19
Aug 03

Thomas Lux and Anne Rouse @ the Nightingale Theatre, Brighton (14.8.03)

The Brown WedgePost a comment • 551 views

The South is doing wonders for the poetry scene in, well, the South, sticking its neck out to promote our writers and take on the projects everyone wants to do but somehow never gets to round to… unique events like tonight’s reading help to give the region a literary identity that isn’t subsumed into the London scene.

The windows of the tiny, hot Nightingale Theatre look out over the roof of the train station, appropriately enough for Anne Rouse’s poems. Her themes are travel, alienation, homecoming, danger, her poems swooping in to catch the detail of her native Virginia as well as Florence, Edinburgh, London and Cornwall. Her rich accent floats between East Coast and East London (she now lives in Hastings) as she shifts from languid and colloquial to urgent and lyrical. The grouchy, uprooted, haunted figure of Jean Rhys hovers over her work, along with other uncertain, flawed voices. The effect is tantalising, making the poet herself seem almost absent. But her presence on stage is solid enough, funny and warm and just slightly nervy.

Tonight’s reading marks Thomas Lux’s publication for the first time in the UK (with The Street of Clocks, from Arc), and precedes his Aldeburgh Festival appearance. Originally from Massachusetts, he is a big, tanned, long-haired man who reads with a powerful, drawling momentum, savouring each title, each telling rhyme and repetition. His talent for a striking title (‘Debate Regarding The Permissibility Of Eating Mermaids’; ‘The Late Ambassadorial Light’; ‘Unlike, For Example, The Sound Of A Riptooth Saw’) is reminiscent of Billy Collins, as is his warmth and passion for the small delights and pains of life. But Collins all too often reaches curiously deadening, cosy conclusions, whereas Lux is far more equivocal and brutal. The rural America of his childhood feeds images of treacherous swamps, deserts and forests inhabited by strange and wonderful beasts, whether a baby-swallowing snake or a fiery bird showing the way to safety. His best poems are wry, dark examinations of humanity’s betrayals of nature and nature’s betrayals of humanity, as in ‘Jungleside’, ‘Slimehead’ (named for a fish dubbed ‘orange roughy’ by restaurants to be more appealing – “humans eat first with their ears”) and ‘A Library of Skulls’, Dewey numbers and all – a sly twist on the memento mori trope. He is not afraid to be moral, trusting humour and judicious metaphor to temper the message.

Live, one of Lux’s most powerful poems is ‘Bonehead’, a polemic against 1950s small-town life and the wider malaise it was a part of, which he delivers with special vigour. But even here he is concerned to implicate himself (and every individual) in all the good and bad of the world: “Bonehead Truman, McCarthy, Eisenhower too/Bonehead me, bonehead you”. That is the difficult and joyful truth that Thomas Lux seeks to impart – we are responsible, to ourselves and to our surroundings, and with the acceptance of that responsibility comes the real enjoyment of and engagement with the world.

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