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David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee is the author of Not Alone in My Dancing: Essays and Reviews (2016, which includes a review of Tom's God Particles) and the forthcoming This Much I Can Tell You, both from Black Lawrence Press. David first met Tom about 1975, when Rigsbee was editing an anthology of new American poets. Tom visited David in Clinton, New York, when David was teaching at Hamilton. "He was already in my firmament of favorite poets, and he remained there. His friendship over the years, like his artistry, was exemplary.

On Lux's Style: An Appreciation

You can go by way of memory, or you can go by way of invention. Lux's poems, by and large, go by way of the latter, and in doing so, they helped close the door on the surfeit of confessional poems that clogged American poetry for three decades. For this alone, we should give thanks. The dive into subjectivity sooner or later lands on the cold floor of hell, where bathos, solipsism, and mediocrity are the terminal conditions. What Lux does instead, thanks in large part to his training in the surrealism that also informed his colleagues Tate, Knott, and Simic, is to suggest that the cultural memory of which poetry claims custodianship can be assembled another way. While it recognizes that memory is a goal, memory itself is what we construe it to be, and better that we make artifacts to our vision than logs of our feelings. In other words, subjectivity, which after all is the starting place of the lyric, loses mojo when it goes in relentless pursuit of the literal.

The same subjectivity, adjusting its aim, gives rise to innovation. Lux had the luck to become associated with good company. I group him especially with Tate and Knott, two other wizards of invention, both gone to the Elysian Fields of their works, and I put his arrival in the mid-70s, when I was editing an anthology of new American poetry and included work of his. His was some of the up-to-the-minute lyrical approach I was looking for, grounded in Williams, that twisted free of academic-friendly formalism on the one hand and self-important poetry of subjectivity-creep, memorably reduced by Robert Bly to "I-do-this, I-do-that" poetry, on the other. Bly's own influential syncretism helped relieve young poets from the ailment of ego saturation, while the styles of ever more demotic poets lowered the bar from heights of serious literary utterance (think Lowell and Hecht) to the streets where Ginsberg and Dr. Williams, Ignatow, Wright, Levertov and Levine now held forth. Lux retained these lessons and added his own take on the short poem's material demands. As a result, Lux's poems are agreeable to the ear. No follower of Yeats or Roethke or Kunitz could claim to know more about the physics of poems, or worked harder to employ what these physics made available to craft. Not only does he pay close attention to the music of letters and syllables as they interact across the line—raised at times to its own autonomous play, the same is true with pitch and voice, the mechanisms that raise skepticism to sarcasm, observation to judgment. You are aware at once that the Luxian voice is in charge tout court. It is at the same time, in its own quirky way, humane, declining to succumb to the manias and gonzo spirit evoked in the poems, and never tempted to counter craziness with stock authoritarian language acts (again, Lowell, Hecht, et al.), threatening or punishing his own subjects with the rod of his language skills. There is always a distance—a kindly distance—between the treatment and the thing it treats. That makes judgment all the more credible.

That being said, Lux did not abandon his beginnings: raised on a dairy farm, many of his poems reference the value and virtue of bucolic origins. Take, for example, an early, affectionate poem dedicated to his father:

     In winter
     they'd load the boxes on a sled
     and drag them to the dump
     which was lovely, then: a white sheet
     drawn up, like a joke, over
     the face of a sleeper.

—————————————————

     that milkman,
     that easy slinger
     on the dump's edge...

                         —"The Milkman and His Son"

Tom Lux loved the world of tangible things. Almost every poem over his long career fastens on some thing, and he went to pains to come at the thing, both in perspective and in the original language he used. At length, the thing yielded its avatar, the word. As a result his poems can be characteristically fussy to gain the palpability to which words aspire, a condition where words are "as unethereal as cabbage":

     ...All the pig farmers,
     rat catchers, charcoal burners, tanners
     in their stink, root diggers living
     in the next village over from the smallest village;
     who thickened their soup with saw dust
     or meal gathered from dirt
     around the grindstone.

                         —"Bodo"

He is more explicit, even Whitmanian, when it comes to resolving the difference between his unpoetic nostalgias and his inventiveness:

     I love America's backyards,
     seen from highways, or when
     you're lost and looking
     hard at houses, numbers.
     The above, plus a washed-out willow,
     starveling hedge, tool shed
     a dozen times dented,
     and a greasy truck
     against the garage where a barbeque
     went berserk. A Chevy engine block
     never haiuled away
     or the classic Olds on chocks....
     Beneath the blue-gray humps of snow: pieces
     of a summer...

                         —"Backyard Swingset"

Working without the exoskeleton of formalist patterning, you can nevertheless see how the poems work, how he puts the subject into gear and sets off, making the curves, around which is an address you often can't see, but yet sometimes know all too well. I quote "Plague Victims Catapulted over Walls into Besieged City" in full:

     Early germ
     warfare. The dead
     hurled this way turn like wheels
     in the sky. Look: there goes
     Larry the Shoemaker, barefoot, over the wall,
     and Mary Sausage Stuffer, see how she flies,
     and the Hatter twins, both at once, soar
     over a parapet, little Tommy's elbow bent
     as if in a salute,
     and his sister, Mathilde, she follows him,
     arms outstretched, through the air,
     just as she did on earth.

The directives ("Look," "this way," "see how she flies") both soften the brutality of the poem's subject, while cueing the reader to the next turn as assuredly and unassumingly as GoogleMaps.

As the previous example shows, the Lux poem also specializes in the apocalyptic miniature. As a result, they declare themselves on the side of the humble, the victim, the disenfranchised, the discountenanced—those outnumbered by irresistible (and often unseen) forces. Thus his poems tend to frame the world in ethical and moral terms, though he would never himself have been so gauche as to put it that way. And there is a certain black humor that attends to such a framing because the price we pay for idealism, in short, is that we fall short. Aesthetically speaking, you might say it's the way to go. Take, for example, his well known "Library of Skulls," in which skulls, now memento mori, substitute for books, and in the reversible mirror of art, those skulls—now shells for the perished derring-do, dreams, flights, meditations, and regrets—offer an ironic image for the (not always well-founded) hopes we place in books:

Hopes for what? Well, salvation, of course! The poem ends on a characteristically human note, that is, it ends on an emotionally resonant image, rather than an idea's reversal:

     Here are a few (history): a murderer,
     and this one—see how close their eye sockets! — a thief,
     and here's a rack of torturers' skulls
     beneath which a longer much longer, row of the tortured.
———
     and just now the squeak of a wheel
     on a cart piled high with skulls
     on their way back to shelves,
     while in the next aisle
     a cart is filling with those about to be loaned
     to the tall, broken-hearted man waiting
     at the desk, his library card
     face down before him.

We recognize that man right away: he is mon semblable. Now, here's the paradox: the world of our dreams expires at the feet of the real world, but the reverse is also true, namely, that the real world just as easily stops at the feet of our dreams. If we are at sixes and sevens, then that is also, in a sense, the way, the truth and the light with poetry. A number of commentators have called attention to Lux's penchant for the absurd. I would rather say that this is what is classical in Lux. Let me expand for a moment. Where does it come from, this point of view? When even causation steps away from the Verities and becomes uncertain, then sense and nonsense take in each other's laundry. If you are a Dostoyevskyan, you might call this freedom. You make a separate peace with the falling away of rules and revel in the possibilities. Otherwise, you might privately freak out over the loss of predictability and control, become subject to victimization, even a victim proper. If you are a comedian, you have all the material you need because the whole world becomes a teeming hypothet. Ditto if you are a poet. The absurd doesn't abolish the moral realm; on the contrary, it makes it all the more fundamental:

     We mocked their greatest poet
     and when that had no effect
     we parodied the way they dance
     which did cause pain, so they, in turn, said our God
     was leprous, hairless.
     We do this, they do that.

                         —"The People of the Other Village"

Nothing with which to adjudicate here, but the point remains: should precedes is, but he seems also to suggest that we may as well get used to the is. Lux takes his cue from comedians in another way: he prizes accessibility (it's not just performance) and frequently disarms the reader with a humorous set-up, a kind of modeling or, on a grander scale, world-making. It's also his way of approaching dark subjects like war, torture, and political oppression. His titles are his first move ("Tarantulas on the Life Buoy," "Walt Whitman's Brain Dropped on Laboratory Floor," "Every Time Someone Masturbates, God Kills a Kitten" and so on). The list is not short. Often the humor emerges in shifts of voice ("Some unguent/ on his clavicle, please nurse,/ and on each ventricle lotion would be good"), syntax and diction that mocks our preconceptions of poetry's assumptions of eloquence and le mot juste ("Oh the primal, necessary drums/ behind the words so dumb!"). This can also be done to more serious effect: "I like to make the reader laugh—and then steal that laugh, right out of the throat. Because I think life is like that, tragedy right alongside humor." Humor and tragedy are, you might say, the tongs with which he picks up and examines the cruel and the stupid. To which I may as well add humor and the insipid, where a lingering sense of the kind and bright provide a ghosting—implied but never far away, a kind of reminder that even an out-of-kilter world doesn't consume the ideal of harmony.

Not surprisingly (and this is true of one of his surrealist precursors, the poet Vasko Popa), the Lux poem likes a certain kind of tidiness to contain the mess of competing (and often mutually excluding) images: "Making poems rhythmical and musical and believable as human speech and as distilled and tight as possible is very important to me." This assertion points to a desire to stay accessible, and indeed, "good poetry can be accessible and clear and lucid and still be highly original and fresh and powerful. We're beginning to reject this incredibly obscure, self-indulgent, incomprehensible poetry." Lux's sprightly verses keep their part in this rejection. There is also a caffeinated spontaneity in all Lux poems; no introductory yabba-dabba-do precedes the real text. Not a few of his poems begin right in the title, the poem proper being an elaboration:

     Say You're Breathing

     just as you do every day, in and out, in and out, and in each
     breath: one tick
     of a shaving from a bat's eyelash, an invisible sliver
     or a body mite
     who lived near Caligula's shin...

                         —"Say You're Breathing"

All of these qualities, the companionable, voice-driven pace and pitch, the vivid, guided, coursing of things, the playful hypotheticals, the simultaneous presence of humor and affliction make up Lux's signature style. Rereading his work recently, I was taken by all the references to animals, from farm animals to exotic, even microscopic critters. Moreover, he imagines history as Monty Python did: standing in the back, where most of us stand, you could mishear a crucial word ("Did he say, 'blessed are the cheesemakers?'") and misconstrue meaning altogether. History, after all, is in the words, and so we need to see to them, not from one perspective, but from as many as we can imagine. That's what Lux did, and his achievement, a lively and approachable congeries (a word he would have loved), enjoyable in the act of reading and edifying in the act of later reflection, needs no more justification than a raised eyebrow needs a crime.

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