by Meryl Natchez
Only as the Day Is Long: New and Selected Poems, by Dorianne Laux, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2019, 166 pages, $26.95 hardcover.
WHEN YOU ENTER THE world of Dorianne Laux as revealed in Only as the Day Is Long: New and Selected Poems, you enter a world rich with domestic imagery. Much of that imagery is fraught with violence. To survive that violence, the poet had to be tough. She is "the girl who cut though blue poolrooms/ of smoke and golden beers, stepping out alone/ into a summer fog.…" ("Ghosts") She was a good bad girl, doing what she's told, whether she had to hang laundry on a line or participate in the abuse her father meted out. In one poem she has to hold her father's penis "like the garden hose, in this bedroom/ or that bathroom, over the toilet/ or my bare stomach." ("What My Father Told Me")
Yet somehow, despite the violence, what shines through this poetry, what makes it transcendent, is an overwhelming tenderness towards the ordinary things of the world:
My daughter dusts biscuit dough.
And there's a man who will lift my hair
in his hands, brush it
until it throws sparks.…
while the world tilts
toward sleep, until what I love
misses me, and calls me in.
(from "On the Back Porch")
Already in her first book, Awake, the range of emotion in her poems is apparent, from the raw, visceral pain humans inflict on each other and themselves, to love as delicate as tiny gold footprints of a tooth fairy. She has a knack for the perfect detail. In What We Carry, she jabs at stray cats not with a broom but with its "bristle end." Laux's poems are grounded in the world of the everyday; moments of revelation occur between pumping gas and buying wheat bread and milk; a box with a father's ashes jostles the breakfast rolls in the front seat.
I like watching the progression through the books. Smoke includes a poem detailing her delight in the act of smoking—who else has the courage to praise so transgressive a habit? The poems in this book go deep, as in the poem "The Lovers," about making love, which ends with the powerful lines he "as she arches and screams, watches the face that,/ if she could see it, she would never let him see." Grief is a theme throughout this book, never sentimental, grounded in parking garages and train tracks.
In Facts About the Moon the subject matter broadens to include the splendor of the wild: birds, trees, the natural world. The same sensibility, gritty, loving, wounded, skittish; the spirit of the survivor infuses them. So that "The Crossing," a poem about elk crossing a road, ends:
But my husband stays on, to talk to the one
who won't budge, oblivious to her sisters,
a long stalk of fennel gyrating between her teeth.
Go on, he beseeches, Get going, but the lone elk
stands her ground, their noses less than a yard apart.
One stubborn creature staring down another.
This is how I know the marriage will last.
Her skill at melding the minutiae of the seen world with the always present undercurrent of complex feeling seems to blossom in this book. Poem after poem mixes the gritty, daily details with a whiff of the mythic: so a poem about her fingers stuck to a glass with superglue expands to "…This is how I began inside/ my mother's belly…legs one thick fin of thrashing flesh wanting to be two…," moving to birth itself, into "…the world/ piled around me with its visible seams: cheap curtains,/ cupboard doors, cut bread on a plate.…" ("Superglue") Laux, more than any poet I've read, is able to fuse these two worlds into a kind of defiant praise. A praise that doesn't minimize the grim, the unpleasant, the tedious and mundane, but somehow makes them shimmer. It's rare to read a book through and find so much to marvel at.
Of all the selections in the book, those from The Book of Men seem least satisfying to me, but the death of the poet's mother, whatever else it did, crystallizes the power of the new poems, the mother who "…taught us how to glean the good/ from anything, pardon anyone, even you.…" ("Death of the Mother") This death leads Laux back into the heart of her poems, domestic beauty and pain, the love/hate of family, the recurrent troubles of the poor, the boozers, the smokers who know how to laugh. And the poet knows how to capture their doomed beauty. The long poem "Arizona" captures it all. But it's the title poem I want to quote from here, to end this review:
Her atoms are out there, circling the earth, minus
her happiness, minus her grief, only her body's
water atoms, her hair and bone and teeth atoms,
her fleshy atoms, her boozy atoms, her saltines
and cheese and tea, but not her piano concerto
atoms, her atoms of laughter and cruelty, her atoms
of lies and lilies along the driveway and her slippers,
Lord her slippers, where are they now?
Meryl Natchez's forthcoming poetry book is The Catwalk of Consciousness, to be published by Longship Press in early 2020. She is also the author of a bilingual volume of translations from the Russian, Poems From the Stray Dog Café; her previous book of poems is Jade Suit. Her work has appeared in The American Journal of Poetry, ZYZZYVA, Atlanta Review, Comstock Review, and elsewhere. She blogs at www.dactyls-and-drakes.com.