Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Thomas Lux passes it on

I once told Thomas Lux that I considered him "the Poet Laureate of Unintended Results", a description he rather liked. He took it for the compliment I intended it to be because ,I think,he understand that the "unintended results" that make up the material of his work allows him a way to achieve any number of effects--comedic, dark, tragic, bizarrely funny or horrifyingly sad, his is a body of work that investigates the latter day consequences of hubris.

What I mean, of course, is that what Lux specializes in is the detailing of plain facts and events of matters we can recognize, with a protagonist's attitude conspicuous and anticipating a set of desired results as their agenda is set out, only to find himself (or herself) confounded and contradicted by interventions that changes the meaning of everything. The beauty of his style isn't that he starts with an abstract, clouded inference toward an infernal contradiction, then working his way to a clarity from which one might suppose the characters should have started. He reverses it and starts off simply, clearly, adding layers of incidental detail, skipping over days, years, through significant events and celebrations and attending tragedies, bringing the reader (and his character) to a situation where nothing is like what they thought it would be.

It's a beautiful technique he's developed; he may be one of a handful of poets who understand irony as an effect achieved through a carefully moving around of narrative elements that come into conflict.

A LITTLE TOOTH by Thomas Lux

Your baby grows a tooth, then two
and four, and five, then she wants some meat
directly from the bone. It’s all
over: she’ll learn some words, she’ll fall
in love with cretins, dolts, a sweet
talker on his way to jail. And you,
your wife, get old, flyblown, rue
nothing. You did, you loved, your feet
are sore. It’s dusk. Your daughter’s tall.

Beautiful. The image is on the tooth, the joy of watching a young child being able to eat solid food. The next you know she's eating meat from the bone and learns the language to make her mischief , and before it's all over, late at night, you realize you're old and tired and you wonder what happened when you were young and at what moment did your baby start developing the skills to have a young, vital life you can hardly keep up with. I love the last line, the second half, when what was a simple memory that lead through a fast-forward to the current moment: "...It's dusk. Your daughter's tall." The shock of recognition, you could say. You wonder where your youth went and then see it in front of you, on your child's face and in her arms and legs, full of the energy you gave her. The implication is clear; we don't lose our youth, if we're lucky. We just pass it on.

The open ended quality is the beauty of the poem. It does imply that it will be the formerly teething daughter's turn to do all those things now that she is taller, full grown, almost an adult. But I also like that it's suggested and not spelled out. The resonance of the last sentence "Your daughter's tall" comes at us as revelation, the startled response to a bright light coming on in a dark room. It's a sentence that ends the poem and yet demonstrates how this small moment is profound in that it summarizes a life that has been and forecasts a life that is yet to be lived at length.

The poem continues off the page, something like a conversation you've been listening to as you walk the street and then the people you've been following turn the corner or enter a building, cutting off the discussion in mid sentence. One can only imagination the possibilities that might yet emerge from a host of plausible guesses, and this inconclusive quality is what makes this a fine poem.

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