I imagine Larry D. Thomas was one of those kids who just loved, beyond any sense of reason, camping out on the blackest of Texas nights with a few of his young buddies. And he was the kid who pointed out, with over enthusiastic relish, every hoot, growl, hiss, breaking stick, and leaf shuffle. “Listen,” he says, “the dark forces are coming to get us,” not because he believes that there are dark forces. He just likes to see us squirm.
His third book, The Woodlanders (Pecan Grove Press, 2002), is chuck full of gleeful immersion into the muck of East Texas. His East Texas, the Southeast corner of the Texas of the Big Thicket, is not the Central and Northern East Texas of Anne McCrady. McCrady writes,
Look at this leaf:
An autumn curl between
waiting for footsteps,
patient as a martyr
ready to take the weight
of life as it goes on
toward another spring. (McCrady “Perennial,” page 30)
Larry D. Thomas counters with
Its blackened trunk
must be at least
six feet in circumference.
Like a fickle matron
yet another trophy
to her already vast
collection of wedding rings,
it towers over the square
of a hamlet
in its death throes. (“The Pine,” page 13)
So much is similar in these two passages, in technique: the focus on image, a bit of personification, the short, phrasal line, strong line endings. Yet so much is different, as different as spring and death. McCrady’s East Texas is inhabited with beaten people, sad people, in a hard world, but they survive. Thomas’s East Texas is a swamp of anger and destruction. The opening poem tells us all we need to know:
After weeks of light rain
the floor of the woods
is sodden as a bog,
a patchwork of oxblood
and mustard tallow leaves
disintegrating from the thread-
like skeletons of their veins
in the black machinations
of rot, scat-scented . . . (“Fox Fire,” page 7)
Nine short lines, so far, and let’s take an inventory: sodden, bog, patchwork, disintegrating, threads, skeleton, veins, black, rot, and scat. So much stands out in these words. First, it’s the unity of the imagery. This is a world of bits and pieces, of stink, of rot. It’s a kind of murder scene—but a compromised one. Second, it’s the unity of soundscape to match the landscape: the hissing s’s, hard k’s and g’s, thudding d's, short a’s, e’s, and o’s. And third, for me, it’s the unflinching attention. Thomas is not going to look away from this rot; he’s going to poke it, probe it, lift it and inspect the undersides.
In these poems, Thomas is a poet who sees, because he, I think, must see. He doesn’t want to glance at something; he is no impressionist, some happy Manet painting in his beautiful perfectly wild pastel gardens, no Renoir in a summer cabin or sunny boat deck. These poems are closer to some sort of nature equivalent to Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson. “Don’t flinch,” he says, “I dare you.”
So he takes through a series of these lessons:
Cicadas: “sawing/ the August evening/ down to darkness
Mildew: “spreading the sedulous// gospel of its jealous god of rot.”
Chiggers: “till he feels them feeding”
Slug: “the plush/clear carpet/ of its mucus.”
This is a brief book—twenty five poems—the longest poem, perhaps twenty-five lines long. But it is, almost, unrelenting in its delight in a world untouched by civilization or empathy. The humans are no kinder than crows or copperheads. A lumberjack with one remaining finger wields his chainsaw in his dreams; an uncle beds down with his niece; a woman gives birth without doctor’s care; a deformed baby is killed.
I said almost. Even Thomas, in his most enthusiastic evocations of his dark imagination, cannot find the power to stain the dogwood, whose blossoms are “like stardust/ flung from the wand/ of a fairy.”
I’ll let the fairy take me to my final observation. I believe that Thomas has steered clear of the greatest danger of this image world—that of the trap of good and evil. Yes, we are a little unnerved by the uncle and niece, but Thomas, for all his boyish exuberance for muck and rot, has not constructed a world rooted in an anti- or post-Christian sentiment. Rather he reaches back, I believe, to the greatest of American poets, Walt Whitman, whom, we remember, loved the smell of his arm pits. Recently, Bob Dylan recorded a song, “It’s All Good.” For Thomas, it’s all good.