In this new collection of short, neat, terse poems, To the Left of Time, veteran Thomas Lux is once again full of wide-eyed but discerning, awed but satirical verse. More or less the style for which Lux has come to be known, the poems ring with the workaday ethic, quotidian observations, and mundane discoveries that echo the book’s title: time’s companion, time’s buddy, time’s left-hand man.
Throughout the book, Lux urges us to stop, to look at these things—these usually being the stranger, though always proximate, unknowing actors and actions of everyday life. There is a dramatic thrust to many of Lux’s poems, an arc from the oddly fashioned (usually comedic) to the quietly profound (usually metaphoric). “I’m always trying to look for the metaphor in something like that, something literal,” he has said.
Lux packs a lot in a poem. His language is tight and crafted, though not necessarily rhythmic or musical in anything but a conversational way. The trajectories of his poems are surprising, often tangential, or uncanny.
Part I proceeds like a parade of animals: cows, horses, sparrows (“Double Barrow Sparrow”, a sort-of inverted bird poem), nightingales. Also a parade of nostalgia: childhood memories, events long passed. Lyric history is one of Lux’s strong suits (see especially “Grade Schools’ Large Windows”). In the opening poem, “Cow Chases Boys”, Lux writes an encounter story, deftly depicting one of those brief moments in life when one world bumps into a vastly different other: two ways of living revealed in the same space. Cow and boy come together and are called home for contrasting reasons—utterly different though together in time.
In “For My Sister”, an oddly moving poem, Lux is at his narrative best, describing whole chunks of life and emotion in just a few lines. Lux frequently chases after connection: with things, with other people, with impossibilities. He is constantly seeking out the strange. In “Glass Eye” Lux describes, with great dexterity and rhythm, a dismembered man (or cyborg, or ghost) being questioned by children:
Which eye is my glass eye? the children always ask.
Which one looks more human? I say.
They say, Which is your rubber hand? They both look real.
You could tell if you touched them, I say.
Did it hurt your ears? asked a girl.
No, I was already legally deaf.
Which lung did they take, a bold one asks.
All of them, I say. Right and left
and the one in the middle.
The poem is conversational but loaded with portent, like a fortuneteller’s words or, indeed, like a poet’s—full of meaning and metaphor. Also a heavy dose of humor, as again in “Nullius In Verba (Take Nobody’s Word For It)”:
I required help with algebra, too.
I didn’t believe an x could equal a y.
I still don’t. In fact, I believe
algebra is a conspiracy,
of what and by whom I can’t say here,
but I have proof.
The second section of the book is a long list of odes, rather like a litany of praises. You’d think Lux’s esthetic would be perfect for an ode—that celebration of small things—but these seem instead to restrict his voice from really singing as it does in the other poems, almost as if the ode form takes the pressure off, allows Lux to be too simple, and in turn takes away our privileged vantage of the aching struggle to find the truth or root at the hearts of things. A few are brilliant, of course, such as “Ode To The Fire Hydrant”, “Ode To Pain In The Absence Of An Obvious Cause Of Pain”, “Ode To The Moment Between Dust And Dust” (a wonderful testament to literature’s greater grasp of psychology than the ‘social science’ itself), and the rhythmic “Ode Elaborating On The Obvious”:
I love to whiff winter’s cilantro snows.
The taste of chokecherry’s bitter breaking on my tongue.
I loved to touch my child’s forehead
for fever and the feeling of finding none.
“Ode To Lichen”, perhaps the ultimate ode, is the section’s last. If odes are to be to normal things, lichen is the normalest: it’s the smallest, most unassuming, pervasive, ancient and everlasting object in the ode catalogue (also a pun-y conundrum: to what to liken lichen?). Lux does it some proper justice:
It’s been determined: it could live in space!
The air alone provides food, rain.
It takes nothing from that on which it lives.
It helps stone turn back to soil
so slowly the stone doesn’t notice,
and it feeds a few creatures
in hard years: reindeer, and the larvae
of my favorite butterfly, the Common Footman.
A truly Luxian poem—the Common Footman, of course!—so small and yet fantastic, and, in its peculiar way, loving. Lux is what you might call a quirky romantic. He likes to talk about beauty and love and souls and spirits and other romantic ideals, at the same time tethering them to the everyday. From “Haystack of Needles”:
That night, in the bathtub, a hundred tiny hay-cuts
on my arms, neck, knees, sang
kiss me again, kiss me—and each one stung.
The third and final section continues along these same lines. “A Man’s Little Heart’s Short Fever Fit” is an exercise in Luxian metaphor. “Frank Stanford At Sixty-Three” is another perfect lyric narrative. And the wonderful “History Island”, the metaphorical tale of a now “defunct resort”:
A whole generation or two came here
in the years between the wars.
It was as if certain things never happened.
The whole island is an underlit room.
You’re in it now, we’re all it in now,
and an eight-foot bucksaw
leans, more than a little bowed, cocked, taut,
against a wall.
I think that last sentence, that final object, cocked and ready to strangely spring, could be the best description of a Thomas Lux book of verse I’ve ever heard. When you’re inside a Lux book—and this newest one is no exception—you’re all in it.