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Lux Monstruosus

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Thomas Lux is America's most accomplished miniaturist of despair. In 30 years of publishing poetry, this son of a milkman has traveled from plainspoken to surrealism and back again. In The Cradle Place, he atones for previous indulgences with a collection as loamy and chock-full of bones as Mississippi mud. Here are poems on snakes and ants, scorpions, mice, dung beetles and maggots. There's a bestiary in this book; reading Lux's verse, you can almost feel them creep and crawl, awaiting our rotting flesh. We are here for an instant, Lux suggests, and it may be up to a snake to decide whether we live or die.

As always, Lux plants these metaphysical landmines in poems so conversational that you go laughing into the maw. Though he claims recovery from surrealism, The Cradle Place reads like the work of a man trying to keep things tangible after falling off the weirdness wagon. The result is a book full of arresting images that actually mean something. In "The Devil's Beef Tub," the poet contemplates the banality of evil:

Every day is like this,

is a metaphor or a simile: like opening a can

of alphabet soup

and seeing but X's, no, look

closer: little noodle

swastikas

Don't let the pretty red cover fool you. Yes, there's a morbid cast to this book that grows woollier as it continues. "Hospitality and Revenge" turns a domestic shooting into burlesque. "Monkey Butter" evokes the slimy image of using monkey fluids for dinners, pastries and treats.

With its short lines and occasional lyricism, The Cradle Place pulls a fast one on readers betting that a poet who renounced surrealism has also set aside rupture. The natural world, as it appears here, first looks lovely -- the opening poem traces a leaf's descent -- but turns out dangerous, poisonous and eventually conquered.

In the final poem, the poet imagines boiling a horse down to its juices, "which you smear on your lips / and go forth / to plant as many kisses upon the world / as the world can bear!" Not since Plath has hysteria looked this kissable.

The Cradle Place by Thomas Lux. Houghton Mifflin. $22. 80 pages.

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