Celebrations and Angsts: Review by Jane Routh
‘Selected Poems’ by Thomas Lux and ‘Sabotage’ by Priscila Uppal
Review by Jane Routh
I’m no great lover of Selecteds: give me a slim collection any day so I can sense where the poet’s focus has been these past few years, and how she’s placed her poems in relation to each other to build a flow through the book. That whole-greater-than-the-sum-of is ignored by a Selected.
Neil Astley at Bloodaxe doesn’t think like this at all: he uses Selecteds to make the work of poets well-known in their own countries available to UK readers, so here am I enjoying one of his most recent offerings, an American Selected Poems drawing on eight of Thomas Lux’s books over the last thirty years. Mind you, if any poet’s work is going to re-surface unscathed from selective cut-and-paste, it will be Thomas Lux’s: the poems are all stand-alone pieces and the range of their subject matter is astonishing. Maybe to be expected from a poet who completes his staff profile at Georgia Tech under ‘Additional Keywords’ with ‘Insatiable curiosity about many things’. Take these for a few of his titles: ‘Commercial Leech Farming Today’, ‘Nietzsche Throws His Arms Around the Neck of a Dray Horse’, ‘Unlike, For Example, The Sound of a Riptooth Saw’.
So we have those leeches ‘…used to reduce / the blood in tissues / after plastic surgery…’; we have a monkey forcibly speeded across a river by a couple of shots, to avoid a snake and a crocodile in ‘To Help the Monkey Cross the River’; we have ‘dumb ants’ and ‘smart ants’ taking different approaches to a ‘Lump of Sugar on an Anthill’ – Thomas Lux’s insatiable curiosity seems to have him reading all manner of articles and research papers which fuel his poetry. There are more than a few creatures but let’s stick with those leeches for a while. The poem runs through leech farming in history, ‘…driving an elderly horse / into a leech pond, letting him die / by exsanguination’ before detailing the ‘temp control, tanks aerator / pumps…’ used today to produce leeches with
their exact chemistry, hirudin,
a blood thinner in their saliva,
also an anaesthesia
and dilators for the wound area.
I can imagine Thomas Lux in a waiting room, passing the time by flicking through volume XXIV of Advances in Medical Technology and having an aha! moment, wanting to use the exsanguination word: any subject at all can be grist to the Luxmill, which grinds it into a poem wondering what happens to leeches when their work on plastic surgery is done, and reflecting on going ‘…backwards / to ignorance / to come forward to vanity…’. ‘I like the story’, he concludes, ‘because it’s true’.
In the three earlier books extracted for this Selected Poems, Thomas Lux sometimes uses stanzas, but from 1977 onwards, he appears to have abandoned them, his poems running down the page in an unbroken conversational flow of short and longer lines, their language seeming fast and casual. I say ‘seeming’ because of course it’s not. In an interview in The Cortland Review, asked how much he works on his poems, he replies: ‘I rarely write anything in less than fifteen drafts, and twenty-five or thirty or forty is not unusual, over a period of weeks or months.’ His is plain language too, without rhetorical devices. But he has his own ways of keeping his reader on her toes, again and again interrupting himself with asides and parentheses, and not always positioned where you’d expect. From a 1990 collection, ‘Floating Baby Paintings’ gives us
ubiquitous, usually just hovering
above and/or back a bit
from the central tableau (we can see them,
but can the characters in the picture?) rosy fellows
‘Pencil Box Shaped Like a Gun’, a decade later, splits a noun and adjective with its aside: ‘the scarred (your Uncle Larry’s name dug deep) desk’. ‘Rather’ is a poem built entirely from suspending the flow: ‘Rather’, it begins, ‘strapped face to face with a corpse, rather an asp / forced down my throat…’ and on through a whole catalogue of horrors, to the end of the poem before you reach the crux of the last few lines, ‘than this…’
There’s too much edge in them to call Thomas Lux’s poems ‘humorous’, though they do make you smile, before (often) wiping the smile from your face. He refers to himself as ‘a recovering Surrealist’ and Selected Poems doesn’t draw on that early work. I’ve not tracked down his neo-surrealist poems, yet although he says
Surrealism felt like a dead end to me, and even though I still appreciate a lot of the
wackiness and the imagination of Surrealist poetry, I’m not very interested in it
anymore. It seems too arbitrary, and again, kind of lazy. It doesn’t pay enough
attention to the musical elements of poetry
Surrealism has still left it’s mark in this Selected Poems: he’s lost none of that ‘wackiness and imagination’ at all.
I think the book may have been scanned from the several collections it covers, and there are a few places where the process has hiccupped: replacing em dashes with half-em dashes with some spaces missing; ‘bony comers of his eye sockets’ – should be ‘corners’, that sort of thing. It shouldn’t happen in Sabotage by Priscila Uppal as this is a new collection, published simultaneously by Bloodaxe and Mansfield Press in Canada. (It follows Bloodaxe’s 2010 selected, Successful Tragedies, which included work from her Griffin Prize shortlisted Ontological Necessities.) Hers is a louder, less cadenced, voice than Thomas Lux’s – as it has to be, ‘exploring private and public acts of destruction, disruption and vandalism in the 21st century’ as the blurb has it.
Priscila Uppal has arranged her poems into six section: ‘Accusations’, ‘Discussions’, ‘Adaptations’, ‘Riddles’, ‘Arguments’ and ‘Defences’ though I’m not sure whether I’d be able to place them in the right section from reading the poems (but that can often be the case with sections.) No, the ‘Riddles’ are distinctive: brief prose poem definitions which have two answers – a contemporary one, and an ‘Old answer’, which play off each other nicely.
Among poems couched as personal destruction, a heart is thrown overboard in ‘High Tide’, ‘as I listened / attentively for its last petty bubbles’ but washes up ‘bruised and soggy as always’; ‘I’m addicted to rehab’, proclaims the voice of ‘Rehab with Dr Drew’; ‘I am an obese woman / trapped in a slim woman’s body’ is the opener of ‘The Biggest Loser’. ‘Inside Out’ examines the consequences of ‘our bodies flipped inside out’:
And we pick each other’s brains
with ease and delight. Yesterday
I learned Serbian in seconds.
Social relations also crack under strain, both personal ones in ‘Who Will Bring You Breakfast When I’m Gone?’ and virtual ones in ‘The Dead have Sabotaged my Facebook Page’:
…I am now five hundred
years old, single and looking for that special someone
to ‘love me two times’. Apparently, I am allergic
to green apples and can see through polyester.
Who knew the dead have a sense of humour?
Poems like this or ‘I Sold my Future Life on eBay’ and ‘The Professor of Nothing’ work by pursuing an extraordinary proposition through a pageful of possibilities. Another, ‘Class Action Suit’, is a poem which is charting wider culture cracking under strain. We’re asked to join a class action
…suing the fine arts for centuries
of criminal negligence resulting in countless occurrences
of inoperable emotional suffering.
Though elsewhere, Priscila Uppal rises ‘In Defense of the Canon’, hers being Fielding, Sydney, Donne, Stein and Calvino, and sings their praises in ‘Books Do Hold me at Night’, for
Books dressed me during puberty.
Held their own at university.
Knew before I did that he and he and she were not the one.
Stood quietly aside while my babies were born.
Sometimes beat me senseless.
If you stop puzzling about what these poems contribute to their sections or what the sections in turn contribute to the argument of the collection, and forget expectations raised by the back cover blurbs about groundbreaking political writing, and read it as contemporary and pacey writing with a measure of wit wrestling with some of the dilemmas of modern life where handbags are ‘Essential’, it’s much more pleasurable:
My retail friends inform me
the handbag has saved the over thirty-five
Several interviews with Thomas Lux are available online. Quotations above are from: http://www.cortlandreview.com/issue/8/lux8i.htm