March 2008

Elizabeth Bachner

poetry

God Particles by Thomas Lux

Thomas Lux crafts the most wonderful titles, short and long: “Eyes Scooped Out and Replaced by Hot Coals,” “The Harmonic Scalpel,” “The Republic of Anesthesia,” “The General Law of Oblivion,” “Sex After Funerals,” “The Deathwatch Beetle,” “Autobiographophobia,” “God Particles,” “Stink Eye.” His poems themselves are witty, learned, and well-conceived, and they’re best when they keep the dark, ironic power those titles promise. Sometimes, they don’t live up -- “Eyes Scooped Out and Replaced by Hot Coals,” for example, is a clever, tepid little bon mot about what Lux thinks should happen to Americans who fail to read Moby-Dick by the time they reach adulthood. “The General Law of Oblivion” is a serviceable celebration of a beautiful quote from Proust (“It breaks my heart that I am going to forget you”) -- after complaining drolly enough about the French overuse of the semicolon, Lux concludes, “The length and music of that sentence/ is perfect, in English or in French.”

One of the dearest poems in God Particles, “Vaticide,” suggests that “the murder of (metaphorical) poets/ is not a bad idea in some cases,” including the case of the poet “who put his life/ every part of it, over/and over again, in his poems.” Lux loves doling out curses, threats and rewards, and he does it with real conviction and flare. In “Vaticide,” it’s no accident that the tediously personal poet gets stuck with the ultimate punishment -- murder -- while the “poet of iron words” gets a mere “slap on the bum” and the “effete aesthetes” just get “a gentle dope-slap.” Lux himself is at his best when he stops being autobiographophobic and puts his life into his work, and he doesn’t do it often enough. Even at their most passionate (“Certainly my god/ can rip the heart from your god’s chest/ and will, god-willing, with my help”) Lux’s poems somehow lack rawness and nakedness. There is a finished quality to them, and an academic satisfaction in some.

Some of Lux’s older poems, like “A Library of Skulls,” are impossibly sweet, true and lovelorn. In God Particles, the really moving pieces are fewer and farther between. There are a number of toughly-wrought poems about Jesus, and a few ruminations on puttering near the birdfeeder or accidentally dropping trash on a neighbor’s lawn ornament. The greatest poems in the collection have more of Lux’s internal vision in them, and less of his cleverness. “Sleep’s Ambulance,” for example, is a nostalgic, dreamy reverie that will bring any reader back into the world of childhood:

Did someone turn a soothing siren on?
I think I hear a siren. The factory whistle -- Father’s home
for supper before the evening shift? It’s something of a squeaky song.
Happy little mice, I think, eating through a sack of bones.

As I reread the poems in God Particles, I keep comparing Thomas Lux to Anthony Hecht. Hecht was living proof that it’s not impossible for a university poetry teacher to write dangerous, intense work. Of course he was Jew and a WWII veteran, one so traumatized by his experiences that he was hospitalized for a breakdown in the late 1950s, yet much of his most dazzling work isn’t about the awfulness of war at all, but more mundane tragedies. His poem “See Naples and Die,” about the final breakdown of a marriage on an unhappy holiday, has all the heartbreaking endurance of his most famous Holocaust-themed work.
 
In contrast, some of the poems in God Particles read like they’re written by a poet who holds the Bourne Chair at Georgia Tech, and that’s not necessarily a compliment. Of course, the idea that great poetry requires suffering, or world travel, or even dramatic life experiences, is a stale old cliché. But still, something about the work in God Particles feels too safe emotionally, too easy, too workaday, too witty and too learned and too well-conceived. The poetry that fills prestigious journals sometimes feels dead, and Lux is a consummate journal-filling poet. He’s loved by the literary establishment, but would anyone want to risk his or her life to smuggle God Particles across a war-torn border? Maybe for the titles.

God Particles by Thomas Lux
Houghton Mifflin
ISBN: 0618931821
80 Pages