Monday, April 25, 2016
To The Left Of Time Poems by Thomas Lux
To The Left Of Time
by Thomas Lux
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Boston, New York
Copyright © 2016 by Thomas Lux
75 pages, softbound, $16.95
Review by Zvi A. Sesling
Cow Chases Boys
What we were thinking
was bombing the cows with dirtballs
from the top of the sandbank,
at the bottom of which ran a cave-cold
We knew the cows would pass below
to drink, and we’d pried our clumps of dirt
from a crumbling ledge. Here,
August last a million years.
There was no we, I can tell you that now.
I did this alone. At one cow
I knew as old and cloudy-eyed,
I threw the dirtballs as if it were a sport
at which I was skilled.
Boom, a puff of dust off her hip, boom, boom: drilled
her ribs, and neck, and one more
too close to where she made her milk.
She swung around and chased me up an apple tree.
Her rage surprised me, and her alacrity.
She looked up. I looked down at her.
As such with many things, I did this alone.
We both knew we’d soon be called home.
So opens Thomas Lux’s newest poetry volume To The Left Of Time which is being released this April. Lux is the author of thirteen books of poems, and perhaps rates in a class of his own as a unique, entertaining and slyly serious and satiric poet. Many of his poems leave you feeling you have been had, wondering if what you read is either real or not.
Take the above poem, in the tenth line of this twenty-two line poem Lux writes, “There was no we, I can tell you that now.” It is now his solo trip, the poem about him – and a cow. Then he tells us the cow chased him up an apple tree. Did this really happen or is it a take off on George Washington and the cherry tree a myth created by Mason Locke Weems in 1799? In Lux’s version he does not have a hatchet nor does he answer to his father, but rather an old cow whose age may be a metaphor for a father. However, the poem ends with Lux offering his own confession: “I did this alone.” And then it is finally left for the reader to decide if there will be retribution for his act, “We both knew we’d soon be called home.”
In the press blurb that came with the book the publisher states Lux’s poems are semi-autobiographical. The “semi” must mean that somewhere in the poem is a modicum of truth, like a reality TV show there might be something real. That is what makes Lux a compelling poet. He entertains. His humor is on the surface, but his meanings go deeper.
Here is another example of how Lux brings a reader into his peculiar world. You wonder about his acts and those of the others, and what parts, if any, of the poem are real.:
Grade Schools’ Large Windows
weren’t built to let the sunlight in.
They were large to let the germs out.
When polio, which sounds like the first dactyl
of a jump-rope song, was on the rage,
you did not swim in public waters.
The awful thing was an iron lung.
We lined up in our underwear to get the shot.
Some kids fainted; we all were stung.
My cousin Speed sat in a vat
of ice cubes until his scarlet fever waned,
but from then on his heart was not the same.
My friend’s girlfriend was murdered in a hayfield
by two guys from Springfield.
Linda got a bad thing in her blood.
Three times, I believe, Bobby shot his mother.
Rat poison took a beloved local bowler.
A famous singer sent condolences.
In the large second-floor corner room
of my fourth-grade class the windows are open.
Snow in fat, well-fed flakes
floats in. They and the chalk motes meet.
And the white rat powder, too, sifts down
into a box of oatmeal
on the shelf below.
There is so much of the real from the description of reactions to polio to the unreal of a cousin who sat in a vat of ice cubes and whose “heart was not the same.” Is Lux writing about the heart’s health or the person who was not the same kind of person after the battle with scarlet fever? Is it true or not? Is the murder in the hay field real or not? Did Bobby really shoot his mother three times? Do teachers open windows in winter and does “Snow in fat, well-fed flakes float in?” Or do they drop. And what of the white rat powder that resembles both the snow and chalk that “sifts down into a box of oatmeal,” is that at school or home? Who will die from eating it?
In Part II of the book Lux turns to odes in which some, like the late James Tate, are both fictional and satirical.
Ode To The Easting Establishment Where
The Utensils Were Chained To The Table,
much like the pens at the post office
or a bank. I’d never had a reason to enter a bank.
I bought stamps once. I stood in line
with two dimes
and some pennies,
though no many.
More than a stamp,
I wanted a pencil
so I’d feel like I went to school.
Those were difficult times.
There were different rules.
Often I dined
at the above establishment.
One was permitted to bring one’s own spoon.
I didn’t have a spoon but hoped to soon.
Nevertheless, I ate my belly full.
I was a young man
and I walk out into the green corner of morning!”
If you are thinking of odes like Shelley or Keats, do not bother. Lux is in a class of his own. And with titles like “Ode While Awaiting Execution,” “Ode To What I Have Forgotten,” “Ode To The Fire Hydrant” and “Ode To Pain In The Absence Of An Obvious Cause Of Pain” we know we are in for some enjoyable and humorous poetry which will spring a few surprises along the way.
In the final section of the book there are more poems to delight the reader and which suddenly become serious as you reach the conclusion. Check out “Attila The Hun Meets Pope Leo I.” There is humor that is reflective of love and sex as in “Along The Trail Of Your Vertebral Spine.” Or sadly serious “For Second Lieutenant J. Wesley Rosenquest” which relates a bit of western history and whether any of it real or imagined is something left for us to research.
Lux has always been a particular favorite of mine, yet peculiar I say because I find him quirky, full of trivia that make his poems nontrivial, with a satiric vein like the way a vein of silver shines in a mine. So I find that reading Thomas Lux’s To The Left Of Time not only entertains, it educates. Two great reasons to purchase and read Lux’s latest offering.
Zvi A. Sesling
Reviewer for Boston Small Press and Poetry Scene
Author, Fire Tongue (Cervena Barva Press, 2016)
Author, Across Stones of Bad Dreams (Cervena Barva Press, 2011)
Author, King of the Jungle (Ibbetson Press, 2010)
Publisher, Muddy River Books
Editor, Muddy River Poetry Review
Editor, Bagel Bards Anthologies 7& 8