No Ordinary Luminary – Dorianne Laux

The American poet Dorianne Laux (1952 – ) was unknown to me when I first met her at the Skagit River Poetry Festival in La Conner, Washington in 2002. But ever since then I have licked up her words like the finest honey. (For more on Laux and her poems see Favorite Poets on the home page.)

And in July 2011 I watched her walk to the podium at the Centrum Poetry Conference in Port Townsend, Washington, wearing a borrowed well-worn lumber jacket. Underneath it I look great! she quipped. Well, we never did see much underneath that jacket but then with this woman most of the action is underneath her words anyway. And that view is mesmerizing. And the music underneath all that carries her poems with such flourish.

As she gave her talk that night at Centrum she defined poetry as  the marriage of music and meaning. She  adjured the poets in the audience To break a poem down to see what they [the poets] are doing musically. We [poets] need to make it [poetry] beautiful, make music, [so the reader can] feel what is being said.

 One way Laux uses to feel the music of her favorite writers is to memorize them. Growing up she memorized chunks of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Romeo and Juliet.

For Laux the music in the best of writing creates the emotional connection and feeling from what is being said. She gave four examples of poems that exemplify for her the marriage between music and meaning: Thomus Lux’s Tarantulas on the Life Buoy, Ruth Stone’s Curtains, Li Young Lee’s One Heart and  Jane Hirschfield’s  The Ground Fall Pear.

In a recent interview published in Silk Road Review Laux  said, “I guess you could say I’m a free verse narrative poet, but that is so dry and lifeless. I write about life, significant moments that rise up from all the ordinary moments, and begin to sing: Pay attention!” There it is again, the link to music.

Sometimes Laux’s music is obvious, carried on the notes of bravura metaphors that light up her poems with lyric intensity. Take her poem Pearl, her tribute to Janis Joplin, for example. How apt that her music rock and rolls as it does in these lines from the poem:

She was nothing much, this plain-faced girl from Texas,
this moonfaced child who opened her mouth
to the gravel pit churning in her belly, acne-faced
daughter of Leadbelly, Bessie, Otis, and the booze-
filled moon, child of the honky-tonk bar-talk crowd
who cackled like a bird of prey, velvet cape blown
open in the Monterey wind, ringed fingers fisted
at her throat, howling the slagheap up and out
into the sawdusted air. Barefaced, mouth warped
and wailing like giving birth, like being eaten alive
from the inside, or crooning like the first child
abandoned by God, trying to woo him back,
down on her knees and pleading for a second chance.

from Smoke, BOA Editions,BrockportNY, 2000 p. 45

But Laux is also at home writing with less brio! A great example of this style is her poem, The Job.

For Tobey

When my friend lost her little finger
between the rollers of the printing press,
I hadn’t met her yet. It must have taken
months for the stump to heal, skin stretched
and stiched over bone, must have taken
years before she could consider it calmly,
as she does now, in an airport cafe
over a cup od black coffee.
SHe doesn’t complain or blame the unguarded
machine, the noise of the factory, the job
with its long unbroken hours.
She simply opens her damaged hand and studies
the emptiness, the loss
of symmetry and flesh, and tells me
it was small price to pay,
that her missing finger taught her
to take more care with her life,
with what she reaches out
to touch, to stay awake when she’s awake
and listen, to pay attention
to what’s turning in the world

There it is again: Laux’s call to pay attention. A job she does so well. But always with an ear for the sounds words make alone and in harmony with each other. From her latest book The Book of Men here is a fun romp through the words triggered by Emily D:

Emily Said    

Emily said she heard a fly buzz
when she died, heard it whizz
over her head, troubling her frizzed
hair. What will I hear? Showbiz
tunes on the radio, the megahertz
fuzz when the station picks up Yaz,
not the Hall-of-Famer or the Pez
of contraceptives, but the jazzy
flash-in-the-pan 80’s techo-pop star, peach fuzz
on his rouged cheeks singing Pal-ease
Don’t Go, through a kazoo. Will my old love spritz
the air with the perfume of old roses,
buy me the white satin Mercedes Benz
of pillows, string a rainbow blitz
of crystals in the window—quartz, topaz—
or will I die wheezing, listening to a quiz
show: What year is this? Who was the 44th Prez
of the United States? Where is the Suez
Canal? Are you too hot? Cold? Freezing?

from The Book of Men, W.W. Norton & Company, New York 2011

Even in her most plain-spoken work Laux can pack a sensual intensity that comes alive every time I re-read the words. Here are some lines from The Shipfitter’s Wife:

I’d go to where he sat
on the edge of the bed, his forehead
anointed with grease, his cracked hands
jammed between his thighs, and unlace
the steel-toed boots, stroke his ankles
and calves, the pads and bones of his feet.
Then I’d open his clothes and take
the whole day inside me — the ship’s
gray sides, the miles of copper pipe,
the voice of the foreman clanging
off the hull’s silver ribs. Spark of lead
kissing metal. The clamp, the winch,
the white fire of the torch, the whistle,
and the long drive home.

from Smoke, p.41

I also love to come across surprising echoes in Laux’s poems. Echoes of the poems she loves and has climbed inside to see how they work. I hear Frank O’Hara in The Ebony Chickering when she creates the lyric moment at the end of the poem:

so that when the sparklets man arrived
to fill our water cooler every week
he would lean against the door jamb and wait
for her to finish glossy eyed
as he listened, secretly touching the tips
of his fingers to  the tips of her fingers
as he bowed, and she slipped him the check.

Here’s the O’Hara I hear from his poem The Day Lady Died:

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing.

For anyone who has not experienced the music and meaning of Dorianne Laux’s poetryany of her five full-length volumes of poems is a great place to start: Awake (1990); What We Carry (1994); Smoke (2000); Facts About the Moon (2007) andThe Book of Men (2011).