Readings in Contemporary Poetry

Thomas Lux

Introduction by Brighde Mullins

Tonight's reading brings together Joy Harjo and Thomas Lux, two "great users of words" to quote Walt Whitman's definition of the poet. The thinking behind the pairing of these two distinct sensibilities was to counterpoint two poets whose work undertakes a serious contemplation of place. With empathy and insight, Joy Harjo and Thomas Lux explore disparate American geographies and inheritances. Here are two powerful, disturbing imaginations that yield fresh surprises about the syntax of a locale, and the contingent responsibilities of its associations -- home, family and community. Celebratory elements as well as urgent warnings figure in their poems; both write fables, story-poems; and both summon up Charles Wright's question: "what is it about a known landscape that tends to undo us?"

The poetry of Thomas Lux has paid attention to, among other phenomenon, the virgule (an early form of the comma) the maraschino cherry, the scary playground songs of children, the thirst of sea-turtles, the registers of physical pain, the sense of smell, and the love life of Rilke--in other words, his preoccupations are impossible to predict, a vast compendium from "microbe to Yahweh." His poems, with their sleeves-rolled-up approach, are encyclopedic in their range; at the same time they are transcendent missives, New Englandly trenchant in their ironies, in their gallows-humor.

"Suppose you're a solo native here
On one planet rolling
The lily of the pad and valley
You're alone and you know a few things:
The stars are pinholes, slits in
The hangman's mask. And the crab
Walks sideways as they were
Taught by the waves"

In these lines, from the title poem of Lux's book Solo Native, there's a reliable eyewitness approach -- Lux is an amoureux perpetuel of the world (as Wallace Stevens might say) as well as a humorist, his observations, at times nihilistic, can also enfold double and triple entendres, fabulous constructions, he is both a wit and a witness--as in these lines:

"The dark comes in on blocks, in cubes,
in cubics of black measured
perfectly, perfectly
filled. It's subtle and it's not,
depending on your point of view."

Thomas Lux has been compared, often, with Whitman; Whitman who reminds us that "latent in all great users of words must be all passions, crimes, trades, animals, stars, sex, God, the past, might, space, metals, and the like." That's Whitman's job description for the poet. Lux has, as Whitman prescribes, catalogued a plenitude in his over fifteen collections. Home-truths, blue-collar work songs, advice and warnings turn up in his poems.

These lines are from his poem "Old Man Shovelling Snow."

"Bend your back to it sir, for it will snow all night.
How gently they sink-white spiders,
Multi-bladed bleak things,
These first, into the near-mirror
Of your shovels' surface."

Lovely, pragmatic, and tactile, his poems witness the motility of individual consciousness within the landscape. His poems also exhibit the light of the scholar's lamp, the pressure of light on an obscure word or phrase, a noticing of minutaie and particulars -- there's a hint of the metaphysician's riddle here, the detonation of words in surreal combinations; it's a pleasure to welcome Thomas Lux.