May 5, 2011

Review by J. Scott BrownleeThe Book of Men by Dorianne Laux

THE BOOK OF MEN
by Dorianne Laux

W. W. Norton & Company
500 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10110
ISBN 978-0-393-07955-5
2011, 91 pp., $24.95
www.wwnorton.com

After driving two thousand miles from Texas to North Carolina in the summer of 2009, I showed up on the porch of poet Dorianne Laux with the New and Collected Poems of Czeslaw Milosz propped under my arm—a book I hadn’t read—and a vague belief I could somehow talk my way into one of her introductory poetry courses at North Carolina State University. I brought the Milosz book with me because it was heavy, and I thought its weight would make me look distinguished. I was (and in some ways still am) that vainglorious kid—someone who believed that if you found a great poetry mentor, you too could become great.

I still remember sitting in front of a computer screen in Texas at one of my lackluster undergraduate jobs as a library page reading everything I could about Laux and the seemingly endless number of gifted former students trailing in her wake: Michael McGriff, Major Jackson, Matthew Dickman, Michael Dickman, Carl Adamshick—even the headstrong, anarchic Michael Robbins, who has on several occasions stirred the finger-pointing pot in Poetry.

This particular list of Laux’s former students intentionally includes only men. While it’s true she has taught an equally large number of talented female poets, the release of Laux’s newest full-length collection The Book of Men warrants emphasizing and reflecting upon what is perhaps her greatest poetic gift—an ability to reach across the gender divide and enter, give voice to, and subsequently report upon, the secret world of men.

Tracing the trajectory of Laux’s work from the past to now, it is clear that her ability to write about the opposite sex is without equal. To put this in the kind of clear, easily understood layman’s terms for which Laux herself has an obvious knack, “She just gets guys.” Whether she is describing an emotionally wounded war veteran in poems like “Staff Sgt. Metz” or her sexual exploits with a boyfriend “who was a bit slow” in “Bakersfield, 1969,” Laux displays a remarkable (and I believe unprecedented) ability to move beyond her own feminine gaze into that intimate, reciprocal zone of understanding only the most attentive desire-ers of the opposite sex can ever hope to occupy. “I was scared most of the time,” she says at one point in “Bakersfield, 1969.” “But I acted / tough, like I knew every street. / What I liked about him was that he wasn’t acting. / Even his sweat tasted sweet.”

In an era in which much poetry has distanced itself from the emotional vulnerability and concrete desperation of the real, Laux has championed it—perhaps at times to her own critical detriment. In my own mind (which is a very biased one, to be sure), she should have won the Pulitzer Prize for her 1990 debut collection Awake. Now, with W. W. Norton putting out The Book of Men, it is my hope that some of the recent popular attention the poetry world has received from the likes of Oprah and the soon-to-retire Garrison Keillor will help catapult poets like Laux into the cultural limelight for the first time since writers like Ginsberg, Plath, Lowell, and Sexton attained an at least partially widespread popularity in the 1950s and 1960s.

In Laux’s most recent collection you will find poems that anyone with a fifth-grade education can take something away from and that anyone with a PhD in Critical Post-modern Discourses of Poetic Such-and-Such would do well to close read time and again. It is the kind of book that, to borrow a line from Whitman, “is large” and “contains multitudes”—one that seeks, with its focus on pop culture icons like The Beatles, Superman, and Mick Jagger, to make poetry a democratic activity in which we can all engage.

While reading Laux, you may notice that she is a master of the poetic list. For her, situating ourselves metaphysically within the world means first taking the time to physically orient ourselves within it via everyday objects—be they “the red curb” in “Staff Sgt. Metz,” the wharf at the end of “Men,” or the breast implants of Sonny’s leading lady in Laux’s tribute poem “Cher.”

In The Book of Men, Laux’s penchant for imagistic lists is often focused specifically on details related to the rougher, testosterone-tainted sex—and effectively so, I think. When Laux decides which images and experiences define what it means to be a man in the poem “Men,” her instincts (feel free to disagree with me, fellow Y-chromosome carriers) are spot on: “The self / isn’t an easy quest for a beast with balls, a cock, proof / of something difficult to define or defend.”

There is no poet writing today who has a better instinct for syntactical resonance than Laux, whose work might appear to some critics to operate only on the surface. Nothing could be farther from the truth, though. Even when she’s writing poems about pop culture icons like Bob Dylan, Laux’s writing shimmers with a translucent intent. The speaker in her poems is someone we feel we can instantly (and intimately) trust—something most contemporary poetry, with its we-are-“post-utterance”-deconstructionist hoopla and I-can’t-tell-the-truth-that’s-impossible-to-do values structure lacks. “I was born without a father,” Laux writes in the poem “Bob Dylan”—“born again / without another. I searched the grassy / corridors of childhood, calling his name.”

What we’ve been missing for the longest time now in contemporary poetry is the ability to hear the ring of truth in our own voices—something that I think lyricists like Dylan, if they wrote lineated poetry today, would unequivocally agree with. Laux’s poems remind us of this deafness, making it possible for us to re-articulate a clear, direct, renewed sense of confidence in our own ability as human beings to speak.

A master (or should I say “master-ess”?) of the plainspoken line, Laux is at her best in The Book of Men when the conceits of her poems are simplest—as in “Dark Charms,” when she speaks in the collective voice of the Baby Boomer generation:

The clear water we drank as thirsty children
still runs through our veins. Stars we saw then
we still see now, only fewer, dimmer, less often.
The old tunes play and continue to move us
in spite of our learning, the wraith of romance,
lost innocence, literature, the death of poets.
We continue to speak, if only in whispers,
to something inside us that longs to be named.
We name it the past and drag it behind us,
bag like a lung filled with shadow and song,
dreams of running, the keys to lost names.

Is there any other poetry being written today as effortlessly expressed and evocative as that? I for one don’t think so. Granted, I’m a very biased reviewer in this instance, since I drove two thousand miles and attended a library science graduate program at UNC-Chapel Hill the past two years so that I could have the opportunity to work with and learn from Dorianne Laux. The commute from Chapel Hill to Raleigh, where she and her husband the poet Joseph Millar live, is about sixty miles roundtrip, but I never regret making it. If you haven’t had a chance to read the work of one of contemporary poetry’s most convincing voices, pick up a copy of Laux’s latest book today. Her friend and mentor Philip Levine once called Laux “the sister of Whitman,” and it’s easy to see why. Hers is a poetry that would have made the white-bearded Whitman—with his tenderness, candor, and zeal for the plainspoken—proud.