neighbor, who walked over.
He was a good horse, old,
spavined, eating grass during the day
and his oats and hay
at night. He didn't mind, or try to boss, the cows
with which he shared these acres.
My father said: Happens. Our neighbor,
named Malcolm, walked back to his place
and was soon grinding toward us
with his tractor's new backhoe,
of which he was proud
but so far used only to dig two sump holes.
It was the knacker who'd haul away a cow.
A horse, a good horse, you buried
where he, or she, fell. Malcolm
cut a trench beside the horse
and we pushed him in.
I'd already said goodbye
before I tried to close his eyes.
Our neighbor returned the dirt
from where it came. In it: stones,
stones never seen before
by a human's, nor even a worm's, eye.
With the back of a shovel
we tamped the dirt down.
One dumb cow
stood by. It was a Friday.
For supper we ate hot dogs, with beans
on buttered white bread. Every Friday,
hot dogs and beans.

                         ...

There are far too many funny, profound, memorable, original, human things to recall about Tom. I haven't mentioned his instant agreement to join the New England College MFA faculty at the inception of that program in 2002, nor his participation in the Spirit and Letter Workshop in Patzcuaro, Mexico from 1998 to 2000, which he helped me direct. I'm sure that all of Tom's friends felt as enriched as I did by his rare company. As I write this I'm saying to myself I shouldn't be writing this. Tom passed too soon. My memories of him are charged with the same current that his presence transmitted, which only exasperates my grief. He was both king and court jester, walking the fine line between the two with perfect balance. Stanley Kunitz famously described him as "sui generis, his own kind of poet, unlike any of the fashions of his time." I think of Walter Pater's words also as I recall my walks with Tom through Uruapan, Mexico City, Patzcuaro, Atlanta, Putney, Waltham, New York City, Bronxville and Newton: he burned as a "hard gemlike flame", maintaining "his ecstasy." His fire tormented him as much as it enlightened him, but somehow he held on to his belief in life's goodness. "What are your thoughts about death," one of my students once asked him during a class visit at Providence College. "Death is part of life," he responded immediately, "so how bad can it be?"

                         ...

I like to think Tom is gazing down on the world from high atop Mt. Tom. That he floats up there like a cloud in a different shape every day with omniscient vision and that silent voice he heard when writing poems and paid tribute to in his poem, "The Voice You Hear When You Read Silently". That the thunder that pounds up there on summer days is Tom with his new shotgun blasting away at the universe, and that the rain is his pellets falling on us as lead turned to water from which we drink and are "whole again." How else can one think following the loss of such a close friend? Such thinking makes no less sense than a friend's sudden permanent departure, but it does live differently in our hearts as more of a believable fantasy than the darkness in which so many black dogs roam."Poetry exists because there is no other way to say the things that get said in good poems except in poems," Tom said. "There is something about the right combination of metaphor or image connected to the business of being alive that only poems can do. To me, it makes me feel more alive, reading good poetry." Thank you for your making us feel more alive. Your poems will live on in us.

Farewell, dear friend.

Poetry

Michael Laskey

Michael Laskey
Thomas Lux

Poetry

Shawn Delgado

Shawn Delgado
Remembering Tom: 10,000 Books

Poetry

Michael Ryan

Michael Ryan
(Lux)