Thomas Lux's "Irreconcilabilia"

Thoughts on the tenderly confrontational.


No matter what you do
you cannot hold it long
or take it back again.

The sky, the barely blue
blank sky, the tight moss-bound
houses of sleep, will call.

No matter how hard you love,
that love will pass, will pass,
your friends imparadised,

gone, lost. The summers blaze,
the years, and what you know
grows dim, hurt by the dark.

No matter child, or wife,
or art. The river bends
and bends again seaward.

The soft lip-click of worms,
a spider's feet across
a leaf; you see, you hear.

No matter blessings, rage,
or rest: the dead stay dead.
You walk, spine alive, you kneel,

you lay your ear down on
the ground. Does God live there?
Does God live anywhere?

from New & Selected Poems (Mariner, 1997)

It’s hard to find another opening to a poem that stills you like this one does. You read it, and you’re like fuck, really? It can’t be. Is it? No. Oh. Yes. It is. He’s right:

No matter what you do
you cannot hold it long
or take it back again.

In that final line, Lux echoes the irreconcilability inherent within the title of his poem. To reconcile, which means, literally: to bring back together. Add the prefix ir to it, and you have: Unable to have back again. Unable to experience whatever it was you experienced before. Life at its heart, Lux seems to argue, is irreconcilable by its very nature.

I love Thomas Lux’s poetry because of this deep allegiance to the kind of truth that poetry often subverts, or makes mysterious. One could argue that one aim of poetry is to unpack and twist and poke and prod into the pain present within the opening stanza of today’s poem. And yet, Lux just, like, begins a poem with that bombshell. Nothing to unpack. Here’s the truth. It’s wild. It fucking sucks. It’s a poem.

Lux does that throughout his work. He does it much more succinctly and bluntly in his short poem, “A Little Tooth.” Read this:

Your baby grows a tooth, then two,
and four, and five, then she wants some meat
directly from the bone. It's all

over: she'll learn some words, she'll fall
in love with cretins, dolts, a sweet
talker on his way to jail. And you,

your wife, get old, flyblown, and rue
nothing. You did, you loved, your feet
are sore. It's dusk. Your daughter's tall.

While some poems exist to make out of mystery some truth, Lux’s work offers truth immediately, leaving you to find the mystery between the lines. I think of it as being tenderly confrontational. Because there’s a kind of play in it, a kind of joy despite the sorrow. You notice that in “A Little Tooth” when Lux writes “It's all // over.” Of course it’s not over! Or maybe it is! Maybe that’s all there is to a life. But either way: Lux is poking at you, trying to get a rise out of you, and then, in getting that rise, letting you figure out what to make of it. What do you embrace a little tighter after such a poem? What do you hold a little longer? What don’t you ever want to let go?

Today’s poem, “Irreconcilabilia,” exists in conversation with “A Little Tooth.” But it hurts a little more, doesn’t it? It doesn’t exactly make you want to jump out of your chair and find the nearest thing or person you love and hold them with reckless abandon. It makes me sad. Some of the lines, in their honesty, are devastating:

No matter how hard you love,
that love will pass, will pass

No matter child, or wife,
or art.

I like the way Lux echoes the will pass in that first passage I quoted, as if he knows his reader might need to hear it twice, might find it all so unbelievable. And he’s right. It is unbelievable. I push and pull at this poem, trying to poke at the truth to make it false. But the truth remains. And it remains as one of those essential truths that define life. That loss is loss. Death is death. That no matter what you know, there’s more you don’t. That things pass. That the future never happens and the past can’t be saved. That the dead, as Lux writes, stay dead.

As much as I feel like someone who is trying to be a generous reader, who admires the mysteries of the unsaid, who enjoys the occasional dwelling-in-uncertainty, I have to admit that one of the great pleasures of reading is encountering a truth, perfectly worded. There are lines that I have come across in poems and novels that feel, to me, like tender honesties — the kinds of things that leave you breathless. Ones you can’t unfeel or unhear or unsee. I remember when I first read Elizabeth McCracken’s The Giant’s House, and came across this line:

Grief lasts longer than sympathy, which is one of the tragedies of the grieving.

Or Marilynne Robinson’s Home, where she writes:

There is a saying that to understand is to forgive, but that is an error, so Papa used to say. You must forgive in order to understand. Until you forgive, you defend yourself against the possibility of understanding.

Or Gary Indiana’s Horse Crazy, where he writes (and probably signals that he might disagree with Robinson above):

Everything we do, every effort we make to express our disgust at this situation becomes an integral part of this situation, all our pacific intentions and reasonable acts are transformed by our vicious culture into more inantity and more violence.

Or Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights, where he writes (and I want to believe):

The more stuff you love the happier you will be.

The thing about these honest, sometimes tender truths is that they still need to be believed, don’t they? And in some way, maybe the same could be said about the truths inherent in Thomas Lux’s poem today. You can choose not to believe that love will pass, that the future will be a dimming thing. But then you might encounter such a truth later on, and, having not believed it, it might hurt you harder, and ruin you more.

Part of being alive, I think, is developing a relationship with truth that is generous. I think there are rooms of the mind where you can keep your truths. Sometimes you can close the door a little bit to one truth that hurts you a bit to think of. And sometimes, trying to dull yourself to the sharpness of the world, you can sit in the wide openness of that room, and remember that it’s hard, and that sometimes, it’s supposed to be hard. It’s not the same as picking and choosing what to believe. Instead, it’s holding space for so many things at once — the truth of death, the truth of joy, the truth of grace, the truth of love — and knowing that when the wind blows open the door of one truth you weren’t expecting — your grandmother dies just before you were planning to see her — you can, if you want, walk across the hall and open the door of one truth on your own — the memory of you and her laughing in the kitchen, the way you, always the short one, felt tall around her — her head burrowed in the crook of your arm.

Lux’s poem today throws open some devastating doors to rooms that forever exist in our minds and hearts. It asks you to sit in those rooms for a little bit. And you do, maybe. I know I do. And that’s because I feel that Lux is sitting there too. No matter, he writes. But does he really believe it? The beauty of today’s poem is that we all, at some point, feel the heart of that no matter. The worthlessness of love, the worthlessness of ourselves. And yet, and yet, and yet.

Sometimes truth feels like it exists to make you angry, to upset you. And sometimes truth is offered because the person offering such truth doesn’t know what to make of it — and so they ask you to sit in that open room with them. Ask me what makes a “good” poem — though I shy away from such binary definitions — and I might say: a good poem admits its own uncertainty about whatever certainty it admits. There’s a generosity to this. Even Lux, after offering his quiet devastation — his dead who will always stay dead, his long lost loves, his gone that will forever remain gone — doesn’t know what to make of it.

You see that when he writes:

Does God live there?
Does God live anywhere?

Facing the fragile reality of a world that he cannot reconcile with itself, Lux turns away from the world — and all of its pain — and questions the supposed maker of such a world. Today’s title feels like its own critique — of god, of religion, of faith. Like the world, the title word twists in the mouth. It complicates and frustrates. It asks: who would make such a world? Could anyone who made such a world be of this world? How can we find something that resembles the better parts of our likenesses in a world that so often brings us to fragile ruin?

And yet, Lux still persists. How do we know? Because he questions. He extends his truth to us, and with it, he extends his frustration, his wondering, his fragile hope, his generosity.

And does god live here? I don’t know. I don’t know much of anything, other than that the blunt edge of truth — in whatever form it takes — often tests how I respond to anything in the world. Some days I lean into ideology like a rod jabbed ten feet deep into the ground. Some days I push myself to be patient, to stare wide eyed into mystery like a baby owl. There’s a short poem by Wendell Berry that goes:

What banged?

Before banging 
how did it get there?

When it got there 
Where was it?

Who knows? is one operative way of viewing the world. And yet is another. When the world is, as Lux writes, irreconcilable with the dream of itself — when love stays lost and death stays dead — then, well, what room is there for hope, or faith? And yet, without such things, the world would simply be what it so often is: a world of complex truths demoted to a world of simple certainties. What a world we would have if we didn’t have mystery! How brutal! How punishing! It would be a world, as today’s poem begins, that says no matter. To everything and anything. But, as the ending of today’s poem models, it’s possible to face some bitter truth, turn to the person next to us, and say: what do you make of that? Or: can you help me understand this? Or: are you here, right now, with me, even in my anger, even in my rage? I wish you were. It’s possible to wonder. It’s possible to rage. It’s possible to long, and longing is a kind of extension of the spirit. It is an un-death of sorts, a reconciliation with a future world, fully aware of what might be impossible. It throws the heart forward into the world and says I wish.