Dorianne Laux's fifth book of poetry, The Book of Men, was released earlier this year. Spoiler alert: It is NOT ACTUALLY A BOOK OF MEN. It is a book of earth, and sex, and war, and food, and even a book of Cher. Yep. Cher. After reading The Book of Men I immersed myself in Laux's other books, and have emerged remembering what is best about reading poems.
Laux came to write relatively late, graduating from Mills College at 36 and publishing her first book of poems, Awake, when she was 38. If starting later and collecting experiences like treasures beforehand results in poems that pay as close attention to the world as Laux's do, writing poems before 30 should be STRONGLY DISCOURAGED.
The poems in all of these collections (which grow stronger, more disciplined, and more stylized chronoligically) generally read at face value like notations on a life, lived. "Ghosts" sees the narrator sitting on her stoop, watching a couple painting late into the night across the street, "their love, bare and simple/as that wet room." And sometimes that reading is enough. "Ghosts," for example, could have been written as a narrative paragraph instead of a poem, and the metaphor of aging and growing away from young love is no more apparent than when Laux writes:
I'm getting too old to sit on the porch in the rain,
to stay up all night
But sometimes the quotidian is queered. The aforementioned ode to Cher is a harsh critique of plastic surgery couched in nostalgia for "the old Cher,/the gangly, imperfect girl/before the shaving knife took her." The poem "Men" featured currently on the poet's website, insists that "it's tough being a guy[...]they are different/from us, except when they fall or stand alone on a wharf." That image is one of my favorites in The Book of Men. Humans are entirely separate from each other, except when they're not. Except when they're having sex ("Vacation Sex," "Kissing Again," "On the River," "Bakersfield, 1969), or in mental institutions together (the stunning "Quarter to Six," in Awake), or surviving horrifying abuse together ("Two Pictures of My Sister," "What My Father Told Me," "Skipping Stones," "Quarter to Six" again).
Now we come to the dakest of Laux's subject matter, which she deals with frankly and with a blunt brand of grace. The poet was herself institutionalized, and was beaten and sexually abused by her stepfather growing up. I was extremely frustrated with Phillip Levine's introduction to Awake, the book that deals most directly with Laux's abuse, as he sapped the power of the poetry with sentences like
In what is perhaps the central poem of the collection, "Quarter to Six," we have the remarkable image of two young women maddened and discarded in the wards of a public asylum. They do their best to help each other...
Et cetera et condescending cetera. It's not necessary, I don't think, for a writer to reveal the exact inspirations for writing, but Laux has been outspoken about her past, having taken part in an extensive interview with writer Kathy Butler about her history with psychotherapy, and to ignore that she is a survivor, and deem the "image" of two victims "remarkable" is to greatly cheapen the power of the circumstance Laux describes. Awake is harsh, gut-wrenching reading, but it looks down at the dark always just before looking up to the next wonder-filled thing. For better or worse, Laux's later books are less intense reading, more yearning and observation than torment and ablution. That said, she makes the whole world a different, better flavor, even if she's just watching birds play with plastic in a parking lot ("Ravens of Denali").
Mary Oliver, another of the world's more perfect poets, said in her poem "Sometimes":
Instructions for living a life:
Tell about it.
Dorianne Laux may be the writer I've read in recent memory who follows that advice most faithfully, and with the most rewarding results.