A Reading by Thomas Lux
Mon. Sept. 22, 7:30 p.m.
McBee House, Ashley Hall School for Girls
172 Rutledge Ave.
In his poem "Vaticide," Thomas Lux, who is set to give a reading of his work at Ashley Hall on Monday, metes out the proper punishment for poetic sins.
For poets who overuse autobiography — "every part of it," Lux writes, "over and over again" — metaphorical murder is just. ("Vaticide" is the act of killing a prophet.) Same goes for poets who put their work above their families and poets mired in clichéd imagery — belaboring, for instance, the metaphysical paradox in "flowers in window boxes affixed to windowless crematoria."
Banishment is good for "the poet of pulselessness" or soulless poets. "A kick in the pants" will do for "nature poets who exclude worms" and "a gentle dope-slap" for "effete aesthetes." Not one to leave himself out of a roll call of ridicule, Lux recommends "a slap on the bum for the poet of iron words."
Let's assume the "effete aesthete" stereotype is still around. If so, Lux's new book, God Particles, rife as it is with scenes and sounds lifted from a B-movie action flick, is an awesome corrective to the image of the Shelley-like poet, he of billowing shirt and feathery pen awaiting the condescension of his muse.
"Hitler's Slippers," "The General Law of Oblivion," "Eyes Scooped Out and Replaced by Hot Coals," "Jesus' Baby Teeth," "Deathwatch Beetle," and "Sex After Funerals" — these titles hint that God Particles isn't going to be anything like artfully disguised bits of mawkish memoir.
In fact, God Particles, in which "Vaticide" appears, is replete with iron words — language hardened by hammer and tong, images smoldering with bitterness and irony, a worldview grown misanthropic by the disappointments of human folly. You can almost hear the late George Carlin — echoes of his memorable faux-political campaign slogan, "Fuck hope" — doling a dollop of subliminal acid.
Or so you think.
Like Carlin, Lux is something of a court jester. Much of God Particles feels like a confidence game, a divine sketch comedy, characterized by machismo, bluster, and a subtle, swaggering charm that leads you to believe one thing only to divert your attention away from what's really going on.
But what that is is hard to tell sometimes. A haunting aspect of this brilliant collection is its ambiguity of humor. Is Lux winking or just smiling when he fights?
I can imagine Jason Statham reading God Particles. His characters (in The Transporter, Death Race, etc.) are reluctant tough guys compelled by the world's ugliness to be tough. They are tragic figures, you could say, a sentiment found in the speakers of God Particles. In the title poem, God explodes like a supernova, raining down fragments of Himself. We absorb them through our skin. Why? Doesn't matter. God wanted to give Himself to us, even though we're unworthy: He gave us "a tiny piece of Him, though we are unqualified for even a crumb of a crumb."
Sometimes Lux's tragic view becomes absurdist theater. "The American Duel" mocks the manliness of the Colonial era gentleman's duel. Dispense with the froufrou filigree of ceremony. Just sit knee-to-knee with pistols in hand, and flip a coin. Let the winner shoot the other in the face — or, if a woman is involved, in the heart.
"This is ... how we fight, how we respond to nose-pulling," Lux writes, "unlike the foppish French and the English who wrap their umbrellas so astonishingly tight."
Sometimes tragedy takes the form of the grotesque. In "Toad on a Golf Tee," the speaker, informing us of his target, a "steep barn roof forty yards away," and his strategy, "I'd use a nine iron [because] I needed lift," puts a toad of a golf tee: "The sound ... fired to my face: thwuuuump!"
"It took a week ... before his disarticulated bones slid down the sharp slope and landed in the little valley of stones."
"Disarticulated" is a chilly word. It drains the blood out of an obviously bloody spectacle. The toad wasn't splattered or catapulted or bombed. No, he was disarticulated. Funny stuff. Or is it?
"Oh, to vex me, contraries meet in one," wrote the poet John Donne, whose wisdom Lux invokes. Is humanity unworthy of God's gift? Is launching a toad over a barn funny? Yes, Lux suggests. And no.