by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
In William Shakespeare’s play, Much Ado About Nothing, Beatrice says in mock lament: I may sit in a corner and cry heigh-ho for a husband!
When Don Pedro offers to get her one, she asks if he has a brother like himself, and he responds: Will you have me, lady?
And she replies: No, my lord, unless I might have another for
working-days: your grace is too costly to wear every day.
There are all kinds of poets. Some are “too costly to wear every day,” their poems full of gorgeous exalted language, and a panoply of gods and goddesses. Others, like today’s poet, are for every day wear, full of the experiences that make up the lives of most people. It is these “working-day” poets who make us look at our “ordinary” days with fresh eyes.
Dorianne Laux was born January 10, 1952, in Augusta, Maine. She worked as a sanatorium cook, a gas station manager, and a maid before receiving a B.A. in English from Mills College in 1988, when she was 36 years old. Her first published poetry collection, Awake, appeared two years later.
Those most American rites of passage, the high school homecoming game and the dance that follows, are moments of glory for some, and heartache for others, but for good or ill, they are part of the story of how we become who we are.
At the high school football game, the boys
stroke their new muscles, the girls sweeten their lips
with gloss that smells of bubblegum, candy cane,
or cinnamon. In pleated cheerleader skirts
they walk home with each other, practicing yells,
their long bare legs forming in the dark.
Under the arched field lights a girl
in a velvet prom dress stands near the chainlink,
a cone of roses held between her breasts.
Her lanky father, in a corduroy suit, leans
against the fence. While they talk, she slips a foot
in and out of a new white pump, fingers the weave
of her French braid, the glittering earrings.
They could be a couple on their first date, she,
a little shy, he, trying to impress her
with his casual stance. This is the moment
when she learns what she will love: a warm night,
the feel of nylon between her thighs, the fine hairs
on her arms lifting when a breeze
sifts in through the bleachers, cars
igniting their engines, a man bending over her,
smelling the flowers pressed against her neck.
First Job, earning your own money, is a big step toward growing up, and while First Love often goes awry, few life experiences are more intense and passionate.
. . . . for Richard
Before the days of self service,
when you never had to pump your own gas,
I was the one who did it for you, the girl
who stepped out at the sound of a bell
with a blue rag in my hand, my hair pulled back
in a straight, unlovely ponytail.
This was before automatic shut-offs
and vapor seals, and once, while filling a tank,
I hit a bubble of trapped air and the gas
backed up, came arcing out of the hole
in a bright gold wave and soaked me — face, breasts,
belly and legs. And I had to hurry
back to the booth, the small employee bathroom
with the broken lock, to change my uniform,
peel the gas-soaked cloth from my skin
and wash myself in the sink.
Light-headed, scrubbed raw, I felt
pure and amazed — the way the amber gas
glazed my flesh, the searing,
subterranean pain of it, how my skin
shimmered and ached, glowed
like rainbowed oil on the pavement.
I was twenty. In a few weeks I would fall,
for the first time, in love, that man waiting
patiently in my future like a red leaf
on the sidewalk, the kind of beauty
that asks to be noticed. How was I to know
it would begin this way: every cell of my body
burning with a dangerous beauty, the air around me
a nimbus of light that would carry me
through the days, how when he found me,
weeks later, he would find me like that,
an ordinary woman who could rise
in flame, all he would have to do
is come close and touch me.
Hearts have symbolized our emotions for centuries, and Laux covers all the shifts it is capable of passing through in this poem.
The heart shifts shape of its own accord—
from bird to ax, from pinwheel
to budded branch. It rolls over in the chest,
a brown bear groggy with winter, skips
like a child at the fair, stopping in the shade
of the fireworks booth, the fat lady’s tent,
the corn dog stand. Or the heart
is an empty room where the ghosts of the dead
wait, paging through magazines, licking
their skinless thumbs. One gets up, walks
through a door into a maze of hallways.
Behind one door a roomful of orchids,
behind another, the smell of burned toast.
The rooms go on and on: sewing room
with its squeaky treadle, its bright needles,
room full of file cabinets and torn curtains,
room buzzing with a thousand black flies.
Or the heart closes its doors, becomes smoke,
a wispy lie, curls like a worm and forgets
its life, burrows into the fleshy dirt.
Heart makes a wrong turn.
Heart locked in its gate of thorns.
Heart with its hands folded in its lap.
Heart a blue skiff parting the silk of the lake.
It does what it wants, takes what it needs, eats
when it’s hungry, sleeps when the soul shuts down.
Bored, it watches movies deep into the night,
stands by the window counting the streetlamps
squinting out one by one.
Heart with its hundred mouths open.
Heart with its hundred eyes closed.
Harmonica heart, heart of tinsel,
heart of cement, broken teeth, redwood fence.
Heart of bricks and boards, books stacked
in devoted rows, their dusty spines
with its hands full.
Hieroglyph heart, etched deep with history’s lists,
things to do. Near-sighted heart. Club-footed heart.
Hard-headed heart. Heart of gold, coal.
Bad juju heart, singing the low down blues.
Choir boy heart. Heart in a frumpy robe.
Heart with its feet up reading the scores.
Homeless heart, dozing, its back against the Dumpster.
Cop-on-the-beat heart with its black billy club,
banging on the lid.
After a long day at work, we’re anxious to get home, kick off our shoes, and begin to unwind. But when the weather makes getting home really difficult, it’s easy to lose patience, and think nasty thoughts.
When you’re cold—November, the streets icy and everyone you pass
homeless, Goodwill coats and Hefty bags torn up to make ponchos—
someone is always at the pay phone, hunched over the receiver
spewing winter’s germs, swollen lipped, face chapped, making the last
tired connection of the day. You keep walking to keep the cold
at bay, too cold to wait for the bus, too depressing the thought
of entering that blue light, the chilled eyes watching you decide
which seat to take: the man with one leg, his crutches bumping
the smudged window glass, the woman with her purse clutched
to her breasts like a dead child, the boy, pimpled, morose, his head
shorn, a swastika carved into the stubble, staring you down.
So you walk into the cold you know: the wind, indifferent blade,
familiar, the gold leaves heaped along the gutters. You have
a home, a house with gas heat, a toilet that flushes. You have
a credit card, cash. You could take a taxi if one would show up.
You can feel it now: why people become Republicans: Get that dog
off the street. Remove that spit and graffiti. Arrest those people huddled
on the steps of the church. If it weren’t for them you could believe in god,
in freedom, the bus would appear and open its doors, the driver dressed
in his tan uniform, pants legs creased, dapper hat: Hello Miss, watch
your step now. But you’re not a Republican. You’re only tired, hungry,
you want out of the cold. So you give up, walk back, step into line behind
the grubby vet who hides a bag of wine under his pea coat, holds out
his grimy 85 cents, takes each step slow as he pleases, releases his coins
into the box and waits as they chink down the chute, stakes out a seat
in the back and eases his body into the stained vinyl to dream
as the chips of shrapnel in his knee warm up and his good leg
flops into the aisle. And you’ll doze off, too, in a while, next to the girl
who can’t sit still, who listens to her Walkman and taps her boots
to a rhythm you can’t hear, but you can see it—when she bops
her head and her hands do a jive in the air—you can feel it
as the bus rolls on, stopping at each red light in a long wheeze,
jerking and idling, rumbling up and lurching off again.
In my city, fireworks are sold legally in every church and grocery store parking lot for the Fourth of July. The noise is deafening, and goes on for days before, during and after the 4th, so I can sympathize with this poem.
Fourth of July
The neighborhood cringes behind windows
washed in magnesium light, streamers fizzling
above the shingled rooftop of the apartments
across the street where teenaged boys
with mannish arms throw cherry bombs,
bottle rockets, wings and spinners, snappers,
chasers, fiery cryolite wheels onto the avenue.
Paint flakes off the flammable houses
and onto brave square plots of white grass.
Rain-deprived vines sucker the shutters.
Backyard dogs tear at the dirt, cats
run flat out, their tails straight up.
What’s liberty to the checkout girl
selling smokes and nuts, greenbacks
turning her fingers to grease? The boys
insist on pursuing happiness, their birthright:
a box of matches, crackers on strings,
sparklers, fountains, missiles, repeating shells,
Roman candles, Brazilian barrages.
We peek through blind slats to where they stand
around a manhole cover, the gold foam
of Corona bottles breaking at their feet,
young up-turned faces lit by large caliber
multi-shot aerials. We suffer each concussion,
the sulfer rush that smells like fear, each dizzy,
orgiastic display that says we love this country,
democracy, the right to a speedy trial. We’re afraid
to complain, to cross the spent red casings
melted on asphalt in the morning’s stunned
aftermath, to knock hard on any door, and find them
draped like dead men over the couches, the floor,
hands clasped behind their heads prison style,
shoulders tattooed, dreaming the dreams of free men
in summer, shirts off, holes in their jeans.
Family resemblances shift and change as we grow older. Though I really look more like my mother, there’s a picture of my dad at the age of twelve that looks astonishingly like I did at the same age.
Ray at 14
Bless this boy, born with the strong face
of my older brother, the one I loved most,
who jumped with me from the roof
of the playhouse, my hand in his hand.
On Friday nights we watched Twilight Zone
and he let me hold the bowl of popcorn,
a blanket draped over our shoulders,
saying, Don’t be afraid. I was never afraid
when I was with my big brother
who let me touch the baseball-size muscles
living in his arms, who carried me on his back
through the lonely neighborhood,
held tight to the fender of my bike
until I made him let go.
The year he was fourteen
he looked just like Ray, and when he died
at twenty-two on a roadside in Germany
I thought he was gone forever.
But Ray runs into the kitchen: dirty T-shirt,
torn jeans, pushes back his sleeve.
He says, Feel my muscle, and I do.
Divorce touches most of our lives in one way or another. When you’re a parent, it can mean separation from your child for weeks, and you may be startled by the forgotten memories that come home with them.
My daughter, ten and brown—another summer
in Arizona with her father—steps
nonchalantly down the ramp as planes
unfurl their ghostly plumes of smoke.
I had forgotten how his legs, dark
and lean as hers, once strode toward me
across a stretch of hammered sand.
And her shoulders, sloped like his, a cotton
blouse scooped so low I can see
her collarbones arched gracefully
as wings, the cruel dip
in the hollow of her throat. And my throat
closes when she smiles, her bangs
blown into a fan around her face, hair
blond as the pampas grass that once waved
wild behind our fence. Whatever held us
together then is broken, dishes
in pieces on the floor, his dead
cigarettes crushed one after another
into the rail of the porch.
Now she opens her arms as he
used to, against a backdrop of blue sky,
so wide I worry she’ll float up on these
gusts of clutching wind and disappear,
like a half-remembered dream, into
the perilous future, into the white
heart of the sun.
Th death of a parent. You always remember where you were and what you were doing when you got the news.
When my mother died
I was as far away
as I could be, on an arm of land
floating in the Atlantic
where boys walk shirtless
down the avenue
holding hands, and gulls sleep
on the battered pilings,
their bright beaks hidden
beneath one white wing.
Maricopa, Arizona. Mea Culpa.
I did not fly to see your body
and instead stepped out
on a balcony in my slip
to watch the stars turn
on their grinding wheel.
Early August, the ocean,
a salt-tinged breeze.
Botanists use the word
serotinous to describe
for the season of late-summer.
I did not write your obituary
as my sister requested, could
not compose such final lines:
I closed the piano
to keep the music in. Instead
I stood with you
on what now seems
like the ancient deck
of a great ship, our nightgowns
flaring, the smell of dying lilacs
drifting up from someone’s
untended yard, and we
listened to the stars hiss
into the bent horizon, blossoms
the sea gathered tenderly, each
shattered and singular one
long dead, but even so, incandescent,
making a singed sound, singing
as they went.
I start feeling trapped if I have to spend too many hours traveling in a car. It reminds me of all the hundreds of miles I spent in the back seat as a child, too short to see anything but the sky through the window next to me.
Sometimes, when we’re on a long drive,
and we’ve talked enough and listened
to enough music and stopped twice,
once to eat, once to see the view,
we fall into this rhythm of silence.
It swings back and forth between us
like a rope over a lake.
Maybe it’s what we don’t say
that saves us.
Here Laux reminds us that our past is where the building blocks come from which we use to construct ourselves.
Regret nothing. Not the cruel novels you read
to the end just to find out who killed the cook.
Not the insipid movies that made you cry in the dark,
in spite of your intelligence, your sophistication.
Not the lover you left quivering in a hotel parking lot,
the one you beat to the punchline, the door, or the one
who left you in your red dress and shoes, the ones
that crimped your toes, don’t regret those.
Not the nights you called god names and cursed
your mother, sunk like a dog in the living room couch,
chewing your nails and crushed by loneliness.
You were meant to inhale those smoky nights
over a bottle of flat beer, to sweep stuck onion rings
across the dirty restaurant floor, to wear the frayed
coat with its loose buttons, its pockets full of struck matches.
You’ve walked those streets a thousand times and still
you end up here. Regret none of it, not one
of the wasted days you wanted to know nothing,
when the lights from the carnival rides
were the only stars you believed in, loving them
for their uselessness, not wanting to be saved.
You’ve traveled this far on the back of every mistake,
ridden in dark-eyed and morose but calm as a house
after the TV set has been pitched out the upstairs
window. Harmless as a broken ax. Emptied
of expectation. Relax. Don’t bother remembering
any of it. Let’s stop here, under the lit sign
on the corner, and watch all the people walk by.
Dorianne Laux lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, with her second husband, fellow poet Joseph Millar. She is a professor of creative writing at North Carolina State University, and often travels with her husband team-teaching poetry workshops. Laux’s work has won awards, including the Paterson Prize for The Book of Men, and the Oregon Book Award for Facts About the Moon. Her latest poetry collection, Only As the Day is Long: New and Selected, is due out later this year from W.W. Norton.
It’s Laux’s sharp eye, and ability to catch those details that will best tell the story, that make her “every day” poems unforgettable.
The Book of Women, © 2012 by Dorianne Laux – Red Dragonfly Press
The Book of Men, © 2011 by Dorianne Laux – W.W. Norton
Facts About the Moon, © 2005 by Dorianne Laux – W. W. Norton
Smoke, © 2000 by Dorianne Laux – BOA Editions
What We Carry, © 1994 by Dorianne Laux – BOA Editions
Awake, © 1990 by Dorianne Laux – BOA Editions
The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry, coauthored with Kim Addonizio, 1997 – W.W. Norton
- Roses for prom
- Red leaf on wet sidewalk
- Orchids and burnt toast
- People waiting at winter bus stop
- Spent fireworks on the street after the 4th of July
- Twilight Zone on old TV
- Broken dish
- August night sky
- Broken axe
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud