Leave the Light to Burn: Thomas Lux’s To the Left of Time
reviewed by RODGER LeGRAND

Mariner Books, 2016

Thomas Lux’s To The Left of Time is crafted with the mastery and control that we can expect from one of America’s finest poets. This collection is filled with carefully constructed poems that are alive with sound and language and meaning. They are everything a fan of Lux’s work would hope for—his sense of humor, voice, pacing interlaced with gorgeous, sometimes painful lines infused with lyrical insight that slash through expectation. If it’s possible that you don’t know Lux’s work, you should get acquainted. Start here with To The Left of Time and then work your way back through over forty years of earned, worked and reworked poetry collections that will each teach you something about the way we live and love. This collection, perhaps more than any of Lux’s earlier work, chooses love and life in the face of the inevitable finality of living. In To the Left of Time, Lux sings and celebrates the details of daily lives, of memories, of observations. The book itself sings. The poems, each on their own, sing—with exuberance for being alive. 

To The Left of Time is a triptych. Panel one is a series of seemingly autobiographical poems. The middle panel, in typical triptych fashion, is burning, as Lux would say. It is a series of odes that play with the conventions of the form with poems like “Ode to the Fire Hydrant” and “Ode to the Electric Fish that Only Eat the Tails of Other Electric Fish”. The third panel is a turn toward the imaginative playfulness that will be immediately recognizable as Lux in voice, pacing, playfulness, and subject. 

The first section opens with a poem about growing up in solitude as it focuses on a child who learns something about aging, about the elderly, by playing a game of throwing dirtballs at an old cow. 

Cow Chases Boys

What we were thinking 
was bombing the cows with dirtballs 
from the top of the sandbank, 
at the bottom of which ran a cave-cold 
brook, spring-born. 
We knew the cows would pass below 
to drink, and we’d pried our clumps of dirt 
from a crumbling ledge. Here, 
August lasted a million years. 
There was no we, I can tell you that now. 
I did it alone. At one cow 
I knew was old and cloudy-eyed, 
I threw the dirtballs as if it were a sport 
at which I was skilled. 
Boom, a puff of dust off her hip, boom, boom: drilled 
her ribs, and neck, and one more 
too close to where she made her milk. 
She swung around and chased me up an apple tree. 
Her rage surprised me, and her alacrity. 
She looked up. I looked down at her. 
As such with many things, I did this alone. 
We both knew we’d soon be called home.

This poem, and collection, opens with a speaker who needs to work his way toward the truth. The title uses the plural “boys” and the speaker owns up at line ten to being singular. It’s easy to see these poems as autobiographical, which is how I’m reading them. However, I have not asked Lux yet to know for certain. I plan to move forward by thinking about the poems in Part I as being loosely autobiographical, where the core of the poems in section one come from the poet’s memories and are then modified and re-imagined into the shape of the poems they’ve now become.

And inside of that shape we find wonderful play with sounds—“cow” and “cave-cold”, “brook” and “spring-born”, “alacrity” and “apple”—resulting in the final, definitive end rhyme of “alone” and “home”. The poem is playful as we see the dichotomy play out—the lonely young boy doing the stupid things kids often do juxtaposed with the lonely old cow. They mirror each other, reflect in each the other time passing; and as suggested in the end, we will all be called home at some point. 

In this next poem we get another glimpse at time passing. The father in this poem is an antihero who finds his life-defining work as a milk truck driver. The heart of the poem, though, is in the speaker’s observations of his father as he would “blow a song of air”. This poem could have been reframed to fit into the section on Odes, since it is as much a love poem, love for a father, as any in this collection. 

My Father Whistled

only when he was nervous 
about fixing something, anything. 
It was an aptitude he lacked. 
He worked as a weaver 
in a silk mill, then as a chauffeur, 
and then he fell 
into his life’s work, at which he excelled: 
he drove a truck filled 
with clinking milk bottles, 
and deposited them on doorsteps, 
front and back, and some even in the fridge. 
I called it whistling, but there was little or no 
sound: he’d make the whistle-lips 
and blow a song of air, of breath, 
hitting the muffled higher notes 
when the nut did not fit the bolt, 
when a belt needed an extra hole… 
He put the snow chains on himself. 
He’d usually get it done. 
He never asked for help, 
and was given none.

The pacing of each line moves us from one image to the next as the speaker weaves a delicate narrative of the father in the manner of the father weaving with delicate silk. And we can feel the fall—into the anticlimactic profession and can picture the milkman finding (or losing) himself in his work. And, much like the boy and the cow in Cow Chases Boys, the poem that teaches us how to read the collection, the father is alone as he works delivering milk, adding holes to belts in the lean times…. Even his whistle is alone, without sound.

The passage of time in My Father Whistled is illustrated in the search for a life project, and we see how that time is spent—bent to the task of doing the work that needs to be done. It shows us a life without fanfare, without drama. It’s as though the speaker in the poem learned from watching his father that how we live is determined by how we work. 

And in other poems in this first section of To the Left of Time we fined countless breathtaking lines. For instance, look at several lines from “Grade School’s Large Windows”: 

In the large second-floor corner room
of my fourth-grade class the windows are open.
Snow in fat, well-fed flakes
floats in. They and the chalk motes meet.

The image here of the snow meeting chalk motes is striking, the cold outside world, in the context of the poem, becomes safer than the world inside the classroom. And these four lines illustrate Lux’s mastery of crafting beautiful lines infused with sounds and rhythm. 

There are other lines throughout the first section of To the Left of Time that reveal Lux’s humor, as when he writes, “I didn’t believe an X could equal a Y. I still don’t. In fact, I believe algebra is a conspiracy”, in “Nullius in Verba (Take Nobody’s Word for It)”. 

The second section of the book consists of a collection of odes. Nowhere else in all of Lux’s extensive body of work do we see such a clear nod to one of his favorite poets of influence, the Romantic poet, John Keats. Odes are lyric poems that speak to particular subjects. They give the poet a space to address, sometimes with reverence and a great deal of seriousness, a subject, person, or object. In this way Lux has been writing versions of odes since he picked up his first pen, since so many of his poems are lyrical and examine and often celebrate a specific subject. 

Consider the first ode in the collection, “Ode to the Joyful Ones”:

Ode to the Joyful Ones
Shield your joyful ones.
—from an Anglican Prayer 

That they walk, even stumble, among us is reason 
to praise them, or protect them—even the sound 
of a lead slug dropped on a lead plate, even that, for them, 
is music. Because they bring laughter’s 
brief amnesia. Because they stand, 
talking, taking pleasure in others, 
with their hands on the shoulders of strangers 
and the shoulders of each other. 
Because you don’t have to tell them to walk toward the light. 
Because if there are two pork chops 
they will serve you the better one. 
Because they will give you the crutch off their backs. 
Because when there are two of them together 
their shining fills the room. 
Because you don’t have to tell them to walk toward the light.

In this ode Lux illuminates the subject of “the joyful ones”, those who walk among us as generally good people, filled with positivity and a general sense of caring for others. He list reasons that justify the ode. Each because seems to answer the question of why put the spot light on this particular group of individuals. He celebrates in this ode, as he does in all of these odes.

Here is “Ode to Elaborating on the Obvious”:

It’s a miraculous apparatus, consciousness, 
even blinking off and on, even on a mattress 
as proto-coffin. I ate the pudding once 
from a plastic tray of lunch 
a kind nurse served my father. He didn’t 
want to eat it, or anything. 
A friend wrote that he found Jesus. 
A friend wrote that his wife is dying. 
The friend who found Jesus wrote again 
that he lost Jesus: He was just here, now He’s not. 
My friend whose wife is dying did not write 
to say his wife is not dying. 
Here’s a nice sound—if they’re two leafy blocks 
over at the schoolyard: children. 
This is something I like to look at: thick yellow brushstrokes. 
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. 

Finally, this ode is about celebrating consciousness, having the ability to feel and observe and connect with others. The craftsmanship is wonderful. The playfulness of “a mattress as proto-coffin” leads us to the experience of eating pudding from a father’s hospital bedside, which leads us to finding Jesus while learning that a friend’s wife will die, just to learn that Jesus left and the wife will still die—some things change and others don’t. The turn toward the joyful, the sound of children playing in leaves on the sidewalk as we turn toward the end of the poem begins to angle toward the positive. And the language picks up again, “I love to whiff winter’s cilantro snows”, the W and S sounds seem to whirl around us as Lux loads us up with compound words—“brushstrokes”, “chokecherry”, “forehead”—which settle into the resolution of the rhyme between “tongue” and “none”. It’s a poem of appreciation for the minutiae, and in Lux’s poems there are no details too small to be examined.

Other odes in this collection include “Ode to IQ Aptitutde Tests,” “Ode to Small Islands,” “Ode to Ghandi, Who Wrote a Letter to Hitler Asking Him Not to Start a War,” Ode to Pain in the Absence of an Obvious Cause of Pain,” Ode to the Fat Child Who Went First onto Thin Ice,” “Ode to Scars,” and “Ode to Lichen,” among others. These odes are lovely and painful and infused with gorgeous language. They celebrate the smallest spaces between moments, people, memories. 

The third section of the book brings us back to the complete-in-and-of-themselves type poems that readers of Lux’s work will recognize as uniquely Lux poems in delivery and topic. 

Here is the first poem in this section:

A Man’s Little Heart’s Short Fever Fit

Poor as a dog. Poor as owl scat tufted 
with mouse fur and a chipmunk’s hip-
bone. Poor as a louse without a valise. 
He liked the deepest caves, 
the getting to the bottom of them 
(the deepest, about seven miles down, ending 
in a no-so-square three yards of packed sand), 
and he liked better: climbing out. 
It was harder climbing out: up, up, up, 
poor as a punched bus 
ticket, poor as a poorhouse evictee, 
poor as a hole drilled in dust. 
Did I say he liked the deepest caves? 
Small caves breathe, middle caves sing, 
the deepest caves roar. 
He liked the deepest caves. 
Did I say he loved the abseiling, abseiling down, 
and the inch-by-inch rock climber’s winch 
up, up to the caves agape mouth? 
Did I say what, and whom, he loved 
(and he did love what and whom), 
even when he made a failure of it?

The concept of the poem, telling the reader that the poor character in the poem loves spelunking, among other things, sets us up for a metaphor for how those who can identify with this character might live. It’s a metaphor about loving to explore the deepest, darkest areas of our lives—financially broke yet filled with enormous passion for wonder and love.

Other poems in this section, with the same masterful attention to craft, explore historical figures, geographic locations, friendships. In each case we encounter poems formed with tight, purposeful craft, from “Frank Stafford at Sixty Three” to “Ancient Blades”. 

The collection taken as a whole, To the Left of Time, functions as a complex poem in its own right, a poem informed by a lifetime of dedication to this art and a lifetime dedicated to a life fully lived. That’s the trajectory of this book. It opens with sweet, longing-filled poems that dip deep into memory’s well, then it moves into micro-celebrations that explore the form of the ode, and finally the collection erupts with poems that bring to the reader an attention to detail and voice that the poet has refined over decades of commitment to his craft. Lux is a poet we should all know, and you will certainly get to know him by exploring his poetry, a deep, roaring cave of compassionate, humane art that reminds and teaches us what it means to feel.

RODGER LeGRAND studied writing at Sarah Lawrence College and SUNY Oswego. His most recent book of poems, Millions of Ravenous Creatures, was published in 2016. He is currently Director of Academic Administration and Associate Director of the Critical Writing Program in the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing at the University of Pennsylvania.

The Adirondack Review