All too often, contemporary poets fall victim to the belief that they must over-elevate their diction and earn points for being clever before they're allowed to relax a bit and simply be honest. Dorianne Laux is a poet who has the guts, the heart, and the lyrical chops to do otherwise. She is one of the best living poets and The Book of Men is one of her best collections.
In the very first poem, Staff Sgt. Metz, Laux demonstrates her uncanny knack for heartfelt narrative: “Metz is alive for now, standing in line / at the airport Starbucks in his camo gear / and buzz cut, his beautiful new / camel-colored suede boots” (17). One could easily write an entire review addressing the craft, social/political commentary, and deliberate pacing of just those four lines! What’s most striking about the poem, though, is the narrator’s way of stepping onto the stage while still allowing us to keep our focus on the character of Sgt. Metz, which is exactly where it should be: “I can see into the canal in his right ear, / a narrow darkness spiraling deep inside his head / toward the place of dreaming and fractions, / ponds of quiet thought.” This is where Laux shines: her subtle humanism, which is all the more striking because it comes from such an uncompromising voice.
There is plenty of subtle social and political commentary in this book, though that commentary comes, as it should, through the lens of personal experience. And when Laux does shift toward the overtly autobiographical, she does so with elegance and lyrical brevity, as exemplified by poems like Mother’s Day:
I passed through the narrow hills
of my mother’s hips one cold morning
and never looked back, until now, clipping
her tough toenails, sitting on the bed’s edge
combing out the tufts of hair at the crown
where it ratted up while she slept… (75)
Even as she portrays the awkward mortality of the child caring for the parent, though, Laux’s poem echoes with tenderness, measured humor, and redemption: “She’s afraid…. I help her / with the buttons on her sweater. She looks / hard at me and says the word sleeve. / Exactly, I tell her and her face relaxes / for the first time in days.”
Some of these same themes resonate in Lost in Costco, a poem that seems at first to be about an elderly, likely senile mother wandering off and getting lost in a typical American superstore crowded with “cheap jeans, open bins of discounted CDs,” and “buzzing fluorescent lights” (55). Yet the poem takes an interesting turn wherein the mother is found by a piano, “[taking] requests from the crowd.” This segues beautifully to the poems’ closing, wherein the narrator remembers being a child and asking the mother to play certain songs, identified by humming “a few bars,” trusting that the mother would play the right song though she had “so little to go on.” This moment—both self-indicting and celebratory of an ailing mother’s love and humor—is about as good as any I’ve ever read on the subject of aging.
Then in Fall, one of the final poems from this collection, Laux performs the kind of lyrical magic trick that got many of us interested in poetry in the first place. She pretty much manages in six lines to sum up more or less every vying school of poetic, religious, and philosophical thought, while still illustrating how goddamn silly and reductive they all are:
I’m tired of stories about the body,
how important it is, how unimportant,
how you’re either a body
hauling a wrinkled brain around
or a brain trailing a stunned sheen
of flesh… (82)
Laux’s poems are Confessional at times, especially in their unflinching examination of the body, yet her tongue-in-cheek ruminations on human nature remind me of the so-called New York School. That’s an academic point, though; ultimately, what matters most is that these poems manage to be lyrical and uncompromising while also being insightful, tender, and immensely forgiving.
Personally, I define a “successful poem” as one that's entertaining to read, sounds good (with is shorthand for “It has richly textured use of alliteration, assonance, and the cadence of stressed versus unstressed syllables”), has some sort of intellectual/emotional depth behind it, and like J.D. Salinger said, makes you wish the writer were your friend. I've never met Dorianne Laux in person but The Book of Men (like her last book, Facts About the Moon) makes me want to buy her a drink and just sit and listen to whatever the hell she has to say, because odds are, it will be something worth hearing.