Monday, March 1, 2010

on Dorianne Laux's poetry


I met Dorianne Laux twenty years go when she was a protege of San Diego area poet Steve Kowit. She gave a reading at the bookstore I worked at, and what I heard was one of the most accomplished young poets I've had the luck to listen to or read. Her language is straight forward without being plain, her imagery is made of everyday things that are made to glow or grow dark with the turns of human joy , sadness , or darker moods, her phrasing is artful , and she is among the very few one is likely to come across who's work is notable for its heart and its skewed readings of small things, intimate things.


Break
by Dorianne Laux

We put the puzzle together piece
by piece, loving how one curved
notch fits so sweetly with another.
A yellow smudge becomes
the brush of a broom, and two blue arms
fill in the last of the sky.
We patch together porch swings and autumn
trees, matching gold to gold. We hold
the eyes of deer in our palms, a pair
of brown shoes. We do this as the child
circles her room, impatient
with her blossoming, tired
of the neat house, the made bed,
the good food. We let her brood
as we shuffle through the pieces,
setting each one into place with a satisfied
tap, our backs turned for a few hours
to a world that is crumbling, a sky
that is falling, the pieces
we are required to return to.

Balance of sentiment and rhetoric make her endlessly readable and quietly inspiring as she takes a small thing and makes it into something quite radiant. Laux's mastery of the believable tongue enables to make unexpected yet credible twists in conventional subject matter and to make emotions that have been talked to death by my estimation resonate with a true ring of recognition. This cunning rescues this poem, “Break” from sentimentality, and that gives us a clue to what makes this and her best work stand apart; she is in touch with her emotion, but she has the skill to get to the heart of them . This poem of she and her mate playing with the child is touching because it brings you into the moment and lets you be a witness instead of the reader being lectured; Laux speaks with an intimate "we", meaning not just her husband but also any one of us who have set aside our agendas to raise children, enduring their tantrums, feeling heartened by their laughter, consoling them in sadness.



GRAVEYARD AT HURD'S GULCH

His grave is strewn with litter again,
crumpled napkins, a plastic spoon, white
styrofoam cup tipped on its side, bright
half-moon of lipstick on the rim.
I want to scold her for the mess she's left,
the flattened grass and squashed grapes,
but I've seen her walking toward the trees,
her hollow body receding, her shadow
following behind. I'm the intruder,
come not to mourn a specific body
but to rest under a tree, my finger tracing
the rows of glowing marble,
the cloud-covered hips of the hills.
I always take the same spot,
next to the sunken stone that says MOTHER,
the carved dates with the little dash between them,
a brief, deep cut, like a metaphor for life.
Does she whisper, I wonder, to the one
she loves, or simply eat and sleep, content
for an hour above the bed of his bones?
I think she brings him oranges and secrets,
her day's torn and intricate lace.
I have no one on this hill to dine with.
I'm blessed. Everyone I love is still alive.
I know there is no God, no afterlife,
but there is this peace, the granite angel
with the moss-covered wings whose face
I have grown to love, her sad smile
like that sadness we feel after sex,
those few delirious hours when we needed nothing
but breath and flesh, after we've flown back
into ourselves, our imperfect heavy bodies,
just before that terrible hunger returns.

This poem as well brings to bear an entire life into one stanza, physical details of plastic spoons, wrappers, Styrofoam cups crisply described in its obsolescence (“Styrofoam cup tipped on its side, bright /half-moon of lipstick on the rim.”) nonchalantly desecrating a site dedicated to the eternal memory of one’s mother; the irony is that the trash indicates in it’s small way that life goes on and the bits and pieces of what we wrap our conveniences find a grave in the earth to. Laux contemplates that we proceed in death as well, in physical decomposition, and she offers up a lyric of death without transcendence, without migration to higher realms and yet entertains that death isn’t the end of it all, the period at the end of a long story. But she turns again to her life as it is, knowing this is goodbye and a final look at what remains of the woman who bore her and raised her; life, the narrator’s life, resides elsewhere. That is where Laux sharpest instinct as a poet lie, the ability to look back upon the significance of people , places and things that have gone away through death, marriage or migration, and then returning to the life that she is within, affirmed and joyous to have a life that's worth living.

She serves the situation with a fine, delicate balancing of the prosaic, the simple phrasing, and the higher allure of lyric speech, and allows neither to overwhelm the other. Her poems, often time presented to us in the guise of prose, has an intimacy rare among a generation of poets who maintain distance from their most volatile emotion; her poems have the power of revelation, of someone sorting through old photographs or a rediscovered journal who , while recounting their day, gets a high pitch in their voice as they realize something even they hadn't realized. Laux never forgets herself as a writer with a goal, fret not, there is a point she comes to, the pay off one expects to make the listing of a poet's personal world resonate in ways it other wise wouldn't.

She is suspicious of rhetorical resolutions to real problems and relationships that inhabit her poems, and offers instead an intimate tone, the voice of some one who begins to tell you a story after some arduous activity who then lays herself bare.

Not a confession, not a dumping of toxic emotion,but a revelation, possibly at the very instance when the clarity comes to her; all the bits and pieces of past events with family, husbands, friends who have passed on, are now a whole. Her poetry quite often is something wonderful, intimate, moving. I found this poem fitting for the month, since both my parents died, at different times , in August. The month has been a bit touchy for the family since that time, but we collectively give a shrug and move on with nary a pause to linger over the lives of the couple that born the four of us. One grieves, commemorates, and then moves on, right? Not so fast; sometimes in the middle of watching a television program or waiting for the bus , something falls inside of me. It's the sensation you'd imagine having inside an elevator who's cable had been suddenly cut. The bad news hits you again, and yet again, if you let it. Laux's poem on the matter , to coin phrase, speaks to me, and punches me in the gut.

How It Will Happen, When
Dorianne Laux

There you are, exhausted from a night of crying, curled up on the couch,
the floor, at the foot of the bed, anywhere you fall you fall down crying,
half amazed at what the body is capable of, not believing you can cry
anymore. And there they are, his socks, his shirt, your underwear
and your winter gloves, all in a loose pile next to the bathroom door,
and you fall down again. Someday, years from now, things will be
different, the house clean for once, everything in its place, windows
shining, sun coming in easily now, sliding across the high shine of wax
on the wood floor. You'll be peeling an orange or watching a bird
spring from the edge of the rooftop next door, noticing how,
for an instant, its body is stopped on the air, only a moment before
gathering the will to fly into the ruff at its wings and then doing it:
flying. You'll be reading, and for a moment there will be a word
you don't understand, a simple word like now or what or is
and you'll ponder over it like a child discovering language.
Is you'll say over and over until it begins to make sense, and that's
when you'll say it, for the first time, out loud: He's dead. He's not
coming back. And it will be the first time you believe it.


This speaker is talking about spending an period of her life trying to talk herself into accepting the loss of her dearly departed, and goes on from there to talk about a life that seems detached , dream like; there is an unreal calm in this world as she struggles to push on. She is emotionally numb, so far as I can tell, until it hits hurt, triggered by what some small matter, acutely detailed her, when the artifice comes apart and the fact of her friend's absence hits hard, almost like being struck. Laux isn't contradicting herself, but instead talking about the transition from merely mouthing the conventional platitudes of acceptance of a loss and the eventual , inevitable realization that her friend's absence is permanent.

Artifice includes ritual, which would be the sort of compulsive house cleaning one occupies their time with while trying to pretend that they are moving on with their life after the death of a loved one; the activity and the manic obsession with the details of these tasks are , for me, a conspicuous clue that there is something the person would rather not deal with.

There's an intuitive leap here, and I think the power of the poem is the quick but not illogical insertion of the final remark, that instance when you realize a loved one isn't returning; what Laux does here is show that a feeling like this is like a sudden attack, coming from seeming nowhere, leaving you in a what I could only describe as a state of shock. This is not a formal argument she is making; this has that eliding quality few poets capture well, the revelation expressed as if we're witnessing the thought coming to the narrator as she speaks.The "clean house" Laux mentions, with everything neatly arranged and placed in their place, every trace of a the person gone or tucked in some burnished-over corner:

the house clean for once, everything in its place, windows
shining, sun coming in easily now, skimming across
the thin glaze of wax on the wood floor. (...)


This is an apt metaphor for the attempt to deal with a loss by discarding personal reminders of the departed; the house is "clean", as in emotionally neutral, the goal being that his would be a reclaimed and re-imagined space where comes not to grow but to not feel, not a feel a thing. The absence of pain is mistaken as solace, and the narrator tries to sustain a numbness in her household. But comes undone, inevitably; the years the person had resided in those rooms, the small , shared rituals and pet phrases on familiar furniture have absorbed something of his spirit, it seems, and a memory is triggered, a flash comes upon the narrator. Those who are gone remain in the details regardless of who hard we scrub the floors or repair the roof:

You’ll be reading, and for a moment you’ll see a word
you don’t recognize, a simple words like cup or gate or wisp
and you’ll ponder like a child discovering language.
Cup, you’ll say over and over until it begins to make sense,
and that’s when you’ll say it, for the first time, out loud: He’s dead.


Although the his were burned and the household has been scoured and cleared of reminders that he once lived there, the space cannot be converted as if nothing had happened before. It's circular; what we toss out comes back to us .

He’s not coming back, and it will be the first time you believe it.

This is beautifully done, a set up for some one telling you that they've accepted life on life's terms , with the strong suggestion that they have exhausted their allotment of emotion, only to be struck once again that they've lost something valuable that cannot be replaced. The narrator is at the precipice, the classic existential situation: aware, finally, of the facts of her life as felt experience, it remains her choice to remain in stasis and so become bitter and reclusive, or to finally, truthfully let go of what she's held onto and take new risks.

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