16 January 2014

Child Made of Sand by Thomas Lux

Review by Ann E. Michael

Child Made of Sand
Thomas Lux
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012
Hardback, 65 pages
ISBN 978-0-547-58098-2

from “A Delivery of Dung”:

No piece of art is perfect.
All it has to do is stay around
for two hundred, or five hundred,
or a few thousand
years. It (art) always changing; us,
not so much.

If you are familiar with Thomas Lux, you know his poetic voice—wry, interested in the peculiar, allusive to pop culture as well as to classic literature, autobiographical though a bit evasive. His poems, seldom longer than a page, often manage to seem both chatty and succinct, leaving the reader in a thoughtful but unresolved state. In his best poems, the charms of the language or the curiousness of the topic suspend the pieces until a graceful encounter with the unexpected occurs. Lux’s 2012 collection Child Made of Sand continues this strategy in many poems, so it is not a significant departure from his oeuvre. It is delightful poetry adeptly composed, however, with even more than Lux’s usual emphasis upon the speculative.

The book has four sections, only one of which (“Other Voices”) is subtitled. The poems in “Other Voices” fall into the general category of persona poems, which include lyrical narratives told by a dendochronologist, a Native American girl, and an organization of people who voice their opposition to the moon. In a plainspoken style, these poems move from the everyday to the surreal and mythical, reminding us of how unusual the usual often is. Lux’s poems subtly shift from ho-hum perspective to the moment we fall mute with wonder, for example, at the discovery of a child “born with a small knife in his head” whose mother naturally asks, “Will it hurt my baby? It’s his/twin, the doctor says…” Such normal words, at such a strange development.

The speculative reigns in these pieces: Lux examines death through elegy and guesswork and “graves that rent by the hour” but admits that imagining is as far as the living ever get, no matter how many ways we ask “why?” The question acts as title for a poem on page 32—

the years come to resemble a greasy deck of cards,
why afternoons bleed,
why does my friend die
before I’ve met her in the flesh

While he’s querying the cosmos, which resolutely refuses to answer, and while he’s ranting (a favorite strategy of Lux’s), he turns to the subject of god. It may be that god and death become more common refrains in most poets work as they age, yet Lux enters the mortality conversation with his usual casual style and tongue-in-cheek humor. In poems such as “From Whom All Blessings Flow,” the Protestant God-the-Father gets addressed with acerbic skepticism:

Nobody ever sees Whom around.
Whom gets credit
for what Whom never lifted a pinky
to do, or not do.

In “Every Time Someone Masturbates God Kills a Kitten,” this god is confronted outright with down-home humor despite a vocabulary that includes the word vituperation (not a word my grand-dad would have employed):

How about snakes? Why such vituperation?
Little whips, You made, with such racking poison!
…how about adjusting Your plan
a little, how about a little less hard-ass?

It’s a poem that weaves human compassion into the whole religion argument, humor and poignancy together. The lines above also illustrate Lux’s use of sound. The short i in whips, little, vituperation interspersed with the long and short a sounds tie the colloquial rhythms together. Throughout Child Made of Sand, Lux employs rhyme and alliteration and, in particular, repetition in these poems to achieve a sense of both fun and urgency. All three of the epigraphs that open the book are brief, aphoristic, and repeat a word for emphasis. Return to the poems after a first-read and take note of how many of them use repeated words.

For readers unfamiliar with Lux’s work, I’d recommend his New & Selected Poems from 1997. The poems in Child Made of Sand resonate deeply as further explorations into this author’s imagination, expeditions into the familiar made strange while holding out some small hope of comprehensibility: perhaps we can learn to understand our lives.

Ann E. Michael is a poet, essayist, and educator whose most recent poetry collection is Water-Rites (2012). She lives in eastern PA where she is Writing Coordinator at DeSales University. Her website: www.annemichael.com.