Nationality: American. Born: Northampton, Massachusetts, 10 December 1946. Education: Emerson College, Boston, B.A. 1970; University of Iowa, Iowa City, 1971. Family: Married Jean Kilbourne in 1983 (divorced); one daughter. Career: Poet-in-residence, Emerson College, 1972–75; since 1975 member of the faculty, Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, New York; since 1975, Warren Wilson College; since 1980, Columbia University, New York; University of Houston, 1981; Boston University, 1981; Cooper Union, New York, 1987. Cofounder and editor, Born Dream Press; managing editor, Iowa Review, Iowa City, 1971–72, and Ploughshares, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1973. Awards: Bread Loaf scholarship, 1970; MacDowell Colony fellowship, 1973, 1974, 1976, 1978, 1980, 1982; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1976, 1981, 1988; Guggenheim fellowship, 1988; Kingsley Tufts Poetry award, 1995, for Split Horizon.Address: Department of English, Sarah Lawrence College, One Mead Way, Bronxville, New York 10708–5999, U.S.A.
The Land Sighted. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Pym Randall, 1970.
Memory's Handgrenade. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Pym Randall, 1972.
The Glassblower's Breath. Cleveland, Ohio, Cleveland State University, 1976.
Sunday. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1979.
Like a Wide Anvil from the Moon the Light. New York, Black Market, 1980.
Massachusetts. Roslindale, Massachusetts, Pym Randall, 1981.
Tarantulas on the Lifebuoy. Bristol, Rhode Island, Ampersand Press, 1983.
Half Promised Land. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1986.
Sunday: Poems. Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon, 1989.
The Drowned River. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1990.
A Boat in the Forest. Easthampton, Massachusetts, Adastra Press, 1992.
Pecked to Death by Swans. Easthampton, Massachusetts, Adastra Press, 1993.
Split Horizon. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1994.
The Blind Swimmer: Selected Early Poems, 1970–1975. Easthampton, Massachusetts, Adastra Press, 1996.
New and Selected Poems, 1975–1995. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
Editor, with Jane Cooper and Sylvia Winner, The Sanity of Earth and Grass. Gardiner, Maine, Tilbury House, 1994.*
Critical Study: "A Shelter, a Kingdom, a Half Promised Land: Three Poets in Mid-Career" by Peter Harris, in Virginia Quarterly Review (Charlottesville, Virginia), 63(3), summer 1987.* * *
Intensely personal, the poetry of Thomas Lux is tormented and tortured, full of complex and disjointed images reflecting an insane and inhospitable world. The sense of personal pain is strongest in his early poetry, where he seems to be wrestling with his own private hell. Part of his growth as a poet has been to move out of the strictly personal into a more public realm, where private grievances and personal difficulties are projected against the background of contemporary history and events and against a background of metaphysical despair. From his first collection in 1972 Lux has been hard at work grappling with what he calls life's "facts," a term too banal and neutral to convey the harshness of meaning he gives it in his poetry.
Memory's Handgrenade, published in 1972, immediately established Lux as a new poet capable of providing astonishing and shocking insights in a variety of powerful poetic forms. Lux turned out poems in which the sane and the insane, the real and the surreal, interpenetrate in juxtapositions of images that create shocking and original insights into the nature of the human condition. Ever on the edge of madness, and sometimes seemingly over that edge, Lux writes with an intensity of personal psychological distress that reminds us of the work of Roethke and Plath. In the poem "Five Men I Know" Lux provides brief "portraits" (more like snapshots) of five men in such extraordinary, nightmarish, and personal circumstances that they seem to be in some sense part of Lux and represent aspects of his personality. Yet the poem is so highly symbolized that understanding the meaning of the men's circumstances or of their dreams is difficult. Although hard to decode, the images are startling and original and suggest an entirely new voice in American poetry.
In his next volume, The Glassblower's Breath, Lux's preoccupation with a nightmarish and ego-centered world takes on a new dimension. In addition to the poems in which there is no reference beyond the self, he has written many poems in which he seeks to place himself in historical time and, in the process, to establish a point of external reference. The book is a successful effort to achieve relationship with the world. The book's title comes from the poem "History and Abstraction," in which Lux considers the idea of the passage of time as an abstraction for which he has complete disdain. Rather, he sees historical truth bound up in significant achievements or events. Characteristic of Lux is the fact that these events are "dark" moments in human history such as the development of the electric chair. For him "technology reached its peak /with the electric chair." The most fascinating dimension of his idea of history is bound up in his image "of the dead /glassblower's breath still caught /in the red vase …," an image that suggests a condition of intense isolation as well as entrapment. The world of the creator is a closed world that in some sense stands outside history. The image is a metaphor for Lux's sense of his own creativity; he sees himself trapped in the words of his poems.
Lux's next volume, Sunday, contains forty new poems in the vein of the previous book. For the moment Lux seems to be trapped in writing about death and loss, subjects he pursues with a vengeance. If anything, the volume is devoted to revealing more of the terrible facts about life—its pain, its suffering, and its ultimate emptiness and meanness. In "Solo Native" he projects an image of the utter desolation of existence: "You're alone and you know /a few things: the stars are pinholes, /slits in the hangman's mask." In "Gold on Mule" he provides a metaphor for nature's inhospitality: "the sun slams /on the wing of a fly /seeking moisture around the eye /of a mule …" In "Miserable Time" he presents the Italian poet Dino Campana, in an adaptation from his poems Orphic Songs, speaking casually of his longing for death as if it meant nothing to him: "I hope the Pale One comes to me and says: /Let's go, Pal." Throughout the entire volume there is hardly a moment of relief from such concerns.
In the later volume Half Promised Land Lux collects many of the poems that had appeared in earlier volumes. There is a noticeable shift in this volume from poems that have little objective reference to poems that have a great deal to say about the external world. Lux demonstrates concern for social problems, for the poor, the hungry, and the homeless, for a society based on money, class, and privilege, and for the inequality and injustice of such a society. Historical movements, events, and persons become his subject matter, as in "Dr. Goebbel's Novels," a poem about the lies and deceits perpetrated by the notorious Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. In "A Tenth of a Cent a Stitch" Lux deplores the condition of homelessness, which he sees as a crime against humanity. He contrasts the plight of the homeless living in cardboard boxes to the sumptuous lifestyle of the rich.
Lux's volume The Drowned River breaks new ground. From his first volume, Memory's Handgrenade, it was apparent that Lux was a master of direct statement. His rhythms and syntax imitate speech that is hard and precise, one in which no word is superfluous. The words are like sand or small stones stuck in the mouth or hurled at the eyes. In this direct speech Lux forces us to see life as meager, unpromising, and finally disastrous. In The Drowned River he has become so adept at presenting these "truths" that he is now able to appear almost relaxed, conversational, casual. Understatement becomes a powerful poetic tool for him to hammer home once more his view of the futility of human existence. Of course, it is possible to acknowledge a kind of courage in his continuous effort to sound the dirge of life in his songs and to remain uncompromising in his vision.
Such it is in the world of Lux. There is no place here for the fainthearted, the weak, or the hopeful. Life, it seems, is not to be lived but rather endured.