God Particles by Thomas Lux, Houghton Mifflin
Wet or dry, the sugar of religious training is evident in Thomas Lux’s book of poems, God Particles. For instance, the poem entitled Antinomianism, for those of you not of the faith, is the moral equivalent of do as I say, not as I do, a spiritual conundrum, to which Lux counters, “my ass!” (33). His lines are fraught with the glee of one for whom the traditions and rituals of genteel southern life include church, BB guns, nine irons, and glasses of lemonade upon doilies sipped in the evening on the front porch. Lux views the world through a skewed lens of one who knows intimately the manners of his southern white culture, but who questions the moral validity of such a life. His poem 5,495 recounts with almost sado-masochistic glee Jesus’ scourging with the cat-o’-nine-tails while neurotically examining and splitting hairs over who has suffered more and how.
Lux calls into question the validity of all religious, quasi-religious social and political governing systems, which includes all of us, mostly, and all the good we purport to do. In his peculiar carnivalesque view, we are each guilty of commoditizing every relic, the wholesale selling off of every parcel in Eden, of every nuanced spiritual encounter, of every quiet truth that can only be known within the heart. There’s no reasonable explanation for these tendencies of ours, other than to satisfy the nefarious ends of our unendingly gratuitous desires. That we brutalize smaller beings for their shiny beauty comes from no higher reason than that we happen to be, at any particular moment, in possession of a sharp stick, a rifle, or golf club and so must knock that thing to kingdom come. We are naturally predisposed to such pastimes.
The poet doesn’t necessarily eschew the religious. He juxtaposes the deeds and words of Stalin with those of Ghandi, the Amish, Quakers, Buddhists, Episcopalians, Baha‘i, Mennonites, and Jains in The Utopian Wars and Their Feet Shall Slide in Due Time. Thomas Lux points us toward the deeper truth about our condition, emphasizes the crazier edge of the human race, which with rare exceptions include all of us. Lux depicts slavery, the gas chamber carried on the back, and the Bataan death march as a way to open the greater truth of our cruelty to one another in times of war, of the constancy of our social inequities, and of our tendencies to exacerbate the differences in our philosophical underpinnings. Lux suggests we’re all consigned to the same asylum, no matter what our fine linen suits might suggest. In First Song, he pulls the reader back to our common origins, saying, “when we had more time and bellies full enough with food, we sang of love. But it began with stones and sharpened sticks, then sharpened sticks hardened in fire” (11). We all participate in the cruel traditions of the tribal pecking order.
Against those traditions, in Section III, Lux becomes more straightforward in his desire to be a good son to his mother and father and a good father to his daughter. The voice of longing abuts against the strangeness of our various cruelties. Lux implies we must learn to play nicely together utilizing the continuum of poetry’s heritage: the Homeric grand epic on one end and the domestic intimacy of the Sapphic at the other. He is resoundingly critical of human doings, at both ends of the scale. Though the speaker is unreliable because of his connection to questionable pastimes, he tattles with the assurance of one who has witnessed first-hand the illogic of this brutality. He is one of us, and thus, suffers from the same bouts of cruelty as do we all revealing our secret meanness toward those who can’t fight back.
Lux’s poems waltz us through our petty pastimes. Yet, the jacket cover holds the viewer several hundred feet in the air hovering over clusters of polite folk scattered about in lawn chairs engaged in intense conversation. Soon enough, the scene implies, we’re all floating out of here, one-by-one. While still in residence and in the face of our collective insanity, it behooves each of us to behave ourselves more intelligently and to enact policies of mercy and of kindness, which when boiled down becomes the adage: do unto others, as you would have others do unto you. God Particles points readers toward the bigger picture making us question the obvious disparities between humans and lesser beings, and contrasts that against the divine, which willingly explodes, so that each of us has something to hold onto to keep us from going too far a field in our awful mess.
Lux is gleeful in his representation of our awfulness, which is on par with the activities of pubescent boys in a parking lot with fire crackers and a mangy cat, making its life miserable, because they can. Which brings us to the question: Why would Lux say that God explodes Him or Herself, raining pieces down on the earth? Because, Lux reasons, thankfully, God is not us. Even more thankfully, we are not gods. Without some small bit of sugar washing over us, we have little hope of surviving our own moral stupidity. We’re all crazy as pet loons, always have been, uh-huh, always gonna be.