To the Left of Time. Thomas Lux. Boston, MA: Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016. 75 pages. $16.95.
I am Flying Into Myself: Selected Poems 1960-2014. Bill Knott, ed. Thomas Lux. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017. 214 pages. $28.00.
For half my life, my country has been at war. Yet the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere in the patchwork of sovereignties marked as harbors of terror remain largely invisible to me. I haven’t served in the armed forces; my brothers have never considered their draft numbers. For sixteen years, I have had the privilege of largely ignoring the conflicts authorized on my behalf. My ignorance perturbs me, but given its ease, it persists.
At this moment of selective witness, posthumous collections of poems by Bill Knott and Thomas Lux present a skeptical ethic born out of a more visible yet still covert war. For them, along with other Americans who came of age in the 1960s and ’70s, the past half-century’s series of an “illegal and immoral” wars begins with the American intervention in Vietnam. In his introduction to Knott’s selected poems, Lux writes, “It is the war that my generation either can’t forget or refuses to remember (sometimes both).” Lux fought and was injured in Vietnam; Knott didn’t serve in the conflict, but as Lux notes in his introduction to Knott’s selected work, Knott believed “all Americans, not just combatants, were casualties of the Vietnam war.” Both writers were compelled to confront the legacy of that era’s secrecy and doublespeak. Out of Vietnam’s injuries, as well as domestic wounds, Knott and Lux employ darkly funny conceits to reinvent wounded selves.
I am Flying Into Myself follows Knott’s sequencing: “random, neither chronological nor thematic.” This organization is key to Knott’s poetics; in his hands, time and subject are paradigms to be toyed with. Yet certain accommodations have been made; the order of details revealed ensures the reader is apprised of information necessary in each poem. Knott, orphaned by the age of seven, tended toward what Lux called “bitter satire you can taste on your tongue,” even when confronting the most tender of losses—, that of his mother, who died in childbirth along with the infant she was carrying, when Knott was six.
In “The Closet ( . . . after my mother’s death),” Knott’s child-speaker enters his mother’s closet, which is empty of all but three hangers in a “cognizance born of the absence / Of anything else.” Unflinching, Knott depicts the tragedy that cast him out of his childhood home (his father was incapable of caring for his two surviving children). He identifies the hangers as a tool of hack obstetrics, baldly naming an image many poets wouldn’t dare approach. Portending the domestic departure to come, he writes:,
. . . Only
The hangers are at home here. Come heir to this
Rare element, fluent, their skeletal grace sings
Of the ease with which they let go the dress, slip
Housecoat or blouse, so absolvingly . . .
His rhymes ring eerily at mid-line and end, “heir” with “Rare;” “sing” just off the din of “absolvingly.” Such surprising chinks and clatters cohere throughout Knott’s work; in “Overnight Freeze (Heptasyllabics),” off-rhymed couplets follow a voweled cascade over a half-dozen pages, from “fast” and “mudflats” to “peace” and “carapace” to “precipice” and “lens.” Some rhymes appeal to the ear, others to the eye; all swing backward and forward in a temporally echoing pendulum.
In “The Closet,” Knott’s wit tilts stomach-turning as he imagines the hospital room where medical professionals watched his mother die. Knott imagines the dead infant, his sibling, held over her. In the moment of mortality, he pictures:
. . . White-masked
Doctors and nurses patting each other on the back,
Which is how in the Old West a hangman, if
He was good, could gauge the heft of his intended . . .
Irreverence is directly proportional to emotional fervor—what other poet would make a grotesque pun from his mother’s death? For Knott, no subject is exempt from his cheeky gestures. The “skeletal grace” of death looms; why not, then, make (as in “Sunset and Noon: Marjory P.”) “sky directionless as children who keep getting / kissed on top of their heads / They turn this way and that, dizzy, mad”?
Lux built conceits of comparable ambition to Knott, but where Knott’s verse shocks, Lux’s poems nurture a more subtle surprise. Throughout his fifteen full-length volumes, Lux seduces his reader toward islands of intellect where syntax turns memory into prophecy. The middle section of To the Left of Time contains a transcendent sequence of odes, each of which builds an elliptical logic of absurd conceits. Among them are “Ode to Chronic Insolvency,” “Ode Elaborating on the Obvious,” and “Ode to Gandhi, Who Wrote a Letter to Hitler Asking Him Not to Start a War.” Like Knott, Lux weighs wit against gravitas to unnerve his reader.
“It works to sell cold and creamy things,” Lux begins in “Lobotomobile.” What sells goes down easily, smoothly as news of a distant military operation neutralizing a perceived threat. Lux twists the image of an ice cream truck into that of a decomposing book, then into something life-saving yet sinister: “bloodmobiles, / remember them? During the night / bombings you’d see them every day.” The shell of a nostalgic meditation contains a ruse through which Lux satirizes a disengaged populace:
Toot, toot, ding, ding, here, over here!
To the lobotomobile
should those wanting to be numb
If the words “numb” and “come” were to appear in sequence in a tonally sincere poem, the result would likely feel contrived or childish. But against the lift of Lux’s snarky onomatopoeia, the concluding rhyme portends like a bell tolling doom.
Lux and Knott both devote significant poetic energy to social critique. In Lux’s “History Island,” he writes, “A whole generation or two came here / in the years between the wars. It was as if certain things never happened;” Knott’s “History” contains a single line: “Hope . . . goosestep.” And yet, neither bows to the romance of fatalism; their verse returns to the immediacy of sensory experience through the visceral clamors of their language. When I turn to Knott’s “Oct-Nov (Michigan Memory #4),” the title primes me for the despondency of a traumatic childhood, but when I read “The bacon of the ankles crackles,” I laugh out loud every time. There, in humor’s invitation, my mind clicks out of its regular rhythms, ready to break from the creamy sameness and attend to that which is unexpected, unpleasant, or otherwise easier not to see.
Through non sequitur, understatement, and other ironic twists, Lux and Knott upend unconscious adherence to rhetorical conventions and social mores. In the four-line poem “Dear Advice Columnist,” Knott’s speaker confesses his (father-killing, mother-loving) Oedipal conflict, then asks, “Should his side of the family be invited to the wedding?” Everyday absurdity also knocks against the existential in Lux’s poems of physical injury. In “Ode to the Eraser as Big as a Bus,” he writes in mock-praise:
Thank you for the relief, the rest,
for leaving only palimpsest
and a little rolled orange eraser dust,
and not the xxxxx of a stitched-up wound,
when you came to do what erasers do.
Lux turns his close brush with oblivion into comic “palimpsest.” The word itself is an etymological pun in its origin from the Greek palin (‘again)’ + psēstos (‘rubbed smooth),’ likening the production of writing to the Magic Rub’s obliterating touch.
Humor, for Knott and Lux, never seeks to efface. Today, nuclear threats volley across the Pacific; American combat boots trudge through deserts and forests; remotely piloted aircraft drop explosives on who knows what, who knows where. It’s easy to look away, but through wisecracks and irony, Lux and Knott’s poems thrash against apathy’s terrible void.