by Thomas Lux
Houghton Mifflin, 2008
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To witness Houdini, or, for that matter, David Blaine, squirming out of his chains is to
understand that immortality, that gray but fecund arch-trope, is more about finding fissures in the monolith than
about banishing Terminus. It's about coming to see necessity as a dubiously curtained wizard, laying down the
same law that the poetic optic nerve sees right through as just another metaphor, not the bluff-free ultimate
in realism it claims. Lux has been that Houdini among contemporary poets, enacting that wish not to be pinned
down and yet not fade into ambiguity, either. For this reason, the formal aspects have to be in good order,
because the weight of situated and craft-maneuvered form keeps imaginative liberty from collapsing under the
weight of its own exfoliating inventions. Keeping a balance is the key, and this Lux does.
The kind of poem Lux writes is now one that he consistently nails. In
God Particles, his
11th collection, we find him nailing it again. Several earlier reviewers of this book, while generally weighing in with praise,
have also felt obliged to complain that Lux's poems are facile and academically complacent. I would take issue
with this characterization: I think it misses the point, since it seems really just a way of pigeon-holing poets
of his demographic and of consigning him to a comparable or slightly lesser meadow on Parnassus than the ones
inhabited by the poets with whom he has been often compared, such as Knott, Tate, Edson, and Simic. Although
Tate seems lately to be an unstoppable font of the humorous narrative prose poem, Knott is, as ever, Knott,
practically sui generis. Meanwhile, Edson continues to generate subversive conundrums, and Simic to refine and adapt the
Eastern European surrealist lyric to American ears. While Lux's work does bear comparison with these poets,
his signature belongs to him alone. And readers who have followed his career of four decades will note that
the radius of his talent keeps widening, the Emersonian circles ("the first of forms") also disclosing
something that readers of poetry hope forthat "under every deep a lower deep opens." Although
Emerson's shade may seem an unlikely ghost to preside over Thomas Lux, I note that an Emersonian aperçu stands
as epigraph to the volume.
"The Pier Aspiring" reminds me of a midwest relative of mine who once innocently inquired on first
seeing an Atlantic pier: "Does it go all the way across?" Lux is on the case ("See? You can't
see the end!"). This pier the speaker has built himself (but not for himself: "pier" is also
is this: it's my body's habit,
so the answer to whether it goes all the way across is moot, being redirected to the fact of
habit (including the secondary sense of habitation) in the act of making "one board laid down after
another." Here he also hints that habitual practices bring one to the point that it is natural to
It's good to wear an X
on my back, to bend my back to the sky, it's right
to use the hammer and the saw,
it's good to sleep
out thereattached to one distant end
and tomorrow adding to that distance.
This is not sacrifice but generosity, the giving, almost a self-emptying. Such self-gifting
seems to be an important component to
as it builds, not only the seemingly impossible bridge to others, but the protection from what would otherwise be
a world of such contingent mechanisms that we would stand to be continually disengaged from participation in
our own fates. "It will be a bridge," Lux asserts against common sense, and yet it is an assertion of such
application that it glosses both this (and any) poem and the poet. But less important than whether the pier
becomes a bridge are the things that, by repetition and habit, go into making a character. It is an old question:
the poet or the poem? There is still an argument to be made that the former takes precedence over the latter.
And there is reason for this: the seen without the seer is unintelligible. Alas, much ink has been spilled and
many keypad keys worn down in support of the idea that the poem is more important than the poet (an idea that
would have raised Keats' eyebrows).
"The Pier Aspiring" itself makes a bridge to the title poem, a cognate poem but in another key, about
the supreme act of self-emptying-as-gift (first line: "God explodes . . ."). In this poem, God brings
on another Big Bangthat being Himselfshowering bits of the divine substance confetti-like over His
creation. This poem stands in some contrast to "The Pier Aspiring" not only in scope, but in bias.
Lux locates this benign catastrophe in an unspecified time-out-of-time where people drop what they are doing to
experience the shower of God particles. The moment is reminiscent of the 1950 movie The Next Voice You Hear,
that religious melodrama intended to placate the conscience of a post-Hiroshima America in which God addresses
fellow Americans on the radio. The message: do your homework and be good. But Lux updates the moment with his
God revising the distribution of Self à la mode (and there are allusionssly, knowing,
melancholyto suicide bombers elsewhere in this collection). So the inconvenient query, "Who just
asked: Why did God explode?" is equivalent to asking the kind of pointy-headed academic questions that
inhibit action and bring one to the slippery slope of irony. Now the problem with irony is not that it's not
called for: in some sense it's almost always called for. The problem is that it's reactive, secondary, and,
straight up, a lie: not the kind of reaction befitting the Deity's legacy. The particles: we are to be given
them even if they're too good for us. God becomes His legacyour redemption is our being pardoned for
previous lack of imagination (and then, presumably saved by ourselves). It is a coming-into-fullness, not a
. . . and He wanted each of us,
and all the things we touch
and are touched by,
to have a tiny piece of Him,
though we are unqualified
for even the crumb of a crumb.
There's that moral voice-over. One can't escape the feeling that the tongue-in-cheek, the un-saying, cushions
every positive assertion. That's the irony I mentioned, the quality that leaves us "unqualified,"
though not, for all that, empty-handed.
For a poet of Lux's shrewdness, a book of blessings would be incomplete without a curse. In this case, it is
the poem, "Invective" ("I pray your son wish to be a poet"), which may be read as a blessing
with the switch flipped to off and the stream of (God) particles thus neutralized and pushed to their logical
conclusion minus the key ingredient of self-emptying, of giving. This poem stands as a little presentation
piece, a coded bit of equilibrium, a mirror-image of the title poem.
As has been the case in earlier poems, there is an incoming tide of poignancy herethe allusions to
childhood, the memory of tenderness, the people standing about like characters in Magritte, trying to act
resolutely ordinary. This is the case in "The American Duel," for instance, where absurdities are
interchangeable with niceties:
is an American duel, how we fight,
how we respond to nose-pulling,
unlike the foppish French
or the English, who wrap their umbrellas
so astonishingly tight.
Pathos seeps in along with Lux's intuition for whimsical opportunity, even caprice,
which is always at least a nod in the direction of imaginative freedom and hence is capable of providing
satisfaction by showing us other fates and vocabularies than the ones to which we've become, as Blake warned,
too early habituated. Lux's syntax also tells us something about other fates and possibilities by giving us
alternative grammars that leverage English into nuanced enactments both of emotional states and of the
gradations of thought. As they record, they also embody. Consider the multivalent closure at work in
facing poems, "Man Pedaling Next to His Bicycle" and "Her Hat, That Party on Her Head." The former ends,
Where did they
gothat which, those whom, he was meant to glide
or love, on his journey?
You see the shuffle of pronouns giving way to verbs. The interruption of syntax often maps
the by-no-means logical processes of thought. It would not be inaccurate to say that Lux's syntactical
(syn-tactics) manipulations (and stylings), especially as his poems move toward closure, record barometric
pressures of emotion and surprising moments of realizationthen recreate them in the reader. In the
latter, he writes,
made her wear this hat
to help, but fail, to let her absence go?
Lux did American poetry a solid when he found the scope and fit of the Lux poem. His poems
have never strayed far from the well of theme-and-variation; he has not been observed staking his talent on
attempting great American "masterpieces" or big production numbers. He is not a poet out to write Four Quartets. But this is not to let his ambition float, either. There is a lot of real
estate here, and the magnitude of Lux's importance starts to become clear as the poems stack up. His is an
amiable poetry finally, although the stations of his cross are the old absurdist ones made familiar by a
generation of poets influenced by surrrealist juxtapositions (mostly E. European, not Hispanic) and various
strands of "anti-poetry." His is a horizontal poetry, too, in spite of its surrrealist pedigree that
finds inspiration in the unconscious depths. This horizon is populated not only by characters of fiction
(as in "American Duel") and bourgeois propriety (amicably vexed), but of Eliot's rolled
umbrella-bearers and Continental suburbanites who refer to themselves as "one," thereby heralding
the approach of irony and behind it, of the intuition of vanity.
There are at least three reasons why we ought to assent to an absurdist view: the irrationality of people, the
contingency of nature, and the silence (or death) of God. Lux taps into each of these reasons, hinting at what
it feels like to be directly in the beam of each. His poems, by and large, are not directly autobiographical
(for which he is to be complimented), but this is not to suggest that he stints on subjectivity. On the contrary,
he knows all too well its sorrows, as suggested in "Autobiographophobia," where the speaker avers,
. . . because I'm telling the truth,
it is right that I talk only of myself
and never of you, or you, and you, or you.
Lux's poems sound like narrative because they often have what Frank O'Hara called the
"I do this, I do that" way of versing. The cadences are also that of speech (or of thought, as
we noted) and therefore are capable of a sweetness, the dolce touch, beyond the reach of the rest of nature
with which we are surrounded. In "Sugar Spoon,"
a tiny hole opens
and thenceforth it will leave a dusting of its cargo,
a trail, a grainy Milky Way
across the maple table
from the bowl of my father's, my mother's, coffee cup.
The sweetness often accompanies the absurdity, and their interchangeability is mirrored here
and there like the work of the artist Rachel Whitehead, who makes plaster casts and hence, negatives of
real things: bookshelves, whole rooms . . . . In "Put the Bandage on the Sword and Not the Wound," we
hear that "It must hurt, too, the sword, heated to red. . . . " Likewise, in "The Harmonic Scalpel,"
The patient hears
the tune (the anesthesia local) and is soothed.
Sometimes a nurse (oh white
on white and her nylons too!)
Peter Stitt found that Lux's strongest poems "are those written in his most
difficult tonean ironic mingling of humor and sincerity which betrays a ferocious anger at
necessity." In the Luxian universe, the reverse is also true: manifest ferocity betrays a tenderness
and humor at the core. One of my favorite poems in this volume is "The Ambrosiana Library." This
Borgesian place caters to the dying breed of which Lux and anyone reading this can identify:
On its onyx shelves: every book you've ever read,
and the tone you felt, which pierced you,
when you did. . . .
The library not only caters to readers, it honors them:
Each reader is assigned
his or her personal librarian,
and each librarian is paid twice the average income
of orthopedic surgeons. . . .
The point of this embarras de richesse is as simple and unobjectionable as it is impossible
and yet desirable: ". . . citizens sit and read themselves into another/ world." And that world, in
catering to this one, pays it the compliment, as in the title poem, of the greater deferring to the lesser,
which is the paradigm of things done under the auspices of love, of caritas, pity, all those things books go