Tuesday, June 03, 2008

God Particles: Poems by Thomas Lux

God Particles by Thomas Lux is his eleventh book of poetry. His verses contain rather striking and unusual images that disturb or amuse at first and then coalesce into feelings more lasting than the initial reaction. Look at some of the titles in this collection: Hitler's slippers, Sleep ambulance, Stink eye, Gravy boat goes over the waterfall, Jesus' baby teeth, Apology to my neighbors for beheading their duck, The deathwatch beetle, Sex after funerals, Toad on golf tee and of course, the title poem, God particles.

The words that flow out of these striking titles make us traverse through landscapes that are vivid and well-crafted. The abstract world of poetry is absent from the lines that saunter through (natural) elements that have pleasure for children (and adults): ants, bees, stink eye, peacocks in twilight, toads and moles. Lux hunts for words and metaphors in realms that most poets would not venture into: the harmonic scalpel, the republic of anesthesia, vinegar on chalk (all poem titles). His similes are as uncommon as "His thoughts like a deck of cards hit/ by a howitzer." (from Puzzlehead).

The unmistakable skill of Thomas Lux lies in creating an aftertaste, which is like the coolness felt after water evaporates away. As we discover the tenderness with which he deals with human frailties, we realize that all this satire, wit and imagery is just there to make us stop and listen. As we scrape off the last words of a poem, we sense how subtly Lux commanded compassion, tolerance, morality and honesty to float into our hearts and minds. He propels us into his poems as if we were to watch the gladiators fight to death. After the initial thrill of watching the struggle is gone, we are left with an experience or an heartache, maybe sympathy for the loser, admiration for the skill of a fighter and maybe even disgust at the bloodshed, that seemed entertaining only moments back.

Let me take a step back here, and confess that my admiration for Thomas Lux is influenced by my endless regard for him as a teacher and a mentor. In Indian tradition, we believe that every seeker (of knowledge, truth or beauty) needs a Guru to guide his way. For countless students like me at Georgia Institute of Technology, Sarah Lawrence, Warren Wilson and numerous other places, Thomas Lux has provided that mixture of care, knowledge and guidance characteristic of a Guru. For this very reason, I always refer to him as Gurudev (Gurudev means teacher-God, and we refer to Tagore as Gurudev). In the opening poem of this collection, Gurudev Lux writes (the poem is dedicated to Peter Davidson): "The gentleman who spoke like music/ was kind to me/ though he did not have to be./ Who brought into the world a thousand books./ (Right there: a life well lived.)" The poem continues: "Who corrected my spelling, gently and/ my history too, who once/ or twice a year/ would buy me lunch/ and later let me leave his office/ with shopping bag of books to read." Our beloved Gurudev has nurtured poetry in seekers precisely like the gentleman in his poem, and this kindness and compassion form an essential backdrop to his writing. The language is simple, yet profound. The word weaving taught and presented in these poems makes them accessible to everyone, which has ever been the hallmark of the work by Thomas Lux.

When I first read poems by Thomas Lux (New and Selected Poems), I frowned at the mention of library of skulls, lake of snakes, shooting off a bird at close range and about sex in history. I was in fact perplexed by those weird, ‘un-poetic' references. I wasn’t too excited by reading poems that were lucid, tangible and written as free verse. But when I set the book down, I found myself meditating on the thoughts seeded by his poems, and re-opening pages to revisit the poems. The aspects of life that remain somewhat unspoken of in the ritualistic diet of abstract, obscure poems served to us these days, were surprisingly alive in his poems. Now I realize that his poems have a rhythm, a music that is felt when they are read aloud. Working class people, small town people, hunters, fathers, mothers, daughters and army soldiers all unfold their daily worries or joys into his poems. While the idioms are very American, they speak of emotions and aspirations of all human beings. I have found at least two dozen poems that translate really well into Hindi and resonate with Indian themes (e. g. A Little Tooth).

Typically a poem meanders through similes, metaphors, line breaks and syllables like a river that has a source, a terrain claimed by it, and the sink is the ocean of understanding expected from the reader. Most poets thrive on either an intellectualism or erudition associated with academic circles, or they thrive on a hobo lifestyle, where they extract potent lines from a mist or a fog of highly unconventional, unworldly life. Poems by either of these schools of thought are perhaps most apt for reading by their followers. Hence even though a common man, at times, is amazed, confused or startled by these verses, these contain emotions, examples and philosophies beyond his realm. The presence of occult, obscure, obscene, Oriental and/ or opiated ramblings does not always amount to original and good art. Great art can be extracted by reinventing or reinterpreting the obvious or the ordinary. To illustrate an idea simply, to present an emotion that resonates with feelings of a the non-literary, 'untrained' majority, to produce a sonnet or a song that is deep in meaning and yet contains everyday thoughts and objects, I believe, requires the greatest scholarship. Even though the poems of Lux revel in absurdity of the modern life, by a clever mix of humor and satire, through understatement and careful attention to craft, they leave the reader with a clearer idea and a sense of understanding and joy. For this one reason, he is a poet who will ever be read, and should be read.

The poems of Lux are often full of self-effacing humor. In a poem titled Invective, he says: "I pray your son wish to be a poet." He laughs at himself and at his community by writing: " Vatricide/ i.e. the murder (metaphorical) of poets,/ is not such a bad idea in some cases:/ the case of the poet who put fish poison in her poems/ the case of the poet who put his life,/ every part of it, over/ and over again, in his poems." His satire is telling in Autobiographophobia, where he conjures up an absurd biography for a poet. Judge the poem, and not the poet is somewhat unacceptable to the gossip-mongers that abound in public and in media. The dense poetry and prose that is celebrated by intelligentsia gets satirized in The General Law of Oblivion, where he says: "Though one cannot deny/ its genius, Mr. Proust's prose/ kills me, it loops me over and out." Poems of Lux have endless lessons from history, served to us as humorous anecdotes on one hand, and as parodies of whimsical present on the other. So in the same collection we found an account of a Greek poet (second only to Homer) as well as a poem about Jesus baby teeth on sale!

At times, his poems seem irreverent: like talking about Jesus baby teeth or "the Buddhists quick-change from bright orange/ to camo robes, pointing their howitzers eastward" or where he says "God's expository writing lacks lucidity/ and he or his scribes often write sloppily Yet if you put these lines in perspective, read them in the context of the poem or the argument, these very lines display a respect for humanity and the divine, that wants to help us transcend our limited, orthodox or nonsecular thinking. In other words, if there is a flame or two here or there, it is to light or corner. I will leave you with the exemplary first three lines from the title poem, God Particles:

"God explodes, supernovas, and down upon the whole planet
a tender rain of him falls
on every cow, ladle, leaf, human, ax handle, swing set."

and at the end:

"...and He wanted each of us,
and all 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."

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