In “Last Words,” from her collection Smoke, Dorianne Laux asks, “How many losses does it take to stop a heart,/to lay waste to the vocabularies of desire?” Later, in the same collection, in “Stairway to Heaven,” which describes an adolescent listening raptly to the title song during a long car ride, she writes:
I’m beholden to any boy brave enough
to be stunned, to sit still and hushed
while the grievous tones wash through him
Laux’s poems thrive in the complex landscape between these two extremes: One, the constant questioning why some lives are worn to death by terrible suffering; the other, the persistence to keep on crafting tiny acts of gratitude for the human capacity for beauty.
Essentially, her poems are prayers to the present; tiny rituals to keep us engaged with the earth, our own lives, other living beings. They make no distinction between the sacred and profane. The act of honoring the specific physical details of living a life on earth is the act of recognizing the mundane is sacred. And so, Laux’s poems are richly sensual. Their sensuality extends far beyond the physical pleasures shared by lovers, which they often celebrate. The scratchy voices of trees in wind, the carved face on a decomposing pumpkin buckling into itself, the cold of a can of soda held between a driver’s knees all, through our senses, re-attach us to the world.
Laux knows it is a world where some people are crushed: by brutality, poverty, hopelessness, disease. She’s well aware that some people are capable of horrific cruelty, and that others suffer through that cruelty in nightmarish childhoods. She was one such child, with some terrible stories to tell, and tells them with the same unflinching attention she brings to all her work.
But Laux is also an unflinching witness to acts of kindness and the possibility of redemption. Her poems are alive with people who have suffered cruelty and yet have hearts of compassion, and others guilty of brutal acts who are still capable of great tenderness. In the face of these paradoxes, she does not distance herself with irony or offer facile answer. Instead, she returns relentlessly to questions regarding our humanity, and our lack of it. In the process, she helps herself, and us, to find some.
Dorianne Laux’s most recent collection is The Book of Men, published in 2011. Her other collections include Awake, What We Carry, and Facts About the Moon. For a detailed bio and audio recordings of Laux reading two poems, visit the Academy of American Poets’ Dorianne Laux Page.
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