(Part 2 of 3) Gone too Soon – Tribute to Tom Lux – Out of the Waiting List to Zero

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

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

      for Thomas Lux

I visit the word world.

In between feeding my friends,

the alert preternaturally unafraid
of Purgatory Cove.

Wright, Franz from The Beforelife, Alfred A. Knopf, 2001

Is it a coincidence I wonder that Franz Wright (1953 – 2015), Pulitzer prize winning poet dedicated a poem to recovering addict Thomas Lux in his book of poems so packed with poems of his addiction and the start of his recovery? I don’t know but Lux too, has written about his dark days of addiction:

Loudmouth Soup

Vodka, whiskey, gin. Scotch, Red wine, cognac,
brandy—are you getting thirsty yet?—ale,
rye. It all tastes good: on the rocks, with a splash,
side of soda, shaken
not stirred, triple,
olives, one of those nutritious little pearl
onions, a double, neat,
with a twist. Drink
it up. Let’s have a drink: dry beer, wet beer,
light, dark and needled beer. Oh parched,
we drank the river
nearly to its bed at times, and were so numb
a boulder on a toe
was pleasant pain, all pain
was pleasant since that’s all there was, pain,
and everything that was deeply felt, deeply,
was not. Bourbon, white and pink wine, aperitif,
cordial (hardly!), cocktail, martini,
highball, digestif, port, grain
punch—are you getting thirsty yet?—line them up!
We’ll have a drink
and talk, we’ll have
a drink
and die, grim-about-it-with-piquancy.
It was a long time on the waiting list
for zero
and I’m happy
for the call out of that line
to other, less predictable,
more joyful
slides to ride on home.

Thomas Lux from Last Call, edited by Sarah Gorham and Jeffrey Skinner, Sarabande Books, 1997

Because of my poetry therapy work in drug and alcohol recovery centers I came across Lux in a poetry anthology on addiction and recovery long before I knew of the rest of his poems.  Loudmouth Soup was one of the first poems I used in the early days of my work ten years ago. This might not seem like a recovery poem but its ending sure is. He gives us the “isness” of alcoholism and then the last lines that celebrate recovery:

It was a long time on the waiting list
for zero
and I’m happy
for the call out of that line
to other, less predictable,
more joyful
slides to ride on home.

What a metaphor for addiction: It was a long time on the waiting list/ for zero. How great to be called out of that line. Not as if by choice but by, somehow, a saving call.

The celebrated American poet and memoirist, Mary Karr, remembers a conversation with Lux in her difficult early days of her recovery. Days when, in desperation, to get off the booze,  she dropped down on her knees twice a day to pray.

Poet Thomas Lux was somebody I saw a lot those days around Cambridge, since our babies were a year apart in age. One day after I’d been doing these perfunctory prayers for a while, I asked Lux—himself off the sauce for some years—if he’d ever prayed. He was barbecuing by a swimming pool for a gaggle of poets (Allen Grossman in a three-piece suit and watch fob was there that day, God love him). The scene comes back to me with Lux poking at meat splayed on the grill while I swirled my naked son around the swimming pool. Did he actually pray? I couldn’t imagine it—Lux, that dismal sucker.

Ever taciturn, Lux told me: I say thanks.

For what?……

Back in Lux’s pool, I honestly couldn’t think of anything to be grateful for. I told him something like I was glad I still had all my limbs. That’s what I mean about how my mind didn’t take in reality before I began to pray. I couldn’t register the privilege of holding my blond and ringleted boy, who chortled and bubbled and splashed on my lap.

It was a clear day, and Lux was standing in his Speedo suit at the barbecue turning sausages and chicken with one of those diabolical-looking forks. Say thanks for the sky, Lux said, say it to the floorboards. This isn’t hard, Mare.

At some point, I also said to him, What kind of god would permit the Holocaust?

To which Lux said, You’re not in the Holocaust.

In other words, what [sic] is the Holocaust my business?

No one ever had an odder guru than the uber-ironic Thomas Lux, but I started following his advice by mouthing rote thank-you’s to the air, and, right off, I discovered something. There was an entire aspect to my life that I had been blind to—the small, good things that came in abundance. A religious friend once told me of his own faith, “I’ve memorized the bad news.” Suddenly, the world view to which I’d clung so desperately as realistic—we die, worms eat us, there is no God—was not so much realistic as the focal expression of my own grief-sodden inwardness. Like Hawthorne’s reverend in “The Minister’s Black Veil,” I could only interpret the world through some form of grief or self-absorbed fear.

Mary Karr from an essay: Facing Altars: Poetry and Prayer in Sinners Welcome, Harper Perrenial, 2006

This idea of simple thanks. For life because and in spite of it all. As Lux says in this poem, this prayer, when he was still drinking:

Poem in Thanks

Lord Whoever, thank you for this air
I’m about to in- and exhale, this hutch
in the woods, the wood for fire,
the light – both lamp and the natural stuff
off leaf-back, fern and wing.
For the piano, the shovel
for ashes, the moth gnawed
blankets, the stone-cold water
stone-cold: thank you.
Thank you, Lord, for coming for
to carry me here – where I’ll gnash
it out, Lord, where I’ll calm
and work, Lord, thank you
for the goddamn birds singing!

Thomas Lux from New and Selected Poems – 1975 – 1995, Mariner Books, 1999

In Part Three of this three-part tribute to Lux I highlight one new and one vintage poem! If you are afraid of Tarantulas feel free to pass!

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