As of yesterday, I’ve been working in New York for two years now. (Living here has not been quite as long, since I was crashing on my brother’s couch the first six weeks.) I think that my boss calling out that fact sort of drove home the point to me that I’ve been feeling very strongly for the last several days, that I need to make better use of my time here. This is a mindset that crops up every few months after I hit a lull and need to snap out of it; this one is different in that I don’t think I realized I was in a lull at all until Pride weekend. For some reason, all that celebration and whatnot sort of crystallized the deadening I’d been feeling. So once again, I’m twisting the ignition and turning my engine over (er, I hope that car metaphor is correct), hoping to start up some kind of new combustion. Change is life.
And all I will say about the Fourth of July is this: being the designated driver and minder for friends on certain psychoactive substances is much more fun by proxy than it ought to be. (Those fireworks, man.)
I’ve been slowly, slowly reading through Dorianne Laux‘s book since January: a few poems here, a few poems there. I didn’t want it to end, because I adore her work. I first became familiar with Laux back when ReadWritePoem was still around, and she did a celebrity prompt. (Guys: let me just say, this is how poetry prompts should be done.) Then, I finally had the pleasure of seeing her speak at the Dodge Festival, then meeting her at the Winter Getaway, where she signed my copy of Facts About the Moon, and was a perfect dear. I remarked that I had greatly enjoyed her Dodge talk about Ruth Stone’s use of sound (which I think I posted about on here), and she was chuffed that I had. Check out her poem “Dust“. It is my favorite of hers.
“Dust” also gives a good representation, I think, of Laux’s strengths. Facts About the Moon displays many poems with the same sensibilities: combinations of very quotidian events, with a surprising abstractness balanced by highly specific images, doing a kind of synecdoche for human experience. The formula could be, “minor event sums up a huge slab of emotion or history”. Or vice versa: zooming in and focusing on a broad, complex theme until one perceptible instant resolves in the glass. My reading of these poems is colored by having heard Laux read a couple of them: she has a very soothing presence and vocal style, with a Shepard tone style, the pitch somehow constantly falling very slowly. It adds a depth and thoughtfulness to poems that, in the hands/voice of a less gifted writer, would sometimes seem to lack what (here it comes!) our workshop moderator called the “cry of the occasion”. How could a topic such as the dust in a jigsaw puzzle box or a novelty ashtray carry a poem enough to make some deeper existential comment? Well, read and see.
As an example of how poems in the book strike me: Laux talked about how the title poem in the collection grew from stumbling across a TV special that was, indeed, listing facts about the moon. Here we have the Curious Moment, which, whenever people talk about “how do writers find inspiration”, should probably be a go-to concept. (If something stands out to you, it’s worthy of writing about, somehow; otherwise it wouldn’t have.) Laux began copying down those facts, and stuck with the one that said the Moon is slowly spiraling out of Earth’s orbit. With that one fact continually re-surfacing, she drew upon its potential both literally (imagining the prehistoric size of the Moon, what eclipses must have been like), and figuratively (personifying the Moon as a mother who’s lost a child, and developing a wrenching narrative about it). We have the celestial unified with the personal, with very straightforward, conversational language, all sprung from idle channel-surfing. The author has a keen observational sense with a hair trigger, ready to go off and start recording the instant something striking happens. You must ask yourself a series of questions when a detail of the world rises up: why is it there, attracting your attention? How can you tease significance out of it?
It is by this process that the majority of the poems in the book seem to be created. I do think that there are some which I can’t get into as easily: some of them, I suffer from the usual problems of un-relatability (not being a woman, or married), and some I think do not, in fact, have as much meat as the others. But even those thinner ones carry a lot of weight, and it’s an important exercise to develop the skill of looking for meaning in the narrowest places. I learned a new word or two, as well; of course we want poetry to be comprehensible, but I like being pushed to broaden my vocabulary a bit, and work for poetry. In turn, there are more than the fair share of poems which shatter hearts left and right, like “a blue cup fallen from someone’s hands”, as in the poem “What’s Broken”. And for poetry readers that do not care to wrangle with form, Laux is an excellent crafter of free verse, though a nice sonnet-ish poem or two turn up when you look carefully. I can’t help being a little bit resistant because there’s a part of my brain that knows, in the modern perception, this is how poetry “should” be written: fluidly, accessibly, but also literately and thoughtfully, folding small perfect images into a philosophical sea like chips into batter. I dig transgressive poetry as much as the next person, and feel a bit wary of textbook-perfect poems; but there’s a reason they’re textbook-perfect too. Consider me seduced.
A few samples:
“…the pale yellow
weeds of Maine; loosestrife, clover,
dodder, common cinquefoil.
When I set them on the slight mound
they toppled over on the grass where
they looked like old bruises. To say I cried
would not do justice to the moment.”
~ “My Brother’s Grave”
“O Shakespeare didn’t care if a hobo
wore a dress, a crown, as long as the day
was long, lovely, each word a cut rhinestone,
each touch, kiss, a dab of perfume, cologne.”
~ “For Matthew Shepard”
“Old habits die hard. Old waitresses
die harder, laid out in cheap cardboard coffins
in their lacy blue varicose veins, arches fallen
like grand cathedrals, a row of female Quasimodos:
each finely sprung spine humped from a lifetime
hefting trays. But they have smiles on their faces…”
Oh, fine, one more:
“…the dead tree rubs its fallen body
against the living, building
its dead music, making its raw mark,
wearing the tough bough down
as it moans and bends, the deep
rosined bow sound of the living
shouldering the dead.”
I’m thinking back to my semi-Quaker upbringing and the idea of speaking plain, which I think echoes the work here. There is artistry, but no artifice, here; intention, but no entendre. Laux is not (as far as I can tell) trying to be sly or obscurantist with her language, and wants us to join her in the particular thought-spaces she has created. We can, because they arose so unexpectedly and simply, and there is a logical progression we can follow (and down which we are led, by her practical hand). If you like this style, I recommend checking out her work, and some of her other books as well; not only does she have several excellent collections, but she also is one of those poets that has released an excellent writing guide with Kim Addonizio, The Poet’s Companion. (A lot of those writing guides aren’t that great, but theirs is marvelous.) I would be okay if the poetry universe defaulted to this style for the future; in the media, they talk about “saving poetry“, but I think that what they mean is, by recognizing the potential flourish of these daily moments and concerns we can’t/won’t examine now, we want poetry to save us.