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poem is on palm tree

 

Poem in Thanks

by Thomas Lux

 

Lord Whoever, thank you for this air

I’m about to in- and exhale, this hutch

in the woods, the wood for fire,

the light—both lamp and the natural stuff

of leaf-black fern, and wing.

For the piano, the shovel

for ashes, the moth-gnawed

blankets, the stone-cold water

stone-cold:  thank you.

Thank you, Lord, coming for

to carry me here–––where I’ll gnash

it out, Lord, where I’ll calm

and work, Lord, thank you

for the goddamn birds singing!

 

 

Thomas Lux’s “Poem in Thanks” is a good prayer for the self-described “spiritual but not religious,” all those people who call the woods their church and the birds their choir. Given modern distaste for high-holy formality and the corresponding love of irreverence, Lux has a big audience.

 

The speaker in the poem is on a retreat of sorts, trying to get work done or work things out. He’s holed up in the woods in an old cabin with an old blanket, a fire pit, and water from the creek. In other words, his basic needs are met. He has air to breathe, water, shelter, light, warmth and presumably food. For these he offers thanks, beginning and ending his prayer in less-than-ecclesiastical language:

 

Lord Whoever. . .

thank you

for the goddamn birds singing!

 

The poem has a wonderful slapdash spontaneous quality, as if the cranky poet were drawn into prayers of gratitude against his will.

 

Funny thing though. Look past the cheeky irreverence and improvisations, and there’s actually theology and structure (call it formality).

 

I was surprised to count the lines—fourteen—and realize Lux wrote his prayer as a sonnet.

 

And then surprised again to realize “Poem of Thanks” is less spoken prayer than a hymn. It’s no accident that

 

Thank you, Lord, coming for

to carry me here

 

echoes the old spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”:

 

Swing low, sweet chariot

Coming for to carry me home

 

The last four lines, with the thrice-repeated, direct-address “Lord,” sound hymnal as well.

 

As for the theology, look no further than the first line, “thank you.” Gratitude is foundational to all religions, and Lux has trained his eye to see the graces in every part of life, the good and the bad—in the things we have that we need (Give us this day our daily bread); in those things we have that we need but aren’t perfect (the moth-gnawed blankets); in the things that are bonuses, a few levels-up on a Maslow scale (the ability to make music and art whether it be on the piano or on the page); and in those things that irritate and distract us from our work (the goddamn birds).

 

That Lux is a true believer in giving thanks for all things at all times is illustrated by this anecdote from poet, memoirist and novelist Mary Karr:

Poet Thomas Lux was somebody I saw a lot those days around Cambridge, since our babies were a year apart in age. One day after I’d been doing these perfunctory prayers for a while, I asked Lux—himself off the sauce for some years—if he’d ever prayed. He was barbecuing by a swimming pool for a gaggle of poets (Allen Grossman in a three-piece suit and watch fob was there that day, God love him). The scene comes back to me with Lux poking at meat splayed on the grill while I swirled my naked son around the swimming pool. Did he actually pray? I couldn’t imagine it—Lux, that dismal sucker.

 

Ever taciturn, Lux told me: I say thanks.

 

For what? I wanted to know.

 

. . . Back in Lux’s pool, I honestly couldn’t think of anything to be grateful for. I told him something like I was glad I still had all my limbs. That’s what I mean about how my mind didn’t take in reality before I began to pray. I couldn’t register the privilege of holding my blond and ringleted boy, who chortled and bubbled and splashed on my lap.

 

It was a clear day, and Lux was standing in his Speedo suit at the barbecue turning sausages and chicken with one of those diabolical-looking forks. Say thanks for the sky, Lux said, say it to the floorboards. This isn’t hard, Mare.

 

At some point, I also said to him, What kind of god would permit the Holocaust?

 

To which Lux said, You’re not in the Holocaust.

 

In other words, what is the Holocaust my business?

 

No one ever had an odder guru than the uber-ironic Thomas Lux, but I started following his advice by mouthing rote thank-you’s to the air, and, right off, I discovered something.

 

(You can read her complete essay here.)

 

I taped “Poem in Thanks” to a palm tree next to Hanalei’s Waioli Mission Church, established 1834.

 

I’ll re-post Lux’s biography from a past post.

Thomas Lux was born in 1946 in Massachusetts. He was the only child of parents who both held jobs that no longer exist—his mother was a telephone operator and his father was a milkman. His father worked seventeen years with hardly a day off until his son was old enough to take over the route for a week to give him time off. Neither parent graduated from high school, but Lux, a star athlete in high school, went on to graduate from Emerson College and earn his MFA from University of Iowa.

 

Lux was the Poet in Residence at Emerson College and taught at many universities, including Sarah Lawrence, Iowa, and Michigan. He won a Guggenheim Fellowship and three National Endowment for the Arts grants, among other awards.

 

He directed the poetry program at Georgia Tech. He was married three times, had one daughter, and died in 2017 of lung cancer.

 

 

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poem is on cinderblock wall beneath Psychic sign

poem is on cinderblock wall beneath Psychic sign

 

Your baby grows a tooth, then two,
and four, and five, then she wants some meat
directly from the bone. It’s all

 

over: she’ll learn some words, she’ll fall
in love with cretins, dolts, a sweet
talker on his way to jail. And you,

 

your wife, get old, flyblown, and rue
nothing. You did, you loved, your feet
are sore. It’s dusk. Your daughter’s tall.

 

IMG_2709

 

Poets have always found seasonal change useful to show the cycle of life and the fleeting nature of time. Falling leaves and acorns, Margaret are you grieving, The Last Leaf and all that. But poet Thomas Lux shows that teeth can serve as markers of time as well. After all, teeth sprout and shed. New ones replace the old. Baby teeth are even called deciduous teeth, a lovely term once common in scientific circles.

 

Screen Shot 2015-06-02 at 2.18.46 PMThe life cycle of teeth, however, is slightly-to-much more disturbing than that of an oak tree. The arrival of the first tooth may be a sweet moment for parents, but once baby uses that dear little tooth while breastfeeding, it’s all downhill. Big teeth come in, too big for the face, the beginning of the end of cuteness. Then come bills for cavities and braces, wisdom-teeth removal, root canals, bridges, capping if there’s an accident, whitening if there’s money. Teeth yellow, rot, and lengthen as we grow old, and when we die, teeth—the hardest substance in the body—outlast every other part of us, including our bones.

 

Lux’s poem follows a similar path from sweetness to darker territory, beginning with the title. Was there ever a a title more adorable than “A Little Tooth”? The rhyme scheme, too, is as charming as a rhyme scheme can be. I don’t know if there’s a name for it, but the pattern reverses and rights itself (A, B, C, and then C, B, A, and back to A, B, C), skipping along, moving the poem through time at a clip. The poem’s structure, clever and compact, tempers its sinister side with lightness. The diction does the same.

 

Originally I was going to leave “A Little Tooth” in some graduation-related site, but one day I drove by a psychic storefront and realized the poem’s narrator sounds very like someone who would work there. Besides, my original plan wasn’t very nice—these predictions are too dark for parents celebrating a milestone. Here is not the psychic who announces, “You will be a star among stars” or even, “You will meet a tall dark stranger.” This one says, “It’s all/over.”

 

Screen Shot 2015-06-02 at 2.42.46 PMThe narrator’s dire predictions remind me of the evil fairy in Grimm’s “Sleeping Beauty.” Furious at not being invited to Sleeping Beauty’s christening, she predicts that the baby will prick her finger on her fifteenth birthday and die. Like Grimm’s tale, the predictions in Lux’s poem hinge around the child’s burgeoning sexuality. The baby tooth marks the beginning of her carnal desires (meat/directly from the bone) and her eventual attraction to unsavory types (in her parents’ eyes): cretins and dolts.

 

Fortunately, parents’ lives are separate from their children’s, or can be. The father will find himself in the Land of No Regrets. His won’t be an easy life—there’ll be hard work and experiences that leave him and his wife worn down, flyblown, as Lux puts it—but it seems a happy one, all things considered. The return to present tense from the future tense of the middle stanza lends a settled air to all the anxious ruminations over a baby tooth.

 

Screen Shot 2015-06-02 at 2.17.04 PMThomas Lux was born in 1946 in Massachusetts. He was the only child of parents who both held jobs that no longer exist–his mother was a telephone operator and his father was a milkman. His father worked seventeen years with hardly a day off until his son was old enough to take over the route for a week to give him time off. Neither parent graduated from high school, but Lux, a star athlete in high school, went on to graduate from Emerson College and earn his MFA from University of Iowa.

 

Lux was the Poet in Residence at Emerson College and taught at many universities, including Sarah Lawrence, Iowa, and Michigan. He’s won a Guggenheim Fellowship and three National Endowment for the Arts grants, among other awards.

 

He lives in Atlanta where he directs the poetry program at Georgia Tech. I know he has a daughter, but I can’t find out much more about his personal life, beyond this wonderful anecdote from the amazing Mary Karr (taken from her 2005 essay in Poetry about getting sober and converting to Catholicism):

 

Poet Thomas Lux was somebody I saw a lot those days around Cambridge, since our babies were a year apart in age. One day after I’d been doing these perfunctory prayers for a while, I asked Lux—himself off the sauce for some years—if he’d ever prayed. He was barbecuing by a swimming pool for a gaggle of poets (Allen Grossman in a three-piece suit and watch fob was there that day, God love him). The scene comes back to me with Lux poking at meat splayed on the grill while I swirled my naked son around the swimming pool. Did he actually pray? I couldn’t imagine it—Lux, that dismal sucker.

 

Ever taciturn, Lux told me: I say thanks.

 

For what? I wanted to know.

 

. . . Back in Lux’s pool, I honestly couldn’t think of anything to be grateful for. I told him something like I was glad I still had all my limbs. That’s what I mean about how my mind didn’t take in reality before I began to pray. I couldn’t register the privilege of holding my blond and ringleted boy, who chortled and bubbled and splashed on my lap.

 

It was a clear day, and Lux was standing in his Speedo suit at the barbecue turning sausages and chicken with one of those diabolical-looking forks. Say thanks for the sky, Lux said, say it to the floorboards. This isn’t hard, Mare.

 

At some point, I also said to him, What kind of god would permit the Holocaust?

 

To which Lux said, You’re not in the Holocaust.

 

In other words, what is the Holocaust my business?

 

No one ever had an odder guru than the uber-ironic Thomas Lux, but I started following his advice by mouthing rote thank-you’s to the air, and, right off, I discovered something.

 

You can read her complete essay here.

 

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