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Gleeful reaper
Lux’s look at mortality
BY JOHN FREEMAN
The Cradle Place
By Thomas Lux. Houghton Mifflin, 74 pages, $22.


Thomas Lux is America’s most unusual miniaturist of despair. In 30 years of publishing poetry, this son of a milkman has traveled to surrealism and back, and in The Cradle Place, he atones for prior indulgences with a collection as loamy and chock-full of bones as Mississippi mud. Here are poems about, among other topics, snakes and ants, scorpions, mice, dung beetles, and maggots. Indeed, there’s a veritable bestiary in this book; reading Lux’s verse, you can almost feel them creep and crawl, awaiting the rot of flesh. We are here for an instant, Lux suggests, and it may just be up to a snake to decide whether we live or die; either way, the maggots await us all.

As always, Lux plants these metaphysical land mines in poems so conversational that you go laughing into the maw. Though he claims recovery from surrealism, The Cradle Place reads like the verse of a man who’s fallen off the weirdness wagon but must work hard to keep things tangible. The result is a book full of images that carry a powerful emotional whiplash. In "The Devil’s Beef Tub," the poet contemplates the banality of evil.

Every day is like this,

is a metaphor or a simile: like opening a can

of alphabet soup

and seeing nothing but X’s, no, look

closer: little noodle

swastikas.

Yes, don’t let the pretty red cover fool you; there’s a morbid cast to this collection that grows woollier the deeper one reads. "Terminal Lake" conjures an ominous body of water that is tainted by the gunk humans have dumped into it. "From above, it’s a huge black coin,/ it’s as if the real lake is drained/and this lake is the drain: gaping, language-/less, suck- — and sinkhole." If that image makes you want to start eating organic, "National Impalement Statistics" will certainly make you more careful around the home. "One out of eight deaths occurring in the home/or on picnics/is impalement-related," drawls Lux, and then proceeds to count the ways we can shove a pole through our bodies.

When not done in by disease or plain old stupidity, this collection reveals, humans will happily resort to violence to put an end to one another’s lives. "Hospitality and Revenge" spins a burlesque tale of what happens when suburbanites adopt the cowboy mentality of Los Angeles freeways. "You invite your neighbor over/for a beer and a piece of pie./He says words inappropriate/about your Xmas bric-a-brac./You shoot him, three times, in the face." Imagine what would have happened if the ornery neighbor had insulted Dirty Harry’s wallpaper.

Even more disturbing than the violence Lux depicts between men is his vision of our relationship with the animal kingdom. "Monkey Butter" evokes the slimy image of using monkey fluids for dinners, pastries, and treats. "Burned Forests and Horses’ Bones" imagines cart-bound travelers on the run from an out-of-control prairie fire. On the safe side of a river, they’ve run out of food and must resort to desperate measures. "At night there is no wood with which to build a cooking fire./Tomorrow we’ll hack up an armoire/and kill and roast the dog./Not one of the children will cry."

It’s appropriate that Lux, who once taught in Boston, now lives and teaches down in Atlanta among the South’s unquiet ghosts. After all, the spirit of Southern Gothic lives in him, and The Cradle Place draws that tendency to the fore, with its bloody carcasses and blooming cancers. But like Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner, Lux enjoys shocking us almost too much. There is a fine line between the evocative and the simply lurid, and part of the pleasure of reading these verses comes from the tension of watching Lux walk it so boldly. When he falls off, however, he delivers a poem that feels arch and a little too proud of its toughness.

In the end, that’s not so bad, since gentility and prettiness have never been a big part of Lux’s métier. With its short lines and occasional lyricism, The Cradle Place pulls a fast one on readers betting that a poet who renounced surrealism might turn to rapture. The natural world, as it appears here, first appears lovely — the opening poem traces a leaf’s descent — but turns out to be dangerous, poisonous, and eventually conquered. In the final poem, the poet imagines boiling a horse down to its juices, "which you smear on your lips/and go forth/to plant as many kisses upon the world/as the world can bear!" Not since Plath has hysteria looked this kissable.


Issue Date: April 9 - 15, 2004
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