Thomas Lux’s syntax

Lux, Thomas

I first heard Thomas Lux’s poems before I read them. In the autumn of 2000 I was sent a tape of his first UK reading at Aldeburgh. The spiky, B-side Yang to Billy Collins’s mellifluous, A-side Ying, it is one of my favourite poetry recordings ever, easily up there with my loved-to-pieces car cassettes of McMillan, Hughes and Heaney.

By turns raging, ironic and tender, every poem he read seemed to exist in, and create, its own force field of association, drawing on memory, history, arcane fact and observation, not only of matter but of ideas. There were poems on Walt Whitman’s brain (‘Walt Whitman’s Brain Dropped on Laboratory Floor’), John Keats’s final letter (‘‘Mr John Keats Five Feet Tall’ Sails Away’), the insides of a fridge (‘Refrigerator,1957’), roadside graffiti (‘“I Love You Sweatheart”’) and an ars poetica to silence all the rest (‘An Horatian Notion’).

There seemed to me a kind of ferocious intelligence at work in every line; the voice cradling them never once lost control of the precise meanings, and layers of meanings, which were open to it at any given point. I set about getting my hands on everything by Lux that I could, which at that point in the UK was merely (merely!) his New and Selected Poems: 1975-1995 (Mariner Books, 1999), soon followed by The Street of Clocks (Arc, 2001).

What drew me in, and still does today, is the mixture in Lux’s poems of what Seamus Heaney, talking about Norman MacCaig, called ‘strictness and susceptibility’. The occasionally didactic tone of some of the poems’ utterances (‘Give me, please, a break!’: ‘An Horatian Notion’) is offset by an absolute suppleness. Thus, a Lux poem never loses control, neither of its (often grim) subject matter, nor the way the syntax drives, suggests, embellishes, qualifies, interrupts, and, finally, controls (that word again) the worlds it creates. My theory is that he achieves this with an utter command of syntax. Take this short poem, for example, about one of history’s most infamous, and therefore impossible to write about, monsters:

Hitler’s Slippers

 

were hand embroidered, first with a round, red

rising sun, upon which, centered,

was sewn the symbol – who would bow

for long to such a crippled

wheel? – by which his reign is known.

Hitler’s slippers were a gift

(someone else opened the package for him) from a mother,

grandmother, who bent over them for months.

She knew no other way to serve him, therefore, stitch

by stitch she adorned his slippers,

two-thirds of the Axis

represented (ciao Italy already)

to please the leader’s eyes when he slung

his legs out of bed in the bunker

to begin another day with dry toast,

milk, and one egg, poached.

The poem is three sentences long. Each one begins with a main clause which are models of simplicity: ‘Hitler’s Slippers// were hand embroidered’; ‘Hitler’s slippers were a gift’; ‘She knew no other way to serve him’. A child could read them. The poetry, the horror and the humanity are intertwined in the piled-up clauses which follow, as though watching a photograph emerge into focus from the liquid depths in a darkroom:

Hitler’s Slippers

 

were hand embroidered, first with a round, red

rising sun, upon which, centered,

was sewn the symbol – who would bow

for long to such a crippled

wheel? – by which his reign is known.

 

The end of the poem is particularly devastating. The modifying adjective ‘poached’, placed on its own at the end of the final sentence, draws attention to itself. It would have lost all of its power, and indeed would have risked inadvertent comedy had the sentence run: ‘to begin another day with dry toast,/ milk, and one poached egg’. Placed where it is, however, to chime with ‘toast’, it achieves extraordinary power, the softness of the egg contrasting with the dryness of its companion ‘toast’, itself a figurative/idiomatic stroke of supreme deftness, associating with the idea of arriving at an untimely end. ‘Poached’ reinforces the idea, but would carry none of its force were it not accurate.

 

We are talking about timing here. Not in the Eddie Izzard/Eric Morecambe sense, but in the grander, tragic sense of knowing when to let rip and when to keep it simple. The extract below is from the monumental love poem ‘The Corner of Paris and Porter’. It comprises just two sentences, the first of which is, in every sense, complex, but begins with the stand alone clause ‘We walked over a bridge’:

 

We walked over a bridge

(the train tracks beneath were thick with weeds)

and there it was: a neighbourhood – houses,

yards, shrubs, we were talking and talking,

I don’t know how many miles, lost

in each the other,

and though we did not know where we were,

we knew where we were going: the corner

of Paris and Porter, remember, the day was blue

and clear, I recall the exact path of an ant,

the mica glinting in the kerbstone, a curtain

parting momentarily at your laugh.

I could have drowned in your hair.

He had me at the train tracks ‘thick with weeds’ but ‘I could have drowned in your hair’ takes my head off. I love it on its own, but arriving as it does after the multi-claused sentence which precedes it, a veritable cinema of images describing the path of the lovers through the cityscape, it, too, speaks of and to a longing of immense rawness. It’s as though the speaker is saying ‘You’d think the action was here, well, actually, it was here, on the inside, all along.’ By the time we hear ‘hair’, of course, we have had the chime and half-chimes of ‘where’, ‘corner’, ‘Porter’, ‘remember’, ‘clear’ and ‘mica’. We are, therefore, set up to expect it, but it still seems and sounds surprising.

Lux cares about poetry and he cares about the sentences where it is housed. Here is a final extract which exemplifies this, from one of my favourite of his poems ‘‘Mr John Keats Five Feet Tall’ Sails Away’, about his famous, final journey:

he does not write again to Fanny Brawne,

whom he loves,

though he does write about

her to a friend

the famous sentence: ‘Oh God! God! God!’ (in whom

he had no faith) ‘Every thing

I have in my trunk

reminds me of her

and goes through me like a spear.’

And the better but less quoted

next sentence: ‘The silk

lining she put in my travelling cap scalds

my head.’ The verb choice ‘scalds’

perfect here (literally he had the fever,

figuratively…), the tactility

fresher, the melodrama cut

by an almost comic hyperbole. It is

more Keats than Keats,

who died 172 years, 8 months, 2 weeks, and 4 days

ago – this tiny man

John Keats,

who wrote some poems

without which,

inch by inch – in broken

barn light,

in classrooms (even there!),

under the lamp where what you read

teaches you what you love – without which

we would each,

inch by hammered inch,

we would each

be diminished.

Here is that familiar trope, one poet writing to and for another poet. Instead of reifying his hero he looks at one of his letters, and finds himself praising those often overlooked minutiae, syntax and word choice:

And the better but less quoted

next sentence: ‘The silk

lining she put in my travelling cap scalds

my head.’ The verb choice ‘scalds’

perfect here (literally he had the fever,

figuratively…), the tactility

fresher, the melodrama cut

by an almost comic hyperbole. It is

more Keats than Keats

To English ears this may sound professorial, beautifully and limpidly wrought though it is. I find it refreshing. Look how light it is, funny, even. Prac Crit, not just in a poem, but actual poetry itself! Lux’s moral and wider pedagogical point is meta: the-poem-about-poetry-that-is-also-a-poem-about-teaching-the-poem-about-poetry. I have not yet attended one of Lux’s seminars, but listening to my tape of him in my car I can say that I have.

None of this would matter, or count for much, without the lines that follow it, where Keats’s poems are placed in the foreground:

without which,

inch by inch – in broken

barn light,

in classrooms (even there!),

under the lamp where what you read

teaches you what you love – without which

we would each,

inch by hammered inch,

we would each

be diminished.

Read it aloud. And then again. Then try this: say: ‘without which’, ‘inch by inch’, ‘without which’, ‘teaches’, ‘inch by hammered inch’, ‘each be diminished’. It’s hard, but complete and compelling at the same time, mirroring the hesitant steps towards articulating the grief that pulses in each syllable. Secreted among the clotted frenzy is that little word ‘love’. It appears in a line which makes a similar point in ‘An Horatian Notion’: ‘you love the thing because someone else loved it/ enough to make you love it’ (even in a classroom!) Creativity theory has never been summed up so gorgeously. Lux loves poetry, and the syntax which encases it, because Keats loved it first. If that is not poetry, what is?

Thomas Lux, Selected Poems (Bloodaxe, 2014)

Thomas Lux appears at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival on Sunday 9 November at 3.30pm in the Britten Studio

9 comments

  1. john foggin

    Tour de force piece for a Sunday morning. Two things to look forward to on a Sunday. For quite different reasons but one (which is a passion to share a passion, passionately) I look forward to yours and Kimm Moore’s posts. She brings me new poets. Yours bring me new ways of reading.

    Like

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