Book Review by Zinta Aistars
• Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (February 28, 2011)
• Price: $24.95
• ISBN-10: 0393079554
• ISBN-13: 978-0393079555
Mushrooms and stamens and pollinating bees, all bursting from a man’s briefs … this new collection of poetry by Dorianne Laux, The Book of Men, coming out in February 2011, is as seductive and enticing a literary treat as one has come to expect from one of America’s most delicious poets. If a treatise on boys and men, men on their own, men in the poet’s life, men observed at a distance, men in the moon, then it is also very much a collection for women and by one.
Enter Sergeant Metz, first poem, and we can smell the testosterone in the air, even if it is in a coffee shop.
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. His hands
are thick-veined. The good blood
still flows through, given an extra surge
when he slurps his latte, a fleck of foam
caught on his bottom lip.
Yet for all those male hormones sweating the walls, this is a collection tender and kind, intimate and admiring. Laux discards sentimentality for the value of the true—I don’t believe in anything anymore:/god, country, money or love./All that matters to me now/is his life, the body so perfectly made—and while leaving behind the idealism of youth, of larger-than-life heroes, caresses the real person found in the detail. She values one life at a time, and perhaps that was all we were ever meant to do. Her poems sing the power of symbol, of myth, of legend and quest, of story. Her poems are the minutiae of every day, every man, every woman, every common thing, coming together to create the poetry of a life.
Life is a series of bumbling and random choices, many unknowingly made and without awareness, but all determining the entirety of what life we live. In “Late-Night TV,” Laux wonders about an infomercial, the man who is selling his wares to insomniacs, and surely he, too, is somebody to someone. She hits that raw and tender place we all have, our common wondering, why we do what we do, how it is that we end up where we are.
We know nothing of how it all works
how we end up in one bed or another,
speak one language instead of the others,
what heat draws us to our life’s work
or keeps us from a dream until it’s nothing
but a blister we scratch in our sleep.
Yet somehow it all works. Lives are lived. Some pretty glorious ones. A miracle. And that is how Laux’s poetry works: finding the glory, the miracle, in all our common little-big lives.
Among her boys and men are young rebels, misfits, imperfect heroes (are there any other kind?), the aging, with a specially moving poem written about her elderly mother, “Mother’s Day,” and tributes to poet Phillip Levine, and the moon, too, dog howling at it. She writes, too, about the question that faces men in a woman’s moment of vulnerability, in “Second Chances,” will he help her? Or will he take advantage? In our world today, the poet says in an interview with The Smoking Poet (Winter 2010-2011 Issue), it is goodness that surprises her. There is that miracle, that there are still so many who are good and do the right thing.
In that same interview, Laux says about her art, recalling a conversation with her husband, poet Joseph Millar: “We … talk of the purpose of art and poetry, and how when we read a poem or look at a painting we are led into the true intensity of life, the one right here as we walk down the street and are struck again, as if for the first time, by the changing of the leaves from green to gold, that brief glimpse into the final hallway. Maybe the purpose of art is to help us apprehend the loud silences, the shimmering depths, the small intensities of ants going about their business, tunneling out whole cities beneath our sidewalks, and awake us to the absolute mystery that is life. Art asks us to contemplate death rather than to simply imagine it or even press ourselves up against it as we do in our youth. It’s coming, no matter how fast we run from it or toward it, and art asks us to stop and confront death rather than being merely tolerant of, tempted or titillated by it.”
In “Fall,” she laments the burden of the body, this aging vehicle in which we live, and how she tires of always hearing about it … then gives it that credit due, that we need it, and glory in it, too. Her poems about Mick Jagger and Cher, those aging icons of American culture, near perfection with their mix of hero and anti-hero, beauty and deformity, the would-be and just-ain’t, accomplish the same love this, wince at that, and that's something like how it should be.
A poet is that artist who finds the voice we all keep hoping to find, framing the question we all whisper inside, touching on that nerve where we all feel raw, embracing that fear that makes us all tremble, and upholds the courage that, in our very best moments, we all hope to find. Dorianne Laux is that kind of voice—one voice that speaks into a canyon of echoes, coming back to her out of the dark, speaking for all of us.
Dorianne Laux is the author of five collections of poetry: Facts About the Moon, What We Carry, Smoke, Awake, and The Book of Men. She has been the recipient of the Oregon Book Award and was short-listed for the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. Among her awards are a Pushcart Prize and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She teaches at North Carolina State University and lives in Raleigh.
THE SMOKING POET, Winter 2010-2011, will be online in mid December 2010, featuring an interview with Dorianne Laux talking about The Book of Men.