Child Made of Sand
by Thomas Lux
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012
80 pages / $23 Buy from Amazon
Does anyone read Thomas Lux anymore? I tweeted this question and no one really answered me. In my teens and twenties I associated Thomas Lux with poetry royalty, standing abreast with the likes of Tate and Ashbery. But now? I don’t know. When I regularly read Lux I was getting ______ all the time and reading One Hundred Years of Solitude and doing backstrokes in David Lynch. So when Lux’s new book of poems, Child Made of Sand (a title I love by the way), came out I sort of just shrugged. But that seemed rude and dismissive, so I decided to take a look at it and I found exactly what Lux has been known for all these years: witty, learned, half-surreal poems. Which is fine. It’s fine if Bill Clinton was still president and the most pressing political issue facing us was a blue dress. But now we live in a time of endless war, economic injustice, a polarized media, the mind-F that is the Internet, never mind scores of DIY parents with advanced degrees not vaccinating their children. Somehow, Lux’s neighborly tone is sort of mesmerizingly off-putting, especially since as I write this the Syrian government is bombing its own citizens with chemical weapons:
You do: one side rolls left,
the other right, and both
show you the chambers
of their split hearts, their slippery liquids,
which you take, eat,
because of their abundance.
Across a small pond
a boy squats by the edge
stirring the water with his hand.
His father’s five strides behind,
too far to stop him if he topples face-first.
The water is black but shallow.(from “From Whom All Blessings Flow”)
It certainly is, Mr. Lux, it certainly is. This pleasant free-verse is as harmless as Seth Abramson, but equally annoying, and seems out of step with the rest of us. Many aging poets, once someone confirms their place in the pantheon of contemporary American poetry, seem to have earned the right to write mediocre verse without any accountability. Recently, I came across a poem by Linda Pastan called “3AM” in the Gettysburg Review (Winter 2012) that shocked me for its banality and I can’t imagine why the editors published it except out of some obligatory gratitude for years of service. Who hasn’t in high school written a poem titled “3AM”? What’s interesting is that this sort of poetry wasn’t offensive at some point precisely because it reflects great prosperity and privilege. Coming across the Pastan poem as the world here and abroad comes apart at the seams is unnerving. Lux, and other poets sympathetic to this sort of suburban disposition (disclaimer: live in suburbs/own Crocs), would rightly argue that the world is always in turmoil. When is it not? And I agree. But the way we apprehend that turmoil has changed and changed dramatically. Besides, as globalization and the relentless whiplashes of information rearrange us, these poets are entering the twilight of their careers. And yet perhaps they have contributed enough? Perhaps they should be allowed to frolic peacefully in the shade of an oak tree and scribble in paper. In short, respect your elders. But perhaps, just perhaps critics should hold these AARP poets even more accountable than younger poets. The premise that the older you get, the less impact you have is a false one. Take a look at the Senate. According to Slate.com the average age of a Senator is 62. And that was in 2011. So, instead of hiding older poets like heirlooms, tug them back into the light of this world.
But aside from the cultural hand-wringing Lux’s verse inspires, the poet’s whimsical wise-cracks (and they are wise sometimes) ultimately prove to be part of a tired repertoire of poems Lux invents, where tip-toeing mice or rats make frequent appearances and cutesy titles like “The Chairman of Naught” and “Every Time Someone Masturbates God Kills a Kitten” are ubiquitous. Mild-mannered and agreeable, this book and ones like it nearly constitute a new school of poetry: Grocery Store Poetry. And don’t get me wrong, the world needs this poetry – the world of the passive-reader who reaches for Cosmo, Time, or US Magazine certainly would benefit more from poets like Lux and Pastan and Billy Collins (only mentioned here because he provided a blurb for Lux’s book). Interestingly though, right when I’m about to toss Lux’s book high into the air, draw my pistols, and fill it full of holes, the poet writes this little jewel:
the hangman’s hood
and black marten his gloves. The priest’s cassock
mink, his crucifix chinchilla, each hair combed
to catch dawn’s yellow light, his black book gilt-bound.
Some can choose
(pay for) the noose
To be softened, lined
But when the floor door’s latch unsnaps
As sharply as anyone,
Or more so: softer nooses tighten faster.
If I didn’t know any better, I might have thought – for a split second – that this was a Lucie Brock-Broido poem for its eccentric texture and chilly precision. But that’s not fair to LBB. However, Lux’s characterization of the rich is startling in that it describes that even when faced with imminent death, the wealthy must have the finer things; that every living moment is a sort of performance of luxury and oblivious entitlement. The poem feels current too, except who gets hung anymore? Leave it to Lux to simply use this method of execution as a prop for his own fantastic premise of pathological consumption. However, the poem, instead of chatting does sort of sing (“but when the floor door’s latch unsnaps/they drop”) with reasonable effect. And the lines achieve an idiosyncratic creepiness a child might feel when winked at by a grown-up. But moments like this are few and far between. Instead of hero, Lux views himself as an aging clown running out of gigs, rummaging through literary and philosophical history for his next one, as he does in his poem “Nietzsche Throws His Arms Around The Neck Of A Dray Horse”, whose title also serves as the first line
An act of empathy – as if he felt broken
That broken horse was? He could. Or
Was it tertiary syphilis? Unlike
Many philosophers — rigid,
Tortured by the abstract – it was the concretions
That broke Nietzsche. Were the electric drills
Of his migraines physiological,
Or did he think too hard
And know not, well enough, how to be loved, or to love,
Like most of we?
Lux treats most of his historical figures the same: demystify them in order to humanize them and hence make them accessible, but what he’s really doing is more insidious: domesticating them into a cult of harmlessness. It’s the same plot drawn up by poets like Billy Collins, who come across as if all they want to do is be as amicable as NPR prattling away in your kitchen, reporting on the latest human atrocity, as you half-listen, rinsing your knife off in the sink.