The Man Into Whose Yard You Should Not Hit Your Ball
and mowed his lawn, his dry quarter acre,
the machine slicing a wisp
from each blade's tip. Dust storms rose
around the roar: 6:00 P.M., every day,
spring, summer, fall. If he could mow
the snow he would.
On one side, his neighbors the cows
turned their backs to him
and did what they do to the grass.
Where he worked, I don't know
but it sets his jaw to: tight.
His wife a cipher, shoebox tissue,
a shattered apron. As if
into her head he drove a wedge of shale.
Years later his daughter goes to jail.
Mow, mow, mow his lawn
gently down a decade's summers.
On his other side lived mine and me,
across a narrow pasture, often fallow;
a field of fly balls, the best part of childhood
and baseball, but one could not cross his line
and if it did,
as one did in 1956
and another in 1958,
it came back coleslaw -- his lawn mower
ate it up, happy
to cut something, no matter
what the manual said
about foreign objects,
stones, or sticks.
Hap Notes: Thomas Lux (born 1946) is a "superstar" of the poetry reading, garnering audiences that reach beyond the college set. His poetry appeals to a variety of ages which, I think, is due to his natural style of writing, although "natural style" is kind of a misnomer because it is a difficult thing to accomplish and still make poetry. Lux works hard to make each word count and seem neither too casual nor too contrived.
If I have a soft spot, it is for poets who like and understand baseball, a game I've always thought had a lot of poetry in it (yeah, I know- it's one of those things that has to remain unspoken to most baseball fans because talking about the poetry of the game causes it to evaporate) Lux once said that if he was offered the chance to be a successful poet for 50 years or play center field for the Boston Red Sox for a year, he'd have to think about it. (Center field is a good position for a poet actually- you can see the whole game from a different perspective than the guys around the diamond and you can go in all directions- towards it or back or a little to the left or the right- a game balancer, really)
Lux grew up in a rural environment on a dairy farm in Massachusetts. Neither of his parents graduated from high school and the only poetry they ever knew, like so many people, was their everyday lives. And, also like most people, they aren't really aware that it IS poetry. This kind of upbringing assures a solitary life if one loves to read. Stuff brews in you as you grow up. Virgil grew up on sheep farm, you know.
Lux interprets the poetry of everyday life, turning it back into a poem with words. He's very good at this when he succeeds, which is quite often. We know the people in this poem, or think we do, anyway. A man driven to even make the grass conform to his standards will surely have a child who will land in jail someday. A woman whose life is a wisp of paper, a head full of fine-grained, easily broken flakes of mud and minerals. (Of course I'm always thinking what did the shoes look like? What was the apron like? Who is she? She probably doesn't even know anymore.) A job that sets his jaw to- tight. Nice prosody.
So many pictures do the telling in the poem: the baseball returned as "coleslaw", the dust that the mower is kicking up because there's no blade of grass worth the cutting, the "mow mow mow his lawn gently down a decades summers" replicating the old "Row row row your boat" song of childhood. That song is a round, remember- you just keep repeating it over and over. The cows just do what cows do naturally to the grass- they turn their backs on the mowers frenzy.
Does the man purposely, angrily run over the baseball? Does he just run over it because he's thinking of other pressures? How does the ball get returned? Is it characteristic of a man so rigid to run over a baseball, something that is decidedly not something a mower should go over? Is there a tight violence in the poem so that the idea of children playing baseball is a relief and a worry? This poem is finely woven work- as well wound as a baseball.
Lux graduated from Emerson College and he's taught writing at several colleges while maintaining "poet in residence" positions at Sarah Lawrence and others. He's the Bourne professor of poetry at the Georgia Institute of Technology, so he's a Ramblin' Wreck now. Coming from an engineer father as I do, I cannot imagine any place that is more thirsty for someone like Thomas Lux than Georgia Tech. We need more poet-engineers and engineer-poets, I think.
Lux is the author of at least 11 books of poetry, one is slated to come out this year along with a non-fiction book. He received the Kingsley Tufts prize and numerous Guggenheim, NEA and Mellon Foundation grants.
Here's a good Lux quote: "Writing is 80% reading so I read a great deal. I tend to work on poems in batches (that way if I get stuck on one I move on to the next). I do most of my writing over the summers and during breaks from teaching. I write doggedly, 15-20 drafts. I’m not prolific but I’m pretty steady: each slim volume takes about four years to write."
and another: "Every poet you love, and even some you hate, influence your work."
one more: "There’s plenty of room for strangeness, mystery, originality, wildness, etc. in poems that also invite the reader into the human and alive center about which the poem circles."
You can find more Lux here: www.poemhunter.com/thomas-lux/