Life on a Piecemeal Planet: God Particles by Thomas Lux

God Particles

God Particles
BY Thomas Lux
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008)

The latest poetry collection by Thomas Lux has a great title which suggests: 1) every atom, blade of grass, and earthling is part of the whole; 2) existence and the human mind’s varying surface just might have a deeper, unifying possibility; 3) religion; and, of course, 4) the God Particle, a pop-culture name for scientists’ ongoing search for the heart of all matter,[1] which employs supercolliders and ever-evolving methods of smashing atoms to tinier bits in order to find an ultimate bottom line. Lux’s often scathing and always penetrating poems — “Peacocks in Twilight” (p. 12), “The Utopian Wars” (p. 36), “The Shooting Zoo” (p. 43), among others — address the fact that human beings are quite good at, and have had a lot of practice with, smashing things.

A John Donne quote (from “Holy Sonnet XIX”) at the beginning of the book supplies one reason for the difficulty of living on this smashed-up, almost-an-orphan earth: Oh, to vex me, contraries meet in one. This is the first poetic line upon which the reader’s eye falls in God Particles, a sort of verbal frontispiece for the wonderful, fairly dark and manifold poetry that lies ahead. From golfing with toads to Hitler’s slippers, from a happy majority to the suffering of death, hunger, work, false piety and other slippery states of being, the poems capture a large portion of humanity’s checkered, can-of-worms reality.

The first piece, “The Gentleman Who Spoke Like Music,” (p. 3) is an ode of quiet gratitude, with the lines was kind to me / though he did not have to be repeated at the beginning and at the end, as if an on-going free-will act of kindness were something too rare. Kindness, when it does appear, never seems to last long enough, and it must be no accident that Lux chose for his very next page, “Behind the Horseman Sits Black Care,” with its apocalyptic-tilted imagery:

and behind Black Care sits Slit Throat with a whip,
and on Slit Throat’s shoulders, heels in his ribs,
there, there rides Nipple Cancer, and on her back
rides Thumbscrew. No one rides Thumbscrew’s shoulders.
Certain suicide, everyone knows not to try that,
everyone, that is, who wants to get older.

— “Behind the Horseman Sits Black Care,” p. 4

The four-horsemen-like title/first line is from Ode 3.1 of the Augustan poet Horace, who admired the simple life. Lux’s poem calls to mind the convoluted, polluted life and not only agonies unfortunately reserved for crime, torture, sickness and other grim times, but the ill will and torment we humans are capable of dishing out to each other on a daily basis.

One of Lux’s many powerful talents is his tone, which can be both profoundly serious and not serious, humorous irony intensifying meaning and effect in the midst of an all-points-satirically-barbed, oh-so-necessary revelation:

Even Pee Stain, the kid whose lunch money,
instead of being stolen,
he’s forced to swallow,
even Pee Stain
knows not to ride Thumbscrew’s shoulders.

— “Behind the Horseman Sits Black Care,” p. 4

It is absurd that Pee Stain is forced to eat his lunch money, but it is, sad to say, completely feasible that someone could be treated this way. Even the Horseman, typically a bringer of woes, wants this lot off his back:

The Horseman (and, presumably,
his horse) prefers none
of this — Black Care with his arms
around his waist as if he’s his girlfriend
and those others stacked atop him
like a troupe of acrobats, unbalanced.
The Horseman desires a doorway,
a cave’s mouth, a clothesline — or best: a low, hard
garrotey branch.

— “Behind the Horseman Sits Black Care,” p. 4

One of the shorter pieces, “Put the Bandage on the Sword and Not the Wound” (p. 17) speaks to our propensity for waging war, endowing the sword with life as if it hurt, too: “and then the grinding, the awful grinding / of stone and steel / before the thick and bitter taste of blood on its lip.”

Long ago, for better or worse, the double-edged sword of human potential took over management of the world. How are we doing, given the fact that the same human mind which has the capacity to conceive of transcendence, kindness, healing and noble heroics, is the same mind that seems hopelessly addicted to war, hate, greed and cruelty? Not so good, as the second section, which is the heart of the book, focusing as it does on religious intolerance and superficial spirituality, implies.

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  1. “The Heart of All Matter: The Hunt for the God Particle,” by Joel Achenbach, National Geographic.

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