Lummis | Laichas

Lummis | Laichas
April 1, 2024 Lummis Suzanne

Introduction to Tom Laichas and his poem “Fairy Tale Still Life”—for Plume’s Station to Station,
by Suzanne Lummis, with her poem “The Big Babies.”


I was part way into one of Tom Laichas’ three published collections when I began to marvel at the skill, the sure-footed, far-ranging variety. At the onset, I’d wondered if I might tire of Three Hundred Streets of Venice somewhere around the 37the street.  As it turned out, not all 300 streets are remarked on with individual poems, but the poems that do spring from locations and streets convince me he could go the distance and not replay an idea or retrace a step.  They begin, “In adjacent second story apartments live an old she and an old he.” (Venice Blvd.), and “On this block from years back, Oscar D—– takes a bullet, bleeds out and dies.” (Santa Clara Ave.) and “Ten at night, ninety degrees. Every window open, every light on.” (Venezia Av.).
The writing conveys a darkish (darkish rather than dark) view of the world, not disillusion but absence of illusions, a certain austerity of style, of disposition, and worldly knowledge folded into local color, shadow and light.
Part way along, I also began to wonder why I hadn’t heard of Tom Laichas. Didn’t I know all the serious (serious as opposed to hobbyist) poets in L.A.?  Apparently, I did not; considering Los Angeles boasts—or grieves for—at least 3.8 million souls, it’s not surprising a few have escaped my attention.  It turns out Tom had come to poetry decades back when he studied with poet Peter Levitt. He was teaching high school at that time and could devote only summers and some weekends to writing. He then got a graduate degree in history (to the benefit of his current poems, it seems), and began the job of raising a family and teaching politics and history at Crossroads School in Los Angeles.  It wasn’t until the last ten years he was able to return full time to poetry, and since then has published the collections Sixty Photographs from the End of a War (3.1 Press), Empire of Eden (The High Window Press), and the aforementioned Three Hundred Streets of Venice, California (FutureCycle Press).  Journals that feature his poems include Jabberwock, Stand, Disquieting Muses, Spillway, and Salt.
Of the strong poems Tom sent me for consideration, this one introducing fairy tale motifs into our times struck me most forcibly, and no wonder.  Years after fairy tales had absorbed many of my childhood reading hours, I began to recognize how they sprang from real-world suffering and deprivation. (No “fairytale wedding” for me, I decided.)
For example, things must’ve been tough back there in the Baltic region, circa early 14th century, when mothers were trying to put their hungry children to sleep with a story, but their own hunger pains intruded on the tale.  Therefore, because the parents could no longer feed them, Hanzel and Gretal are abandoned in the forest (at a stepmother’s suggestion, not the mother’s. Was the mother thinking if she died she’d be replaced, and so was suggesting to her children No substitute mother can love you like I do? This is my theory.) When the children find a cottage they don’t knock on the door, they begin eating it.  O.K., it’s made of gingerbread but, even so, they’re eating a house. When the witch captures the children, what does she see?  Food.  Gretal tricks the witch and pushes her into the oven where she bakes, the fate the witch had intended for both Gretal and her brother.
I could swear that as a child I read a version in which the children eat their captor, now turned into gingerbread, but I can find no reference to such a version, so…never mind.  Still, I wonder if I might’ve guessed right about the earliest, most primaeval version.  After all, these stories get cleaned up along the way, in their journey through countries and centuries.


The Hanzel and Gretal tale is struck through with famine-hunger, the kind most of us, in the span of our lives, will never experience—even when on a diet or enduring a 12-hour fast.
We are a spoiled people and, as often as not, those accusing others of being so are themselves spoiled.
Years back, I had a student from a south-of-the-border country, I don’t remember now which one.  Once in that class, an exercise related to childhood memories produced a few poems about first experiences of death, and most of these featured a terminally ill grandparent hooked to an IV. This other student, drawing from other environs, recalled obsessively licking the walls of his house.  When older, he realized that his malnourished body had been craving minerals and salt. The shelter he lived in was partially constructed from soil.


So, there you have it, something toward an explanation of why I chose this poem, the one that’s savvy to the nightmarish elements of centuries old bedtime stories and their application to our current wakeful and unresting world.



Tom Laichas

Fairy Tale Still Life


There’s a boy and a girl and a king and a queen, a mirror, an apple, a knife, and a toad. In the forest are wolves and breadcrumbs. someone wants something bad enough to kill for it.


The boy and the girl and the king and the queen are still as a porcelain service, as calm day-napping cats. In the country of bedtime stories, the family sits at their table in silence. The servants are gone, the words of command locked in the gun cabinet. Mirrors are nothing but mirrors,  knives are nothing but knives, breadcrumbs lead nowhere. The toads croak when spoken to.


Beyond the bedside where the story speaks, beyond the bedroom where a child listens, beyond the house and all that’s in it, out in the wide world are the dark wanting wastes. That’s where poison corrupts the apple, where the toad carries plague, where breadcrumbs lead back to false mirrors whose faces are wolves.


It takes fieldstone and stark terror to build that castle. But even the castle is safer than in our own muddy backlane, where we tell the castle’s story to put the children to sleep.



Suzanne Lummis

The Big Babies
After “The Babies by Mark Strand


Let us save the big babies.
Let us vacate our premises
And head east, nimbly as possible.


The big babies are subscribing
to their own ideas, filling their own
big shoes. Let us hurry to the White Hill


where they accrue in large numbers,
bubbling in the feeding bowls
of themselves. They are fomenting plans.


I will don a wreath of spring lilies
and a gossamer gown.
You will spruce yourself up.


Let our bodies take flight.
The big babies sit trapped in their skin.
They grew, but it failed to stretch.


What can save the big babies?
The fabled Cow Toy of the Andalusians?
A milk balm from the Gurgling Fen?

Let us hurry.

We must drop what we’re doing.
A small item flies from my purse.


No searching for mislaid things.
There’s no time to look back.
They are shifting and grouping.


They have appointed a leader,
King of the Big Babies.
It is almost too late.


What can calm the big babies?
The Lost Teething Ring of the Last Golem?
Play money that can pass for counterfeit?


They think some winning will save them.
They believe some losing is winning.
We must sprint faster.


Nothing is certain. No one is safe.
One contagion is air-borne.
They sicken and die or recover.


One contagion is thought-borne.
Angry, colicky, the infected
start to resemble each other.


Let our strides become leaps, arcing
and graceful. Let your legs churn the wind.
No, we’re arriving too slowly, too late.


Already, choice words fall away.
My mind begins to close like nut.
Let us, let us, let us save let us save


go on without me.      No
no…I am fine. I am good.


He is Great.


Tom Laichas is author of three books of poetry, most recently Three Hundred Streets of Venice California (FutureCycle Press, 2023). His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Los Angeles Times, The Irish Times, Breakwater, Aesthetica (UK),Main Street Rag, The High Window Review (UK), and elsewhere. He lives with his family in Venice, California.

Poet Suzanne Lummis is a 2018/19 COLA (City of Los Angeles) fellow, an award from the Cultural Affairs Department to influential Los Angeles-based mid-career artists and writers. It comes with an endowment to create new work.  She has three full-length collections and her poems have appeared in noted literary journals across the country and in The New Yorker. produces her web series, They Write by Night, in which she — or her character — explores film noir and the poets influenced by that that style, mood and those themes.   She’s the series editor of The Pacific Coast Poetry Series/Beyond Baroque Books and edited the anthology Wide Awake: Poets of Los Angeles and Beyond, which David Ulin, then Book Editor of the Los Angeles Times, named one of the Ten Best Books of 2015.