One Wild Word
by Susan Kelly-DeWitt
Facts About the Moon, poems by Dorianne Laux, W.W. Norton, New York, 2007, 101 pages, $14.95 paperback. Winner of the Stafford/Hall Award for Poetry.
I recently decided to reread John Berger's Ways of Seeing and was struck once again by the genius of his vision, in 1972, when it was first published.
Publicity turns consumption into a substitute for democracy. The choice of what one eats (or wears or drives) takes the place of significant political choice. Publicity helps to mask and compensate for all that is undemocratic within society. And it also masks what is happening in the rest of the world.
In many ways, reading Dorianne Laux's fourth collection of poems, Facts About the Moon, seemed like a natural segue. (Her fifth collection, The Book of Men, also from Norton, was published earlier this year, 2011.)
The book is divided into four sections. The first explores and implodes the myths of democracy. Beginning with poems like "The Life of Trees":
if not a long exhaustive cringe
from the blade, the teeth? I want to sleep
and dream the life of trees, beings
from the muted world who care
nothing for Money, Politics, Power,
Will or Right…
and continuing with "Democracy" itself:
So you walk into the cold you know: the wind, indifferent blade,
familiar, the gold leaves heaped along the gutters. You have
a home, a house with gas heat, a toilet that flushes. You have
a credit card, cash. You could take a taxi if one would show up.
You can feel it now: why people become Republicans: Get that dog
off the street. Remove that spit and graffiti. Arrest those people huddled
on the steps of the church. If it weren't for them you could believe in god,
The second section includes the title poem "Facts About the Moon," which sets the tone for both the section and the book. Here's an excerpt from the longer (two and a half-page) poem:
What's a person supposed to do?
I feel the gray cloud of consternation
travel across my face. I begin thinking
about the moon-lit past, how if you go back
far enough you can imagine the breathtaking
ugeness of the moon, prehistoric
solar eclipses when the moon covered the sun
so completely there was no corona, only
a darkness we had no word for.
And future eclipses will look like this: the moon
a small black pupil in the eye of the sun.
But these are bald facts.
What bothers me most is that someday
the moon will spiral right out of orbit
and all land-based life will die.
Forget us. We don't deserve the Moon.
Maybe we once did but not now
after all we've done. These nights
I harbor a secret pity for the moon…
The last third of the poem takes a surprising turn that gives the poem its true genius. The poem compares the moon to a mother in ER:
who's lost a child, a bad child,
a greedy child or maybe a grown boy
who's murdered and raped, a mother
can't help it, she loves that boy
anyway, and in spite of herself
she misses him, and if you sit beside her
on the padded hospital bench
outside the door to his room you can't not
take her hand, listen to her while she
weeps, telling you how sweet he was,
how blue his eyes, and you know she's only
romanticizing, that she's conveniently
forgotten the bruises and booze,
the stolen car, the day he ripped
the phones from the walls, and you want
to slap her back to sanity, remind her
of the truth: he was a leech, a fuckup,
a little shit, and you almost do
until she lifts her pale puffy face, her eyes
two craters, and then you can't help it
either, you know love when you see it,
you can feel its lunar strength, its brutal pull.
Many of the poems that follow explore the dark places—in wildness, in human society at large, and in personal bereavement.
I found that the poems in the book grew on me as I read and reread them—their attention to raw details like the cigarette butts in "Laundry and Cigarettes": "….I've counted sixteen / crushed butts, spittle-laced filters of lipsticked / Winstons, half-moon traces the color of dried blood, / to which I've added my own…"; their unflinching empathy as illustrated in the title poem above; their ongoing, explicit, joyous, sometimes exhibitionistic sexuality, as in "Vacation Sex." There is humor here too, in poems like "Superglue": "…the skin / truly bonded as they say happens immediately, thinking: / Truth in Labeling…" —among my favorites (along with "Little Magnolia") from the third section.
The eccentric, exuberant love poem called simply, "Face Poem" is a tour de force. It begins:
Your craggy mountain goat face.
Your mole-ridden, whiskered, stumpy fish of a face. Face
I turn to, face I trust, face I trace with grateful fingertips,
jaw like a hinge, washboard forehead, the deep scar a gnarl
along the scritch of your chin.
If I hadn't already quoted so much text already, I'd type "Face Poem" in its entirety here, but you get the idea: It rollicks along.
The final section of the book is the most lyrically intense, with poems like "Starling"—quirky and brilliant. An Ars Poetica, it casts a sharp eye on the poems before and also addresses the future.
Tail a fanfare and the devil's
kindling. Oh to be a rider
on that purple storm. Not
peacock or eagle but lowly
starling, Satan's bird,
spreading her spotted wings
over the Valley of Bones.
To build a home within her, stark
shanty for the soul, bonfire stoked
with pine-sap sage, smoke
rising through her ribs, her skin,
tainting the undersides of leaves.
Marrow house from which the one
wild word escapes. Stave and barrel
world of want. Of late, my plush
black nest. My silver claw
and gravel craw. My only song.
Surely this poem is one that Keats himself would love.
"Every body / I know and care for, / And every body / Else is going / To die in a loneliness / I can't imagine and a pain / I don't know," wrote James Wright in "Northern Pike."
Everything goes up in smoke. We all fly over the Valley of Bones. Let's sing while we can. Let's speak, says Laux, "one wild word."
An envoi: I bought Laux' first book Awake right after it came out in 1990. Shortly after that I heard her read her poems in a small crowded room on the University of California, Davis campus. I remember how the poems seemed to sizzle around our heads—how energized and buoyed I felt after reading and hearing them, as if a little door had winched opened in a space ship and I could float out weightless through it, toward the moon.
I went back over those early poems (and the poems in her second and third books) in preparation for writing this review. Those books reminded me of where Laux has been and what she saw there. Since then she has continued to develop her sensibility and her craft, so that Facts About the Moon takes an even wider view: it looks out with macroscopic vision to the public and private universes we inhabit together.
Susan Kelly-DeWitt's most recent book of poetry is The Fortunate Islands. A contributing editor of Poetry Flash, she lives Sacramento.