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Saturday, March 5, 2011

Number 87: Thomas Lux "A Man Gets Off Work Early"

A Man Gets Off Work Early

and decides to snorkel in a cool mountain lake.
Not as much to see
as in the ocean but it’s tranquil (no sharks) floating
face down into that other world.
The pines’ serrated shadows reach
across the waters
and just now, below him, to his left,
a pickerel, long and sharp and . . .whuppa whuppa whuppa,
louder, behind, above him, louder,
whuppa whuppa whuppa . . . . Two weeks later,
20 miles away, he’s found,
a cinder, his wetsuit
melted on him, in a crab-like position
on the still warm ash
of the forest floor
through which fire tore unchecked,
despite the chemicals,
the men with axes and shovels,
despite the huge scoops of lake water
dropped on it
from his friend, the sky,
on whom he turned his back.

--Thomas Lux

Hap Notes: First off, let me calm you a bit and say that this incident is a bit of urban legend. It's more like a koan or a logic problem that one solves. I have seen no evidence that a scuba-diving man was accidentally sucked up by one of those fire-fighting helicopters which takes water from nearby lakes and drops it on the blaze. And I looked for it, just to be sure, because I am a geek that does that kind of thing.

I researched it because the poem made a dark burnt rubber mark inside of me somewhere, it was eerie and horrible and odd. Which, of course, is part of the poem's power. The fish on the masthead is a pickerel- part of the pike family- thought you might want to see one. (Breaking off briefly to say this is the smile of the student in Roethke's "Elegy for Jane", that's what I always think of when I hear the word, anyway.)

I thought I had dreamed this poem and searched for it frantically in my Lux collection (I only have three slim Lux volumes but it's probably not out of line to say that if you like a certain poet, buy their books, don't wait for an anthology. If you get burnt by a few you don't like, you'll become a far more careful reader. Invest in the poetry you love. It's the only investment that will yield multiple returns as long as you live.) I was relieved to find it. I may be crazy but, at least, my memory is still okay. Sheesh.

Note how in the poem, the man is relieved by the idea that no sharks can bother him in a lake. Lux turns this strange story into a dark, sad tale of the shocks of life. The man leaves his own world, turns his back on "his friend, the sky" and a flying machine in the sky wrenches him out of the water and drops him on the fiery land. I'll let you think on it because the contortions in the poem leave me sort of wrenched myself. Hard to make a poem, as casual as this one seems, do that kind of heavy lifting but it does.

Here's another great Lux quote: "I think poetry can be taught. You can write clearly and lucidly without compromising creativity. It's important that I make this clear that there is great pleasure in this labor. It is not tedious, because along the way, in the process of rewriting, you make discoveries. Anything good does not get made easily."

Here's where we've talked about Lux before:

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