A Little Tooth, by Thomas Lux
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.
The Canadian poet Anne Michaels once wrote: ‘A story or a poem is like a living body; we need only tell the few, precise pulse points to feel the heart of it leaping in its skin.’ In good stories, every single word matters; every comma which is superfluous has been excised.
Thomas Lux takes that dictum to extreme levels in the poem above. Within a couple of sentences, the teething baby of the first line has begun to eat solids, has learnt language, has fallen in love with the wrong people, again and again. By sketching out the course of a life with such economy, Lux skilfully recreates the very phenomenon he is describing: how quickly things go. There is nothing we can do about it. We are swept along to the end of each sentence and forced to witness the continuous passage of time, like waves lapping at the shore.
This poem is permeated by a lingering sense of regret at this passage of time. The visceral image of carnal desire, of wanting ‘meat / directly from the bone’, suggests violence; and the second stanza does not seem optimistic about this particular girl’s love life. But Lux is a master of understatement and maintains a tone of detachment/resignation throughout. The final image (‘your daughter’s tall’) is at once familiar (think about how many times your extended family members have remarked on your height) and poignant – for how can you stop something as inevitable as your child growing up? What parent would want to? Yet despite the sorrow of this poem, perhaps by writing it Lux has succeeded in arresting the relentless passage of time for a moment. I’m reminded of the story my mother told me about the Hindu monkey-god Hanuman, whose mother hammered a nail into his head to stop him growing.
All my love,