|Tom Lux: Poetry is a menial task...
New & Selected Poems
by Thomas Lux
Houghton Mifflin Company
Boston New York 1997
By Thomas Lux
Houghton Mifflin Company
Boston New York 2008
Blame it on John Berryman. He wrote a number of Dream Songs in the late 1950s. He called Rilke a jerk in his infamous book. "Women get under things..." wrote the poet from -- I don't know -- I always thought he was from Canada. (He was born in Oklahoma; he looked Canadian -- no -- Austrian -- see below.) "I admit his griefs & music.." wrote Berryman referring to Rilke & inventing the plural for grief. (Berryman later jumped off a bridge into a frozen river -- a frozen river! -- in Minnesota near Canada.) (The last line of his last Dream Song: "All killed themselves.")
When Don Justice made those of us in his Iowa workshop read Berryman's poem I think he hoped we might commit its moves to memory but not necessarily agree with it. Because Don (born in Miami) didn't believe that anyone in his classes could survive in post-1968 apocalyptic America as a 1950s Southern Review poet. He wanted us to see Rilke as if he was a meal. Install a hunger for the rhythm method of it. Black sounds. German. Music on the staff of life. But when Denis Johnson left for Chicago to play electric guitar in the clubs he came right back. I think all of us were doomed to be what we were to be & do what we were going to do. "Poetry privileges music and language..." Mary Karr writes. "And prose privileges information."
I later wrote that Rilke lived in a tower (true) & that he wrote his poems standing up (true) & wore a silk dress he borrowed from his housekeeper: this last item I made up & I'm afraid a friend of mine believed that I was writing something like the truth & now I feel terrible -- worse than Berryman ever did. Because Justice who read everything when he wasn't playing cards knew that Berryman later recanted. A subjective judgment to be sure that Rilke was arguably anything but Austro-German let alone a jerk. Berryman's literary lie had no real basis in fact and was probably written to get burning revenge on an ex-colleague or ex-wife. (Unless -- unless one could find fault with Rilke for abandoning his young wife & daughter for a career-defining period as personal secretary of Auguste Rodin in Paris instead of rinsing diapers & living in genteel artistic poverty in Weimar Germany.) (Rodin had francs.) And of course Justice & even Berryman (dead-drowned by then or stunned to death by ice) in spite of or because of their paternal feelings knew that the young poets in their workshops -- male or female -- the main source of their income as teachers -- had no chance of scoring with their significant others without Rilke the world's greatest love poet. (In the world's greatest New Yorker cartoon a breathless sexy buxom young woman leans over a restaurant table with several buttons on her blouse already undone & tells her latest significant other: "If you don't stop quoting Rilke I'm going to have to take my bra off.") Rilke: an Austrian-German poet (perhaps the last poet who could inspire enough enablers to allow him to live within his poetry) who had to wear a dress in the photographs his mother commissioned of him as a child (this is true I swear -- it's on the cover of a book) & (as Tom Lux imagined him) was a poet who wept every time a leaf fell from a tree.
I met Tom in Iowa in 1970 just before I met Justice & read Berryman. In fact I lived on a pig farm with Tom for a few weeks & those who were I suppose privileged to be there used to stand outside the pens & watch Tom who grew up on a dairy farm in Massachusetts chasing the poor pigs & wonder about our fate. A long lonely year or so later (I missed the landscape & weather of Oregon) I was sitting beside the river on campus in Iowa City & telling Tom about a dream I had in which I was a famous heart surgeon who was called & offered an unlimited fee if he would just show up & operate on whomever was on the table. I (he) said yes of course & was washed gowned & armed with scalpels & when the sterile rubber sheet was drawn back I (he) realized I (he) was going to perform surgery on an ant! (I don't know why but ants have always seemed rather ruthless & heartless to me except in my dreams or in Tom's poems.) (There must be a poem in one of Simic's books about ants polishing the bones of soldiers killed in the war.) Eight little arms as limp as noodles. How do you cut open a carapace? (I ingested everything I could get my hands on in Iowa.) (What dreams I had!) But I also remember driving home to Cedar Rapids after class one afternoon in spring & seeing a pig racing in the ditch beside the road. Free at last! The pig was smiling. No -- the pig was laughing!
I never wrote that ant dream down (I never forgot it either) but Tom did (it's in one of his early books & didn't make the cut into the Selected) & he has put ants into almost every one of his books since then -- since he & I sat next to the river & a fly flew into my mouth & I knew I was leaving even though Tom swore to me Bob Dylan was coming to spend the summer in Iowa City. Tom put in the ants & a lot of other imaginative beings & things that he never had to get from me because they were already inhabiting his own teeming brain.
The human brain is the semi-serious always-present biopic of Tom's books -- much more so than the ants. One of his definitions of it: a thousand fingers. For him it's something that might reach out and caress us. Or scare us with its genius the way Lou Andreas-Salome eventually scared Rilke away with her genius because -- Jesus! -- Rilke wept every time a leaf fell from a tree & she was a tougher genius-being!
In one of several ars poeticas Tom has written (At The Far End Of A Long Wharf) the narrator's deaf cousin bangs out the brains of an eel she fished out of the water on the planks of the wharf. Whamp whamp whamp..."...the splash the eel makes/ when she tosses it in her bucket... the new bait/ pierced by the clean hook... I watch her all afternoon..."
That poem is classic Lux production -- we have audio -- visual -- suspect if not incorrect politics -- & very dark writing because something we must care about -- writing poetry -- something that takes us all afternoon & longer -- is suddenly dying a horrible death. Those are poetry-brains being slammed on the planks. Rhythmic pounding in iambs. And the deaf girl is full of longing. Not remorse -- longing. "She wants me to row/ her out to the deep lanes of fish." (What is poetry? That is poetry.) A poet is an oarsman strapped into a Viking ship on its way to England. A boilermaker in the hull of the Titanic. (Lux on writing: "I rarely write anything in less than fifteen drafts...and twenty-five or thirty or forty is not unusual.") This is writing from the Pals of Death Club -- the hangman's noose left on an empty desk in the EPB along with tumbleweed. ("I find that work awful and agonizing and slow...") "Poetry is a menial task..." the poem concludes & we sigh & agree because it seems like an unpleasant surprise ending we have co-earned with the poet.
But in a later poem with similar possibilities of darkness the darkness has been airbrushed out. Plague Victims Catapulted Over Walls Into Besieged City begins not with the evil behind the motif but an attempt to modernize the situation: "Germ warfare." This should be the blackest of dark sleaziness from barons so twisted with greed or religious fervor they put bloated bodies onto their catapults. But Tom never tells us why. The old Lux would have taken lines to describe what happened when the bodies landed inside the walls. Plague paint. Carpets of slime. The ants carrying molecules of tainted flesh down into the chambers of their kingdoms (not threatened by catapults) thinking it was fruit. But instead we are given medieval lite. Lux names a few names & makes one oblique reference to sausage.
In the new book things are even looser. The lines are all fluid enough -- no scrimping on the thirty-five or forty drafts -- but the only creatures that bite the dust are peacocks & parrots -- swans & crows. In his anti-autobiography (itself a great idea) we don't meet the dipsomaniac -- he just tells us there was one. He praises Proust (sort of.) The Vikings launch their attack from a gravy boat. Hitler's hand-embroidered slippers? Jesus' Baby Teeth? Too informational. (See above.)
Tom -- bring back the ants. The warrior ants. The ants that bit the foot of the researcher carrying Whitman's brain across the floor in the phrenology lab in New Jersey because they wanted it for themselves. I want to know the sound Whitman's huge brain made when it hit the tiles & slid across the floor... Keats Keats Keats... Baudelaire -- Crane -- Proust -- Stevens -- Poe... Jerks. All jerks.