Contemporary Poetry, Reviews, and Commentary
Ami Kaye, Review of Dorianne Laux’s “The Book of Men”
THE BOOK OF MEN
In her newest collection, The Book of Men, Dorianne Laux solidifies her standing as one of the most gifted poets writing today. Fans of her previous work will find an even greater range in this new book as she exposes the reader to fresh terrain with her unmistakable charm and genius. The scope of the book is expansive, from its clever and intricately rendered cover art to each of the poems within, reflecting a world in which the author unravels the mystery and splendor of men, and by extension, mankind itself.
Dorianne Laux orchestrates this poetry ensemble in the key signature of the “Y” chromosome. She wields her baton expertly to produce a varied mix of voices, styles and moods. The dynamics of her music result from a fine metrical balance and precise diction. She is a poet who takes chances, one who wants to “regret nothing.” In “Antilamentation” the speaker asserts “You’ve traveled this far on the back of every mistake,” and encourages us to embrace our mistakes as an inevitable part of life without dwelling on the past. Laux is a versatile writer with a strong poetic repertoire, her skill with language and pacing, impressive. The exuberance and wit in her work facilitates intimacy between the reader and writer as in the poem “Late Night TV, where the speaker ponders the mysteries of life: “We know nothing of how it all works,/ how we end up in one bed or another,/ speak one language instead of the others, what heat draws us to our life’s work.”
Laux’s agility with the narrative is evident in poems like “Middle Name.” In this poignant piece, the speaker wonders about the woman in a black and white photograph, “the one my mother loved enough to give me her name,/ to find a camera and take this photograph, Louise, keeper of my mother’s secrets and dreams.“ The finely nuanced emotion in Laux’s work causes her creations to take on a life of their own. The impact of her poems is a result of crafting which she achieves through careful, precise language, as in the line from “Staff Sgt. Metz,” where he does not sip, but slurps the coffee. In the opening poem, Laux presents a vivid snapshot of the testosterone-laden army man. “His hands are thick-veined” she tells us, The good blood/ still flows through,/ given an extra surge/ when he slurps his latte,”
The lyrical heft of her lines clearly takes on center stage in poems such as “Dark Charms.” “Eventually the future shows up everywhere” she says of time and its ravages. The echoes of emotion weave inevitably with music in this gem. The reader is aware of a haunting beauty, a mystical awareness riding fluidly on the arc of the poem:
“We continue to speak, if only in whispers,
to something inside us that longs to be named.
We name it the past and drag it behind us,
bag like a lung filled with shadow and song,
dreams of running, the key to lost names.”
In the “The Secret of Backs” the speaker shares the thrill of ordinary moments. She creates a tension by building sensuous images and then into that silence drops a phrase that takes your breath. Her words create a compact and powerful lyric expression and pulse with libidinal energy, while meaning and content are layered and build from sentence to sentence:
“The up-swept oh my
nape of the neck. I could walk behind anyone and fall in love.”
In “Late-Night TV,” Laux draws an arresting image by combining the violence of birth with the tenderness of parental love:
“What cup of love poured him into this world?
Did his mother touch her lips
to his womb-battered crown
and inhale his scent?”
Some of the poems such as “The Rising” reverberate with power. There is something palpable about the poem, its raw urgency and warmth is compelling. We can feel the beating heart of this poem as the mare struggles to give birth, we can see the action, pitch and roll. We are with her on this rollercoaster of pain and glory—the intensity of this poem builds with its motion, gait, and rhythm:
“and by a willful rump and switch of tail hauled up,
flank and fetlock, her beastly burden, seized
and rolled and wrenched and winched the wave…”
Perhaps the signature virtue of Laux’s writing is integrity; we know she says what she means. That is why she connects with readers so easily. Laux has always been an accessible poet whose poems blend sensuality with candor. She writes those poems in a straightforward manner that belies the complexity of human experience. Equally apparent is her ability to paint vivid images that draw the reader in. You would think a poet who has published a book entitled Facts About the Moon would be fresh out of “moon” visuals, but that is clearly not the case:
“Moon a manhole cover sunk in the boulevard
of night, monocle on a chain, well of light,
a frozen pond lifted and thrown like a discus
onto the sky.”
In the delightful, unexpected poem “Lighter,” the speaker tells us to be free spirits occasionally, to step out of the self-imposed boxes we’ve made. The poem speaks of living and taking chances, for trying out something we haven’t done, even if it means skirting the danger line. “Steal something worthless, / something small, every once in a while.” The poem progresses through a series of possibilities to finally pronounce:
“Sit on a stone bench and dig deep for it,
touch your thumb to the greased metal wheel.
Call it a gift from the gods of fire.
Call it your due.”
Laux excels as a narrative poet. Her themes are rooted in the twenty-first century. It is the here and now on which the poet focuses. She portrays the uneven, complex human condition, the business of our everyday lives. Her attention to detail creates an atmosphere that is highly effective. In “Homicide Detective: A Film Noir,” she is able to sharpen our focus by using a variety of elements, a syncopated enjambment among others, to bring a brittle darkness to the poem, deepening its ambiance:
“We got loose ends, we got
dead ends, we got split ends,
hair in the drains, fingerprints
on glass. This is where I stand,
my hat glittery with rain,
casting my restless shadow.”
Another poem where her superbly chosen words bond with the reader’s imagination to create tangential shifts within the theme is “A Short History of the Apple.” This poem, rich in illusion as she speaks of the “winter banana,” and where mythical and historical figures like Eve, Newton and Snow White make a cameo appearance, is delectable, sumptuous. Further in the book, from “To Kiss Frank…” she speaks of death’s suddenness, and how the awareness of death’s inevitability can make each moment infinitely precious:
“That’s how it is with death.
Those you love come at you like lightning,
crackle for an instant—so kissable—
and then lips and all, they’re gone.”
Laux is a master of aural sensation. Whereas in poems like “The Rising” one hears obvious rhythms, “Monks in the Grande Chartreuse” is infused with a reverent quietude; the air here is still and sacred. Laux uses precise imagery and well placed punctuation to emphasize the quiet and sparseness of the atmosphere. Not only is this the art, but the craft of writing. As “they chant/ with closed eyes” and eat their meager soup:
“Nothing enters or leaves this quiet.
No bird. No squirrel. Cold white,
every branch still.”
Aside from lyricism and musical structure, poetry is carried through imagery. Laux, with the clarity of a keen poetic intelligence, has a knack for striking just the right note, setting the scene, and creating atmosphere with a few, well-chosen words, “I walked home slow under Orion, his starry belt/heavy beneath the cold, carved moon.”
“Mine Own Phil Levine” shows her literary inheritance, an even deeper source of inspiration to endow the future. Every writer can relate to the lines below:
“He said If you don’t write, it won’t
Get written. No tricks. No magic
About it. He gave me his gold pen
He said What’s mine is yours.”
Upon reading this book, Geoffrey Chaucer springs to mind. The same kind of sly portraiture, tongue-in- cheek humor and the laser, spot-on observations in his Canterbury Tales characterize Laux’s deft caricatures. We experience Mick Jagger “yowling with his rubber mouth,” Superman reading Fortune with Lois on the cover as he smokes pot, and Staff Sgt. Metz downing his java while we zoom down:
“…a narrow darkness spiraling deep inside his head
toward the place of dreaming…”
Laux encompasses those dreams and hopes. She welcomes dreams but refrains from romanticizing them, instead, she writes poems in a grounded reality that brim over with life. She closes the collection with a stellar piece “Roots.” The sensuousness and empathy of “Who among us/ wouldn’t give a year or more to lean against/the wind and gaze down into the void?” demonstrates her rapport with humanity at large. Women are not left out of the equation as she writes about them with insight and compelling depth. Laux is an accomplished story teller who does not believe in predetermined boundaries but rather in finding pathways that have a timeless relevance. Her beautiful layered and honest language continues to yield surprises, and in a well-modulated, pitch perfect voice, she show us the magic a master poet can conjure with a scattering of words. She says in “Late-Night TV,” “Somewhere in the universe is a palace/where each of us is imprinted with a map.” In The Book of Men, Dorianne locks her unerring GPS on our psyches and homes in to all we share together as humans.
Ami Kaye is the author of What Hands Can Hold, and the forthcoming Singer of the Ragas. Ami’s poems, reviews and articles have appeared in various publications including Cartier Street Review, Peony Moon, The Argotist Online, Luciole Press, Diode Poetry Journal and Scottish Poetry Review. Her work was nominated for the James B. Baker award, and included in the Soul Feathers anthology from Indigo Dreams Publishing and the Rising in Hope anthology from Tinfoildresses. Ami Kaye publishes Pirene’s Fountain, and is the editor of the anthology Sunrise from Blue Thunder, a Pirene’s Fountain project for the Japan 2011 disaster relief fund.