Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Book of Men by Dorianne Laux

The Book of Men by Dorianne Laux, her fifth collection, is another offering from W.W. Norton. Though of the academy, part of the MFA machine, Laux is highly accessible, plainspoken, even hoi poloi.
The title of the book and the cover art, a collection of explicitly phallic fungi and plants growing out of a pair of men’s briefs, suggests that the thematic center of the book is masculinity, but that is not exactly the case. Only a dozen or so poems even involve men. I suspect that the cover and the title had more to do with Norton marketing than gender polemics.
The reader will find that this collection, like her earlier collection Smoke, is a mixture of confessional poems and poems, many of them odes, which deal with rock stars and celebrities such as Bob Dylan, Cher and Mick Jagger. This makes for good marketing too. American culture has little or no interest in poetry, but American culture is beyond obsessed with the cult of celebrity.  
The best poems, such poems as Juneau, Foster Child and Learning to Drive, all demonstrate Laux’s marvelous ability with metaphor and imagery.


In Alaska I slept in a bed on stilts, one arm
pressed against the ice feathered window, 
the heat on high, sweat darkening the collar 
of my cotton thermals. I worked hard to buy that bed, 
walked towards it when the men in the booths 
were finished crushing hundred dollar bills
into my hand, pitchers of beer balanced on my shoulder 
set down like pots of gold. My shift ended at 5 a.m.: 
station tables wiped clean, salt and peppers 
replenished, ketchups married. I walked the dirt road 
in my stained apron and snow boots, wool scarf, 
second-hand gloves, steam rising 
off the backs of horses wading chest deep in fog. 
I walked home slow under Orion, his starry belt 
hung heavy beneath the cold carved moon.  
My room was still, quiet, squares of starlight 
set down like blank pages on the yellow quilt.  
I left the heat on because I could afford it, the house 
hot as a sauna, and shed my sweater, my skirt, 
toed off my boots, slung my damp socks 
over the oil heater’s coils. I don’t know now 
why I ever left. I slept like the dead 
while outside my window the sun rose 
low over the glacier, and the glacier did its best 
to hold on, though one morning I woke to hear it 
giving up, sloughing off a chunk of antediluvian ice 
that sounded like the door to heaven opening 
on a badly hung hinge. Those undefined days 
I stared into the blue scar where the ice 
had been, so clear and crystalline it hurt. I slept 
in my small room and all night—or what passed for night 
that far north - the geography of the world 
outside my window was breaking, changing shape. 
And I woke to it and looked at it and didn’t speak

In rereading her poems, I wonder why I am not more enthusiastic about them. It occurs to me that I feel about these poems the same way I feel about the city of Chicago. There are the bridges of metaphor and simile that I admire and enjoy. There is imagery aplenty, a city’s worth of sights and sounds, but somehow, and perhaps this is not fair to say, it just isn’t Paris. Here we have the marshalling of workaday details, the gritty particulars of the working class (the collection is dedicated to Philip Levine) which build to wonderful image of the glacier sloughing off like the door to heaven opening/ on a badly hung hinge. Yet even this excellent poem never finds a destination. It just stops.
The polysyndeton of the last line shows that Laux wants the reader to slow down and consider it, but there is nothing to consider. The speaker stays the animal observer and not the human interpreter throughout. As a result, this poem reads as if it is not finished. Not that the poet should take the reader to some overtly sententious wisdom line—such is the fatal flaw of poets like Stephen Dunn and Mary Oliver—but it seems to me that we should arrive somewhere. There are many such go-nowhere-poems in this collection—poems like Emily Said, Lighter, and Late Nite TV— and they seem to enact an alienation—a sub-current sense of social anomie 
 Far and away, Laux’s  prevailing  poetic technique is the list, and this list technique can quickly become formulaic.  Ending a list poem, making it seem more than just an inventory, is another problem.  Here is how Laux seems to do it. She free associate any and all connotations of whatever it is she is describing and lists these things as cleverly as possible. Then, perhaps faced with the difficulty of ending such a list, she opt for the anachronistic and apostrophic OH or O --as if in the throes of a Keatsian swoon.

A Short History of the Apple

The crunch is the thing, a certain joy in crashing through
living tissue, a memory of Neanderthal days.
                  —Edward Bunyard, The Anatomy of Dessert, 1929
Teeth at the skin. Anticipation.
Then flesh. Grain on the tongue.
Eve’s knees ground in the dirt
of paradise. Newton watching
gravity happen. The history
of apples in each starry core,
every papery chamber’s bright
bitter seed. Woody stem
an infant tree. William Tell
and his lucky arrow. Orchards
of the Fertile Crescent. Bushels.
Fire blight. Scab and powdery mildew.
Cedar apple rust. The apple endures.
Born of the wild rose, of crab ancestors.
The first pip raised in Kazakhstan.
Snow White with poison on her lips.
The buried blades of Halloween.
Budding and grafting. John Chapman
in his tin pot hat. Oh Westward
Expansion. Apple pie. American
as. Hard cider. Winter banana.
Melt-in-the-mouth made sweet
by hives of Britain’s honeybees:
white man’s flies. O eat. O eat.

Personally, I find the epigraph to be more compelling than the poem itself.  Here is another fairly typical list poem from Laux:

From  Gold

Color of J.C. Penney’s jewelry, trinket
in a Cracker Jack box, color of roadside
weeds, candy wrapper in a gutter. Color

of streamers tied to the handlebars
of a rusty bike, color of rust on the bike’s
dented fender. Color of food stamps
and welfare checks, dirt swept
into the long hole of the missing board
on the back porch, the untended sore,
phlegm in the hotel toilet bowl. Color

of mold in the broken refrigerator, light
bulb hung over the dog-shredded screen,
color of curtainless kitchen windows
throbbing through the dark, color
of underwear stains, old bandages, knees
of worn jeans, filters of generic cigarettes,
brand x bottles of beer, lighter flints,
match heads, dry leaves.

The poem continues listing all that glitters gold and, faced with how to end such a gilded enumeration, Laux lands on the homeless who are wheeled out at the last minute to lend the poem some gravitas. 

color of the edges of bargain basement
books dropped in the bin, dust rising in gold
motes onto the long tables in the public library
where the homeless come to sit in rows, heads
fallen on their folded arms like good school
children, taking a nap.

           There can be both joy and surprise in list poems. Such poems can even be a tonic from the semantically private and confessional poems in small doses, but offered overly much, some list poems can be a bit numbing and tiresome.
            All my cavils aside, I still think this collection to be well-worth the purchase price. Her poems seem effortless and I am glad that the cultural stars in our culture, such as it is, are a fit subject for a poet of Laux’s talent. Her use of metaphor and imagery alone make Laux a worthwhile read.