Dorianne Laux: “All Poetry is Preparation for Death”
And oh, the oh my nape of the neck. The up-swept oh my nape of the neck. I could walk behind anyone and fall in love. Don’t stop. Don’t turn around.”
~Dorianne Laux, from “The Secret of Backs”
Death comes to me again, a girl
in a cotton slip, barefoot, giggling.
It’s not so terrible she tells me,
not like you think, all darkness
and silence. There are windchimes
and the smell of lemons, some days
it rains, but more often the air is dry
and sweet. I sit beneath the staircase
built from hair and bone and listen
to the voices of the living. I like it,
she says, shaking the dust from her hair,
especially when they fight, and when they sing.
Moon in the Window
I wish I could say I was the kind of child
who watched the moon from her window,
would turn toward it and wonder.
I never wondered. I read. Dark signs
that crawled towards the edge of the page.
It took me years to grow a heart
from paper and glue. All I had
was a flashlight, bright as the moon,
a white hole blazing beneath the sheets.
– Dorianne Laux
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: There is an artful truth to your work, Dorianne, a storyteller’s gift for pulling the reader in with details gritty and yet of the spirit. Like many great artists (I am reminded particularly of painters Georgia O’Keefe and Frida Kahlo) you bring the eye close to what is right in front of us, allowing us to see the beauty within the pain. Is writing for you then an optimistic act? Or an act of courage?
(Listen to Dorianne Laux reading, “Life is Beautiful”)
Dorianne Laux: Writing as an act of optimism? Maybe that’s true. I mean, why bother if you have no hope, even a very small hope, for our species. Maybe, as artists, we think that if we stop and look closely, or if we look closely enough, something good could come of that gaze, something apprehended. O’Keefe seemed actually to do the opposite, bring us close to see the pain in the beauty, or as Rilke would say, the terror of beauty. Kahlo took her physical pain and yes, made it oddly beautiful. Did it take courage for them to do that? I don’t think they had a choice. Artists seem to be compelled to do what they do, obsessed, preternaturally alert to the world, not just to pain and beauty, but as you say, the existence of each within the other. And for some reason, they feel compelled to make something of that, write it down, make a painting of it, a sculpture, a song.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: What is the role of poet in times of crisis?
Dorianne Laux: I don’t believe that a poet has much of a role in times of crisis, but poetry certainly does. We know people turn to poetry, even non-readers of poetry, in times of crisis–death, war, devastation, loss of any kind, as well as in times of joy–weddings, births, anniversaries. Auden wrote his poem September 1, 1939, and it was resurrected on 9/11/. People needed poetry to help them through the crisis. The poet was of no importance, only the poem. Auden’s “Funeral Blues” has been read at funerals since it was published in 1938:
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone.
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
And his poem, “Tell Me The Truth about Love,” is recited at weddings:
Will it knock on my door in the morning,
Or tread in the bus on my
Will it come like a change in the weather?
Will its greeting
be courteous or rough?
Will it alter my life altogether?
O tell me
the truth about love.
Few people know who Auden was, or care much. It’s the poetry they want.
Someone spoke to me last night
told me the truth. Just a few words, but I recognized it.
I knew I should make myself get up,
write it down, but it was late,
and I was exhausted from working
all day in the garden, moving rocks.
Now, I remember only the flavor —
not like food, sweet or sharp.
More like fine powder, like dust.
And I wasn’t elated or frightened,
but simple rapt, aware.
That’s how it is sometimes —
God comes to your window,
all bright and black wings,
and you’re just too tired to open it.
Look at me. I’m standing on a deck
in the middle of Oregon. There are
friends inside the house. It’s not my
house, you don’t know them.
They’re drinking and singing
and playing guitars. You love
this song, remember, “Ophelia,”
Boards on the windows, mail
by the door. I’m whispering
so they won’t think I’m crazy.
They don’t know me that well.
Where are you now? I feel stupid.
I’m talking to trees, to leaves
swarming on the black air, stars
blinking in and out of heart-
shaped shadows, to the moon, half-
lit and barren, stuck like an axe
between the branches. What are you
now? Air? Mist? Dust? Light?
What? Give me something. I have
to know where to send my voice.
A direction. An object. My love, it needs
a place to rest. Say anything. I’m listening.
I’m ready to believe. Even lies, I don’t care.
Say burning bush. Say stone. They’ve
stopped singing now and I really should go.
So tell me, quickly. It’s April. I’m
on Spring Street. That’s my gray car
in the driveway. They’re laughing
and dancing. Someone’s bound
to show up soon. I’m waving.
Give me a sign if you can see me.
I’m the only one here on my knees.
~ by Dorianne Laux
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Do you find that writing about a traumatic event in an artistic way, bringing in metaphor and play of sound, for instance, allows you to access an experience more deeply by allowing you perhaps a different entry? Or does it afford you distance, allowing you to take a wider perspective?
Dorianne Laux: Yes, both things sound true to me. We need some distance in order to write about anything, and especially if a traumatic event is involved. Following a sound, an image, a formal structure, repetition, or any poetic device, can help to keep the mind occupied so that the emotions are held at bay, or so that the emotion can be subsumed in the device, the image, the metaphor, so as to not bleed out onto the page as cliche or sentimentality. You want the rawness of the experience, but not the actual gaping wound. It’s a delicate thing to write about trauma, as poetry is already such an intense form of communication. Understatement helps. We all know that if you scream something, you may get someone’s attention, but they aren’t actually listening to what you’re saying as much as how you’re expressing it– anger, grief, fear. But if it’s whispered, it actually intensifies not only the experience, but the words being said. We strain to hear what’s whispered. We turn off what’s shouted.
They buy poetry like gang members
buy guns — for aperture, caliber,
heft and defense. They sit on the floor
in the stacks, thumbing through Keats
and Plath, Levine and Olds, four boys
in a bookstore, black glasses, brackish hair,
rumpled shirts from the bin at St. Vincent de Paul.
One slides a warped hardback
from the bottom shelf, the others
scoot over to check the dates,
the yellowed sheaves ride smooth
under their fingers.
One reads a stanza in a whisper,
another turns the page, and their heads
almost touch, temple to temple — toughs
in a huddle, barbarians before a hunt, kids
hiding in an alley while sirens spiral by.
When they finish reading one closes
the musty cover like the door
on Tutankhamen’s tomb. They are savage
for knowledge, for beauty and truth.
They crawl on their knees to find it.
~from “Savages,” by Dorianne Laux
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Has there ever been an experience too strong for you to write about?
Dorianne Laux: Yes, though that doesn’t mean I won’t break through and write about it at some point. Of course, it’s those very experiences we want most to approach, if not directly, at least in spirit, in depth and shadow and sorrow. I’ve written about the death of those close to me, most recently my mother’s death. That loss was so vast and heartless, so desolate and lonely, I couldn’t imagine writing about it. One thing that happened which enabled me to try, was reading John Donne’s Holy Sonnets. I was so immersed in grief I don’t even remember why or how or where I was reading them. I had always loved his poems, “Death Be Not Proud” and “Batter My Heart,” but somehow I came across his sonnet VII:
At the round earths imagin’d corners, blow
Your trumpets, Angells, and arise, arise
From death, you numberlesse infinities
Of soules, and to your scattred bodies goe,
All whom the flood did, and fire shall o’erthrow,
All whom warre, dearth, sage, agues, tyrannies,
Despaire, law chance, hath slaine, and you whose eyes,
Shall behold God, and never tast deaths woe.
But let them sleepe, Lord, and mee mourne a space,
For, if above all these, my sinnes abound,
‘Tis late to aske abundance of thy grace,
When wee are there; here on this lowly ground,
Teach mee how to repent; for that’s as good
As if thou’hadst seal’d my pardon, with thy blood.
We spoke earlier of employing some poetic device or structure to help us through difficult material. I made a list of Donne’s end rhymes, and decided to try to write toward each word in the line as I went along. I’m not even sure I knew I was going to write about my mother, but when the poem was finished, I found I’d been able to reach something, to say something I didn’t think I was yet capable of saying.
Death Of The Mother
At the round earth’s imagined corners, blow
Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise…
At day’s end: last sight, sound, smell and touch, blow
your final breath into the hospital’s disinfected air, rise
from your bed, mother of eight, the blue scars of infinity
lacing your belly, your fractious hair and bony knees, and go
where we can never find you, where we can never overthrow
your lust for order, your love of chaos, your tyrannies
of despair, your can of beer. Cast down your nightshade eyes
and float through the quiet, your nightgown wrapped like woe
around your shredded soul, your cavernous heart, that space
you left us like a gift, brittle staircase of ifs we are bound
to climb too often and too late. Unleash us, let your grace
breathe over us in silence, when we can bear it, ground
as we are into our loss. You taught us how to glean the good
from anything, pardon anyone, even you, awash as we are in your blood.
Donne’s poems helped me through my mother’s death, as they also helped me to write about her death. And as we spoke of before, it wasn’t the poet, who himself died in 1631, in London, while I lived through my mother’s death almost 400 years later in Raleigh, but the poems he left us, me, to read in the hours of despair.
There you are, exhausted from another night of crying,
curled up on the couch, the floor, at the foot of the bed,
anywhere you fall you fall down crying, half amazed
at what the body is capable of, not believing you can cry
anymore. And there they are: his socks, his shirt, your
underwear, and your winter gloves, all in a loose pile
next to the bathroom door, and you fall down again.
Someday, years from now, things will be different:
the house clean for once, everything in its place, windows
shining, sun coming in easily now, skimming across
the thin glaze of wax on the wood floor. You’ll be peeling
an orange or watching a bird leap from the edge of the rooftop
next door, noticing how, for instance, her body is trapped
in the air, only a moment before gathering the will to fly
into the ruff at her wings, and then doing it: flying.
You’ll be reading, and for a moment you’ll see a word
you don’t recognize, a simple words like cup or gate or wisp
and you’ll ponder like a child discovering language.
Cup, you’ll say over and over until it begins to make sense,
and that’s when you’ll say it, for the first time, out loud: He’s dead.
He’s not coming back, and it will be the first time you believe it.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: In modern society we are so removed from the dying process and so unprepared when we lose someone we love, especially when the process is stretched out so painfully and disrespectfully, as it is with cancer. Despite what we learn from Hollywood, “death is not romantic,” as you state in your poem, but rather, “a black note on an empty staff.” What then can we do differently to better prepare ourselves?
Dorianne Laux: I think all poetry is a preparation for death. A colleague of Tu Fu once said to him, “It is like being alive twice.” I love this little poem by Brazilian poet, Manuel Banderia:
Life is a miracle.
with its form, colour, aroma
each flower is a miracle.
with its plumage, its flight, its song
each bird is a miracle.
The space, infinite,
the space is a miracle.
The time, infinite,
the time is a miracle.
The memory is a miracle.
The conscience is a miracle.
Everything is a miracle.
Everything but the death.
Poetry allows us access to the quotidian mysteries. It allows us to revere the miracle of our lives as we live them, so that when death comes, we’ll be grateful. Another poem, in the form of five sentences, is by Gary Young:
Two girls were struck by lightning at the harbor mouth. An orange
flame lifted them up and laid them down again. Their thin suits had
been melted away. It’s a miracle they survived. It’s a miracle they
were ever born at all.
Someone I love is dying, which is why,
when I turn the key in the ignition
and back the car out of the parking space
in the underground garage, and the radio
comes on, sudden and loud, something
by Haydn, a diminishing fugue, and maneuver
the car through the dimly lit tunnels
with their low ceilings, following the yellow arrows
stenciled at intervals on the gray cement walls,
I think of him, moving slowly through the last
hard days of his life and I can’t stop crying.
When I arrive at the toll gate I have to make myself
stop thinking as I dig in my pockets for the last
of my coins, turn to the attendant, indifferent
in his blue smock, his white hair curling like smoke
around his weathered neck, and say Thank you,
like an idiot, and drive into the blinding midday light.
Everything is hideously symbolic,
and everything reminds me of cancer:
the Chevron truck, its rounded underbelly
spattered with road grit and the sweat
of last night’s rain, the dumpster
behind the flower shop, its sprung lid
pressing down on dead wedding bouquets—
even the smell of something simple, coffee drifting
from the open door of a cafe and my eyes
glaze over, ache in their sockets.
For months now all I’ve wanted is the blessing
of inattention, to move carefully from room to room
in my small house, numb with forgetfulness.
To eat a bowl of cereal and not imagine him,
scrubbed thin and pale, unable to swallow.
How not to imagine the tumors
ripening beneath his skin, flesh
I have kissed, stroked with my fingertips,
pressed my belly and breasts against, some nights
so hard I thought I could enter him, open
his back at the spine like a door or a curtain
and slip in like a small fish between his ribs,
nudge the coral of his brain with my lips,
brushing over the blue coils of his bowels
with the fluted silk of my tail.
Death is not romantic. He is dying,
no matter how I see it, no matter
what I believe, that fact is stark
and one dimensional, atonal,
a black note on an empty staff.
My feet are cold, but not as cold as his,
and I hate this music that floods
the cramped insides of my car, my head,
slowing the world down with its
lurid majesty, transforming everything I see
into some sort of memorial to life,
no matter how ugly or senseless—
even the old Ford in front of me,
its battered rear end thinning to scallops of rust,
pumping black classical clouds of exhaust
into the shimmering air— even the tenacious
nasturtiums clinging to a fence, vine and bloom
of the insignificant, music spilling
from their open faces, spooling upward, past
the last rim of blue and into the still pool
of another galaxy, as if all that emptiness
were a place of benevolence, a destination,
a peace we could rise to.
Dorianne Laux: I’m not sure. As death is not romantic, neither is work. It’s difficult, complex endeavor, even if you love the work you do, and there are jobs I would never want to do. There’s a wonderful poem in a book called, Night Shift at the Crucifix Factory, by Philip Dacey, called “The Feet Man.” It ends with these lines:
It wasn’t easy:
imagine Jesus after Jesus coming down
at you along
that line, and you with
your hammer poised, you knowing
what you have
to do to make a living.
Or B.H Fairchild’s poem, Song:
A small thing done well, my father said
so often that I tired of
hearing it and lost
myself in the shop’s north end, an underworld
welders who wore black masks and stared
through smoked glass where
all was midnight
except the purest spark, the blue-white arc
clamp and rod. Hammers made dull tunes
hacking slag, and acetylene
flames cast shadows
of men against the tin roof like great birds
trapped in diminishing circles of light.
But yes, I think there is a dignity to work. There’s a story about Tom Waits stopping and going into an old church to look at the stained glass. Someone came in and mistook him for the new janitor and brought out a broom and mop and put him to work. Tom, rather than explaining who he was, took up the broom and began sweeping. I love that story. Why not? Is one job more “sacred” than another? Is being a musician and songwriter “better” than being a janitor? Each has a job to do and should do it as well as they can. What does the character “Ask” say in Robert Boswell’s Crooked Hearts? “Clean, even where it doesn’t show.” Then again, I remember being told by Carolyn Forche, as one woman poet to another, “You don’t have to have a clean house.” It was great advice! That’s the problem with poets, two opposing thoughts can be true at the same time.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Do you feel that the process of writing poetry makes one more empathetic?
Dorianne Laux: Again, I’m not sure, but I do think the chances are better for anyone who spends time trying to figure out their place in the world through art. Art is introspective by nature, and introspection often leads to self-examination, to understanding and compassion, both for the self and for others. Then again, there have been plenty of artists who were real jerks. So I can’t say for sure. I do know it’s helped me to become more aware. And to even have some empathy for the jerk in myself.
From behind he looks like a man
I once loved, that hangdog slouch
to his jeans, a sweater vest, his neck
thick-veined as a horse cock, a halo
of chopped curls.
He orders coffee and searches
his pockets, first in front, then
from behind, a long finger sliding
into the slitted denim the way that man
slipped his thumb into me one summer
as we lay after love, our freckled
bodies two pale starfish on the sheets.
Semen leaked and pooled in his palm
as he moved his thumb slowly, not
to excite me, just to affirm
he’d been there.
I have loved other men since, taken
them into my mouth like a warm vowel,
lain beneath them and watched their irises
float like small worlds in their eyes.
But this man pressed his thumb
toward the tail of my spine
as if he were entering
China, or a ripe papaya
so that now
when I think of love
I think of this.
Dorianne Laux: My mother was a great teacher. She taught me to listen, to see, to think, to imagine. She played piano, and the music that surrounded me as a child allowed me to go down inside myself, into a wordless place of feeling and imagination. So breaking that silence with words seemed a momentous act. She also had a huge vocabulary and I think that attention to language inspired me. She also had a way of saying things that was outrageous, “Oh Jesus Christ on a crutch,” she might say, and I saw how language could be fun, imagistic, elastic, used to wild purpose. Nature was a great teacher of subtlety and silence and vastness. I grew up in the canyons of San Diego, near the great Pacific Ocean. As a child, those muted desert colors set against the wilderness of the sea taught me how truly small I was, and that I was only one animal among the many animals.
“But I know it’s only luck
that delivered him here, luck and a love
that had nothing to do with me. Except
that this is what we sometimes get
if we live long enough. If we are patient
with our lives.”
~Dorianne Laux, “Music in the Morning”
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: How can we learn to be more attentive, patient? As poets and artists and as human beings?
Dorianne Laux: The act of reading a poem is an act of attentiveness. Certainly the act of writing and revising a poem, working toward a sense of balance, perfection, takes great patience. But attentiveness takes time and quietude, a sense of leisure in a world that’s constantly clamoring for another kind of attention. We have to create what Wordsworth called “spots of time” in our lives.
There are in our existence spots of time,
That with distinct
A renovating virtue, whence–depressed
opinion and contentious thought,
Or aught of heavier or more deadly
In trivial occupations, and the round
Are nourished and invisibly repaired;
by which pleasure is enhanced,
That penetrates, enables us to mount,
When high, more high, and lifts us up when fallen.
We need to take the time to remember ourselves, break from the crowd and find a place where we can drowse and muse, admire the world, be grateful. This seems ridiculous in a time when we are at war, people are out of jobs, children are being bought and sold. It’s a horror show out there. And it always has been. There was never a halcyon time in the history of our species. But we can make our own personal halcyon, even if only for moments, “spots of time” from which we can rise refreshed and take up the plow again. And wield, with precision, the pen.
In the room where we lie,
light stains the drawn shades yellow.
We sweat and pull at each other, climb
with our fingers the slippery ladders of rib.
Wherever our bodies touch, the flesh
comes alive. Head and need, like invisible
animals, gnaw at my breast, the soft
insides of your thighs. What I want
I simply reach out and take, no delicacy now,
the dark human bread I eat handful
by greedy handful. Eyes fingers, mouths,
sweet leeches of desire. Crazy woman,
her brain full of bees, see how her palms curl
into fists and beat the pillow senseless.
And when my body finally gives in to it
then pulls itself away, salt-laced
and arched with its final ache, I am
so grateful I would give you anything, anything.
If I loved you, being this close would kill me.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: What is it about the moon?
Dorianne Laux: It’s possibly a part of our earth flung out into the void, the dead, cold, silent, lifeless part of our cacophonous, calamitous selves. It’s constant and constantly changing. It’s so big and round and full, or so thin and curved and sharp. It disappears. It reappears. It follows us. It keeps us company. It’s a lantern against the darkness. It seems to suffer. It seems to glow. It’s the first cliche. And like the rose, we will never tire of writing about it.
Dorianne Laux’s fifth collection, The Book of Men, is currently available from W.W. Norton. Her fourth book of poems, Facts about the Moon, is the recipient of the Oregon Book Award and was short-listed for the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. Laux is also author of Awake, What We Carry, finalist for the National Book Critic’s Circle Award, and Smoke, as well as two fine small press editions, Superman: The Chapbook and Dark Charms, both from Red Dragonfly Press. Co-author of The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry, she’s the recipient of two Best American Poetry Prizes, a Pushcart Prize, two fellowships from The National Endowment for the Arts and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Widely anthologized, her work has appeared in the Best of APR, The Norton Anthology of Contemporary Poetry and The Best of the Net. In 2001, she was invited by late poet laureate Stanley Kunitz to read at the Library of Congress.
Laux has been teaching poetry in private and public venues since 1990 and since 2004 at Pacific University’s Low-Residency MFA Program. In the summers she teaches at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California and Truro Center for the Arts at Castle Hill. Her poems have been translated into French, Spanish, Italian, Korean, Romanian, Dutch, Afrikaans and Brazilian Portuguese, and her selected works, In a Room with a Rag in my Hand, have been translated into Arabic by Camel/Kalima Press. Recent poems appear in The American Poetry Review, Cimarron Review, Cerise Press, Margie, The Seattle Review, Tin House and The Valparaiso Review. She and her husband, poet Joseph Millar, moved to Raleigh in 2008 where she teaches poetry in the MFA program at North Carolina State University.
Visit Dorianne Laux’s author website