( Part 3 of 3) Gone to Soon – Tribute to Tom Lux – Have You Found It Now – the Unbroken World?

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

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

I love mystery, strangeness, nuttiness, wildness, leaps across chasms, irreverence, all the crazy stuff we love about poetry. We don’t usually love poems because they are well made, or smart, or deep. We love them for their crazy hearts.

Thomas Lux, from The Atlantic, 2004

Crazy hearts. The poems of  American poet Thomas Lux (1946-2017) had those in spades! How’s this for a crazy heart from his poem Tryptych, Middle Panel Burning:

It happened that my uncle liked to take my hand in his/ and with the other seize/ the electric cow fence: a little rural/ humour, don’t get me wrong//no way child abuse. He/ took the the voltage first….

Almost three weeks since he died and the tributes and obituaries keep coming for  Lux. You can read the New York Times obit here.

This post completes my three part tribute series dedicated to him. But for this post I make a joint dedication: to him and a man he mentored, Miles Coon, founder of the Palm Beach Poetry Festival, which just celebrated its 13th festival in January 2017. And its 14th festival in January 2018 will be dedicated to Lux. For Coon’s tribute to Lux click here .

Without Lux, there would not be a Palm Beach Poetry Festival. At age 60, towards the end of a successful business career, Miles Coon took himself back to school part time to learn how to be a poet. That’s where he met Lux at Sarah Lawrence College and where the two men developed a close bond. When Coon, a few years later, dreamed up the idea of a winter poetry festival in Florida, Lux helped him make it happen through his network of poets. Thank you Tom, thank you Miles!

I can attest from my own participation as a student, that Coon’s festival is one of the preeminent festivals of its kind in the U.S. It consistently attracts a stellar line up of poets. And one of the poets whom I met at the festival, Tim Seibles, describes what he feels poetry is, why we need it in the world. His descriptions sum up the poetry of Thomas Lux and why it matters:

I believe poetry can be proof that a dynamic awareness is alive and kicking, a constant reminder to ourselves and to our fellow citizens that being alert, both inwardly and outwardly, rewards each person with more life. Doesn’t a good poem bring that electric sense of things, that edgy vitality that can’t be laughed off or shopped away. I think being fully human demands this, demands poetry…..

“This culture, deranged by both spoken and unspoken imperatives, mocks the complexity of loneliness, our spiritual hunger for dynamic meanings, our thirst for genuine human community, for good magic and good sense. And given the growing heap of human wreckage, why not approach language and its transforming potential with a ravishing hunger, with a ferocity bordering on the psychotic? What the hell happened to the notion of poet as town crier, rabble rouser, court jester, priestess, visionary madman?

That sums Lux up for me! Rabble rouser, court jester, visionary madman (in the best sense)! Seibles also talks about the importance of an unhobbled poetry. A Luxian kind of poetry that wants to be conspicuous, wants to trouble the water and is not decorous and stomps in with bad breath and plaid boots!

Here is poem that fits Seibles definitions! That may wear plaid boots:


This miserable scene demands a groan.
-John Gay

Frankly, I don’t care if the billionaire is getting divorced
and thus boosting the career
of his girlfriend, a “model/spokesperson” with no job
and nothing to promote; nor does my concern
over celebrity X undergoing surgical procedures,
leaked as “primarily cosmetic” if it can be measured
quantitatively, reach the size of space
inside a hollow needle. Regardless,
prayer vigils are being held
around the clock in the hospital lobby.
It’s not that I wish
for a slip of the surgeon’s wrist
but I just flat-simple don’t care
although I understand and try
to empathize: as beauty diminishes
so does bankroll. I am also indifferent
to — to the point of yawns long enough
to swallow the world — a senator’s or, say, singer’s
girlfriend’s or boyfriend’s disclosures
re the singer’s or senator’s sexual behavior — well, unless
the disclosure is explicitly detailed
and for christsake interesting!
–But does this protest too much?
We the people, day-laboring citizens, need to love
those of you larger than us, those whose teeth
are like floodlights against loneliness,
whose great gifts of song, or for joke telling,
or thespianly sublime transformations
take us, for whole moments at a time,
away from ourselves. We need
you and from this point on we promise
to respect your privacy,
diminish our demands on you,
never take pleasure
in your troubles or pain.
And on those cruel days when death has its way
and takes two or even three of you
at once, three of more or less equal fame, we will,
in the obituaries, the newscasts, the front pages,
we will list your departures alphabetically;
your popularity will not, on this day, be tallied
or polled. Because in death, although still not anonymous,
you will be like us: small,
equal, voiceless, and gone.

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

Oh, vintage Lux. How he manages rhetoric and keeps it poetic, keeps it compelling. I enjoy this poem on many levels, how it carries echoes of the politics of today even though it was published in 2004, but especially its ending. It reminds me we all end up in the same place. Dead. But and this is what the poem doesn’t say. Unlike many celebrities, this man, Thomas Lux, will live on in his words. Gone but not gone!

It was thanks to American poet Dorianne Lux, who has also presented at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival, that I read one of Lux’s most celebrated poems. Bring on the Tarantulas!

Tarantulas on the Lifebuoy

For some semitropical reason
when the rains fall
relentlessly they fall

into swimming pools, these otherwise
bright and scary
arachnids. They can swim
a little, but not for long

and they can’t climb the ladder out.
They usually drown—but
if you want their favor,
if you believe there is justice,
a reward for not loving

the death of ugly
and even dangerous (the eel, hog snake,
rats) creatures, if

you believe these things, then
you would leave a lifebuoy
or two in your swimming pool at night.

And in the morning
you would haul ashore
the huddled, hairy survivors

and escort them
back to the bush, and know,
be assured that at least these saved,
as individuals, would not turn up

again someday
in your hat, drawer,
or the tangled underworld

of your socks, and that even—
when your belief in justice
merges with your belief in dreams—
they may tell the others

in a sign language
four times as subtle
and complicated as man’s

that you are good,
that you love them,
that you would save them again.

Thomas Lux, Ibid

Ah, a poem about spiders and more. Human kindness and, oh how, we need it in the world more than ever! I read this poem agian and again and more and more of the metaphor of it comes to the fore! Think of what fear does. Think of refugees in the Mediterranean! Think of people crossing borders…

I end this post with a more recent poem of Lux’s.

Ode to the Unbroken World, Which Is Coming

It must be coming, mustn’t it? Churches
and saloons are filled with decent humans.
A mother wants to feed her daughter,
fathers to buy their children things that break.
People laugh, all over the world, people laugh.
We were born to laugh, and we know how to be sad;
we dislike injustice and cancer,
and are not unaware of our terrible errors.
A man wants to love his wife.
His wife wants him to carry something.
We’re capable of empathy, and intense moments of joy.
Sure, some of us are venal, but not most.
There’s always a punchbowl, somewhere,
in which floats a…
Life’s a bullet, that fast, and the sweeter for it.
It’s the same everywhere: Slovenia, India,
Pakistan, Suriname—people like to pray,
or they don’t,
or they like to fill a blue plastic pool
in the back yard with a hose
and watch their children splash.
Or sit in cafes, or at table with family.
And if a long train of cattle cars passes
along West Ridge
it’s only the cattle from East Ridge going to the abattoir.
The unbroken world is coming,
(it must be coming!), I heard a choir,
there were clouds, there was dust,
I heard it in the streets, I heard it
announced by loudhailers
mounted on trucks.

Thomas Lux, from Poets.Org, 2015

It must be coming, musn’t it? Does the narrator in this poem truly believe in an unbroken world? I don’t know! But I do know that Lux was one of the great chroniclers of our broken world. And in his arch and wry observations he brought his own wholeness to this crazy world. Wherever Thomas Lux dwells now, may it be unbroken! And may he know he has not gone from our minds and hearts.

R.I. P Tom Lux 1946-2017.


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