Poetry Review: Thomas Lux’s Child Made of Sand

by Liv Lansdale

Lux’s writing is luminous, and his riotous twelfth book, Child Made of Sand, is no exception.

Titles like “Ermine Noose,” “The Little Three-handed Engine That Could,” and “The Anti-Lunarian League” won me over even before I read the first line of the book: “always leave quenched,” or realized it was about tear-drinking moths. I completely agree with Booklist when they laud his ability to “laugh at life without diminishing or dismissing its consequences.” Still, they gloss over an uncomfortable truth: For all his wackiness, (one poem features a frozen ball of snakes, another explores how it would feel to be beaten by cops with a phonebook), Lux is somewhat predictable.

Not to issue a condemnation. As any good poet knows, there’s something to be said for pied beauty. But my issue with the collection is that its unevenness results from over-adherence to a single formula. He opens with a quirk – a knife showing up on a sonogram, or the notion of Wordsworth’s writing being interrupted by a delivery of dung– then grants us something familiar – a quote from “Intimations of Immortality,” a mentioning of mother’s milk – then ties it together in a meditation on the nature of art or the root of evil. 

The poems are vigorous little trains, as the one title suggests, but some think they can when they can’t. When the quirk is inadequately compelling, the rest of the poem suffers. Take “Outline for my Memoir,” in which the narrator summarizes his life in a few sentences. Aside from the line, “My thirties? Wore funny glasses,” there’s little nuance – just a broken heart in high school, joy at the birth of his daughter, standard memoir fare. At one point the speaker tells us his “vital signs are vital,” but even so, the poem itself lacks vigor. It ends with the prediction that the memoir will be “novella-sized,” and all we feel is relief that it won’t be the novel.

As with any individual poem, the problem with a formula is that with enough repetition, the trick inevitably draws attention to itself. Lux remains, to be sure, an expert magician. But because these weaker poems diminish the punch of the strong, one would like to see him experiment more adventurously.