(Part 1 of 3) Gone Too Soon – Tribute to Tom Lux – Renderer of Life – Low and Lower – into Poetry!

American Poet Thomas Lux (1947-2017) Photo Credit: The Paris Review

American Poet Thomas Lux (1946-2017) Photo Credit: The Paris Review

Render, Render

Boil it down: feet, skin, gristle,
bones, vertebrae, heart muscle, boil
it down, skim, and boil
again, dreams, history, add them and boil
again, boil and skim
in closed cauldrons, boil your horse, his hooves,
the runned-over dog you loved, the girl
by the pencil sharpener
who looked at you, looked away,
boil that for hours, render it
down, take more from the top as more settles to the bottom,
the heavier, the denser, throw in ache
and sperm, and a bead
f sweat that slid from your armpit to your waist
as you sat stiff-backed before a test, turn up
the fire, boil and skim, boil
some more, add a fever
and the virus that blinded an eye, now’s the time
to add guilt and fear, throw
logs on the fire, coal, gasoline, throw
two goldfish in the pot (their swim bladders
used for “clearing”), boil and boil, render
it down and distill,
that for which there is no
other use at all, boil it down, down,
then stir it with rosewater, that
which is now one dense, fatty, scented red essence
which you smear on your lips
and go forth
to plant as many kisses upon the world
as the world can bear!

Tom Lux from The Cradle Place, Mariner Books, 2004

Thomas Lux, American poet, beloved professor and author of thirteen full-length collections of poetry and a memoir, died February 5th, aged 70. The world will become a little less amped-up, less funny even in its sadnesses,  more drear.

The wry way Lux celebrated the often over-looked: cows going to slaughter and other creatures (lots of creepy crawlies): dung beetles, Tarantula’s, Kraits (deadly snake), a moose, turtles. I, and many others, will miss his sharp eye that brought them to the page and celebrated their surprising importance!

Master of unexpected vocabulary, of words used unexpectedly, of surreal twists and turns,  Tom Lux took the lens of of ordinary seeing and distorted it to make a world new and full of head-turning lines and metaphors. He knew, as poet Heather McHugh says: how to find the unexpected in the over-known!

Lux’s poem above: I haven’t heard the term render, as in render bones into glue, for ages. And then, the shock, how he takes all the rendering, all that putrescence, and turns the gloppy mess into red lipstick to smack with kisses on things all over the world! How he turns this into a metaphor for poetry for goodness snakes!  He explains this in an  interview in the The Atlantic in 2004:

That poem is a kind of ars poetica. The literal rendering process—the glue factory—boils down all kinds of animal products. The resulting goop is used for many things—food processing, cosmetics, and such. Poetry, the poem is trying to articulate, is a similar process—everything gets boiled down, even (maybe especially) things not usually considered important or useful. Those kisses at the end, forgive me, are poems. What else can the poet do but write as best he or she can and then send them out there in the world?

Oh, how Lux turned events and things not considered important or useful and made them come alive. In Render, how he takes a few of the millions of moments in  a life and , some great, some uncomfortable, and renders them into a gratitude for life, for living!

He has helped me see with his “unusual eyes”.  Oh, the strange facts he he came up with and turned into metaphors of mystery and clarity! Take the krait, for example, deadly venomous snake. Did you know it could decide in a micro second to bite fully-loaded or with blanks? Or that Tarantulas drown in swimming pools?

In this poem expect to be snake bitten one way or another. And be prepared to wonder what metaphor slips and slides inside a snake. Could it be life, could it be God. Oh God!:

Dry Bite

When the krait strikes but does not loose
his venom: dry bite. What makes the snake chose
not to kill you? Not please
not I didn’t mean
to step on you.
He may be fresh out: struck
recently something else. But: if he withholds

his poison, when does he do so and why?
Can he tell you are harmless to him?
He can’t swallow you, so why kill you?
There’s no use asking the krait: he’s deaf.
In that chemical, that split-billioneth
of a second, he decides

and the little valve
of his venom sac
stays shut or opens wide.
Dry, oh dry, dry bite – lucky the day
you begin to wear
the krait’s snake-eyed mark
on your wrist
and you walked down the mountain
into the valley
of that which remains of your life.

Thomas Lux from The Cradle Place, Mariner Books, 2004

The dry bites all of us have been hit with. Near misses. And we continue on. Now for Tom Lux, not a dry bite but the real thing. He is gone.

I am sad about his passing. He was a mainstay at the week-long Palm Beach Poetry Festival held every January for more than ten years. But not this year’s. He had to pull out of the 2027 festival in late 2016. Now we know why.

The Palm Beach Poetry festival, that’s where I met him. And it’s where I noticed that without fail, unlike many instructors,  he would attend the afternoon open mic events to hear his workshop participants and encourage them. He encouraged me a few times at those events with kind remarks on my poems even though I wasn’t one of his students. Those remarks helped me keep working away at this difficult craft.

I also remember a time when poets were sharing favorite poems at the festival and American poet, Tim Seibles was reciting a Patrick Rosal poem. Lux, who had such an ear for great line breaks, rhyme, meter and music in a poem couldn’t contain his pleasure at the wallop a string of spondees made inside the music of Rosal’s poem.  How they slowed the poem down: each sweat-slick bass note hangs.

I will miss his words.

In part two of my three-part tribute to Lux I look beyond the poet to the man who successfully beat the bottle, found his way to sobriety. A man who, as he says in a poem, was called out of waiting list to zero!







Post a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *