The Many Moons of Dorianne Laux: A Review of Only as the Day Is Long

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Only as the Day Is Long: New and Selected Poems
By Dorianne Laux
(W.W. Norton, 2019, 128 pp, $15.95)

Dorianne Laux’s greatest poetic achievements gain their vivacity from her ability to pull extraordinary moments, whether joyful or tragic, out of the ordinary existential grind. Laux’s mentor, Phillip Levine, had this gift, too. In 2001, Levine said, during an interview with Edward Hirsch for the Academy of American Poets, “I once thought of myself as the poet who would save the ordinary from oblivion. Now I think poetry will save nothing from oblivion, but I keep writing about the ordinary because for me it’s the home of the extraordinary, the only home.” Dorianne Laux continues working in and expanding this neo-Wordsworthian tradition. In fact, she has done so throughout her career, and Only as the Day Is Long gives those who are unfamiliar with her earlier work the opportunity to see how she has modulated her voice over the course of three decades while writing the kind of fresh poems that helped make this collection a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Only as the Day Is Long: New and Selected Poems reimagines and condenses her poetry career into an autobiographical collection that not only captures the isolating aspects of surviving physical, sexual, and emotional trauma, but also encapsulates a working class existence tempered in life’s splendors and tragedies, the light and dark, the binary code through which the poet transforms her life into art.

The poems in this New and Selected volume journey through her previous five collections: Awake; What We Carry (finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award); Smoke; Facts About the Moon (winner of Oregon Book Award); and The Book of Men (winner of The Paterson Prize). The book concludes with twenty new poems in its sixth and final section, Only as the Day Is Long: New Poems. The book’s journey takes the reader from the poet’s formative years, in which she survived sexual and physical abuse, through a lifetime that deals with the consequences of such horrors, and the collection ends with poems that memorialize her mother and explore their complex mother-daughter relationship. As many who have had abusive parents will attest, that connection can be one complicated by and situated in traumatic memories that oscillate between love and hate. Laux renders this complexity with the metaphor of light and dark, the sun and the moon, with an understated technical artistry that expands as her career and the collection progresses.

In the first section, representing her first book, Awake, the reader familiar with Laux’s later poems will recognize a voice adept at lyrical precision. For instance, in “Two Pictures of My Sister,” Laux writes, “The pose is stolen from Monroe, struck / in the sun’s floodlight, eyes lowered, / a long-stemmed plastic rose between her teeth.” Notice the first line can be scanned as blank verse with substitutions. Though the second line does not follow this pattern, the third follows a strict iambic pattern and what Laux accomplishes by flanking the second line with two iambic lines is a lyrical intensity that is at once recognizable but evasive.

“Two Pictures of My Sister,” a poem which bears witness to Laux’s sister’s physical abuse, crescendos as the confrontation between her sister and father develops. Laux separates the iambic verses around two shorter free-verse lines, which jars the reader with an unexpected disruption away from the regular iambic patterns providing emotional distance to the horrific scene. This rhythmic variation reenacts the violence.

He lets the folded strap unravel to the floor.
Holds it by its tail. Bells the buckle
off her cheekbone.
She does not move or cry or even wince…

The poem moves from a literal picture of her sister wearing the speaker’s bathing suit to a memory: “The other picture is in my head.” As her sister “stands against the hallway wall,” the speaker’s father beats her, but the sister does not cry or move. Laux describes her sister’s eyes as those on a portrait “that follow you around a museum room.” The poet reinforces this image, comparing her sister’s face to the moon: “a stubborn moon that trails the car all night.” The poem’s power depends on its truth, and Laux describes the haunting quality of disturbing memories with details that can stay with the reader, and for some, those details can be challenging, but Laux’s poetry permits exploration and healing as well. Trauma remains with those who lived and relive it, and traumatic memories remain in the rearview throughout the collection, throughout its speaker’s life. There is much more to explore about “Two Pictures of My Sister,” and yet, Laux’s mastery of technique only develops in future poems, not only in terms of rhythmic sophistication but also in terms of imagistic power and resonance.

In What We Carry, her second book, Laux investigates loss, its inevitable pain, and what it takes to survive grief. For Laux, this sometimes means being able to laugh or being able to find light where all seems a darkness. Through the use of the comical and relatable in “Late October,” a poem she wrote for the late founder of BOA Editions, Al Poulin, a couple of years before his death, Laux brings to life a moment of incredible frustration: The cries and wailing from neighborhood cats disturb the poem’s speaker to the point of her going outside her home half-dressed and barefoot to chase them off with a broom. The speaker loses herself in her anger, suggesting there is more going on in the speaker’s life than just territorial felines that bring her out into the cold moonlight. Beyond the poet’s return to lunar imagery to suggest the loss of the speaker’s self-control, she reproduces, through a modulation of metrical and non-metrical lines, how a person might feel when she loses composure.  Instead of using the regular-metered line to control overwhelming emotion, Laux uses it to create an illusory sense of self-control, and as the poem progresses, the meter’s regularity falls away, revealing that the speaker does not have control of her home or of herself. The poem begins, “Midnight. The cats under the open window,” which is a heavily substituted line of blank verse, and it is followed by two decasyllabic lines that begin and end with iambic feet. The poem continues alternating lines of blank verse with irregular meter until the very last line, when the speaker recovers her senses, and the poem concludes with a perfectly regular line of iambic pentameter: “on end, afraid of what I might do next.” “Late October” confirms her mastery of employing formal elements to convey the subtle emotional dynamics of a poem’s narrative, underscoring its comical and tragic implications.

Aside from her technical precision, Laux does not censor the gritty details of her poems. In “The Tooth Fairy,” from Awake, she reveals details of her father’s domestic violence through a narrative about receiving a glitter-covered quarter from the Tooth Fairy. The speaker’s parents work especially hard to maintain the child’s belief in the creature, going so far as to brush glitter on the coin the child receives and paint gold footprints onto the speaker’s bedroom floor. Considering the pains that the mother and father go through to ensure that the speaker maintains her innocence, Laux makes it obvious just how much the speaker’s parents love their child. However, just as quickly as Laux reveals this domestic bliss, she disrupts the narrative with the cold reality of the abuse that followed:

It’s harder to believe
the years that followed, the palms
curled into fists, a floor
of broken dishes, her chain-smoking
through long silences, him
punching holes in the walls.

While the loving home and the relationship between the speaker’s mother and father does not last, the parents’ gesture of love remains with the speaker: “And I still wonder how they did it, slipped / that quarter under my pillow, made those / perfect footprints…” Laux places a lens before and after abusive moments, permitting the reader to experience the complex relationship between an abused child and her parents, that the relationship is not one reduced to hate for one’s abuser. There are moments that complicate the ways an abuse survivor feels about the past. Laux’s openness about trauma risks melodrama, but the poet’s eye for detail allows her to produce poetry that is never maudlin nor too distanced from the moment for the reader to appreciate it.

Her talent for potent detail extends past poems of abuse, allowing Laux to create powerfully sensual poems as well. In the first section of “The Thief,” in What We Carry, Laux’s powers focus on the erotic. The speaker’s paramour works on a project as he sits on the floor “in a square of sun,” and the speaker cannot resist the attraction to him at that moment:

not wanting to interrupt his work
but unable to keep your fingers
from dipping into the ditch in his pants

Laux employs detail after detail in the poem, creating an almost cinematic scene in which the speaker approaches the boyfriend and engages in a physical display of desire. Written in the second person, the poet places the reader behind the speaker’s eyes, as if the reader is living the experience: “…though you’re still in your robe / which falls open a little as you reach / around his chest, feel for the pink / wheel of each nipple, the slow beat / of his heart…” The poem transpires over one sentence, and the anticipation of the sentence reaching its conclusion pulls the reader through the poem, mirroring the sexual anticipation of the speaker reaching climax.

And Laux’s poems about female sexuality glow throughout the collection. The poetry’s register captures a spectrum of colors, even if some poems are chiaroscuro-ed with trauma. In “The Lovers,” also found in What We Carry, the narration remains matter-of-fact and earnest: “She is about to come. This time, / they are sitting up, joined below the belly,” but the poem moves beyond its frankness about sex and delves into the trauma of molestation and rape. The “she” of the poem must see her lover’s face to reach orgasm because she was raped. The poem concludes: “as she arches and screams, watches the face that, / if she could see it, she would never let him see.” Laux captures private, painful moments with the eye of a film director. Her characters are flesh and bone, and she does not allow the reader one moment to deny their truths.

The only exception to the outstanding poems within Laux’s collection are those found in the third section, Smoke, exploring the familiar themes of the previous sections: abuse, relationships, and working-class life. For example, in “Family Stories,” a boyfriend tells the speaker stories about his father’s fiery moments, but the speaker cannot relate to what she deems to be “normal” fighting. Instead, Laux’s speaker interprets the boyfriend’s father throwing “a lit birthday cake” out of a window during a party as an expression of his father’s love. While this poem reveals how abuse survivors can feel that anger and violence are sometimes an abuser’s way of communicating love, a reminder of the binary always present in Laux’s work, the poem assumes an almost dismissive tone: “But all I could see was a gorgeous / three-layer cake gliding like a battered ship / down the sidewalk.” While this tone does not belittle the boyfriend’s experience and expresses the speaker’s jealousy of the kind of family violence her boyfriend’s family sometimes faces, the kind that ends in bruised egos instead of bruised bodies, and while the sentiment is understandable, especially in light of the speaker’s own abusive past, the speaker fails to regret her interpretation of the boyfriend’s traumatic moments. Even if the intention is satirical, the fact that the boyfriend’s family loves each other convinces the speaker that his trauma “sounded harmless,” which leaves the poem lacking the kind of empathy Laux is known for. Nonetheless, three poems stand out as gems in this section: “How It Will Happen. When,” “Last Words,” and “Pearl.” “Pearl” exudes empathy. In it, Laux conjures Janis Joplin, and the poet pulls the reader through beautiful lines of description that express Joplin’s struggles and desires as an artist and woman: “That girl, that rawboned woman, stranded / in a storm on a blackened stage like a house / on fire.” The intensity ascribed to Joplin’s singing equally applies to Laux’s poetry.

Once the reader reaches the section entitled Facts About the Moon, all the moon imagery from the previous sections shines even more brightly. Referencing the moon thirty-six times throughout the book, Laux uses this symbol of motherhood so frequently it may discombobulate a reader, but not without purpose. The moon reflects the mother-daughter relationship and femininity, and Laux keeps her mother always within a few pages of the reader’s mind. For instance, in “Moon in the Window,” the speaker admits that, as a child, she read instead of watching the moon. Essentially, then, the speaker states that books served as her mother. Laux expresses the sentiment in a Plathian tone: “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.” In the very next poem, from which the section and 2006 collection take their titles, she complicates the emotions of that experience. “Facts About the Moon” articulates the poet’s empathy and the guilt she has for her abused and abusive mother. Using the moon’s increasing distance from the Earth as a metaphor for the impending death of her mother and the bad relationships between mothers and their children, Laux draws her reader into the narrative by explaining that the moon is escaping Earth’s gravity. She continues to change the narrative’s tone about the moon until the poem transitions and discusses maternal relationships, and then the poem arrives at a moment when the speaker switches to describing domestic violence: “until she lifts her pale puffy face, her eyes / two craters, and then you can’t help it / either, you know love when you see it [.]” Laux chooses the perfect words on which to stop: “its brutal pull.” They are words that evoke the essence of both guilt and love. These forces gather strength throughout the book.  Facts About the Moon is a microcosm of Laux’s poetry, dealing with trauma, sex, relationships, disillusionment, and acceptance, and as such, this section is a microcosm of the collection itself.

In the collection’s The Book of Men section, Laux does not just recount and describe the men of her life. Rather, she inhabits their masculine space, if there really is such a thing, while revealing her relationship to them, another binary. She does not depend on caricatures of men to bend men to the will of her poems. Instead, they exhibit their beliefs, their desires in juxtaposition to the poet’s world, which leads the readers and the speakers of these poems to examine what they understand, and they come to accept the immediate circumstances of material reality, no matter how grisly those conditions may be. She lists image after image in ways that build to breaking, enough to allow Laux’s signature vulnerability to take the poems away from some inevitable conclusion and, instead, to meditate on the knowable and unknowable in which men and women live, opening into a more nuanced poem, welcoming interpretation.

“Staff Sgt. Metz,” which begins by describing a soldier in line at Starbucks, is the first male character in the section. She writes, “Metz is alive for now [.]” She then goes on to describe looking at his ear and into his ear canal: “a narrow darkness spiraling deep inside his head / toward the place of dreaming and fractions [.]” Again, Laux illuminates a darkness she wants to understand. By the end of the poem, after speaking about the Vietnam War, her brother’s and old boyfriend’s participation in it, her rejection of it, Laux writes, “All that matters to me now / is his life, the body so perfectly made.” She finds the miraculous in Sgt. Metz’s body, “mysterious in its workings, its oiled / and moving parts, / the whole of him […],” but this does not fall merely into the realm of the female gaze. Laux is celebrating the material reality she knows, despite its difficult and, oftentimes, dark terrain.

The reality that Laux explores in The Book of Men consists of barriers and conventions, writing in “Men,” “It’s tough being a guy, having to be gruff / and buff, the strong silent type, having to laugh it off […],” but those obstacles and expectations also inform the women of this section, including her mother, sister, and self. The confessional mode of Laux’s poetry laments and celebrates aspects of both women and men. In “Mother’s Day,” Laux recounts her responsibilities in caring for her mother who suffered from a stroke, which robbed her mother of her vocabulary but not her humanity. Their roles reversed: “I read her Sandburg, / some Frost, and she closes her eyes. I say yes, / yes, and tuck her in.” This poem reconfigures “Moon in the Window,” in which books are the speaker’s mother; here, the speaker, poignantly, uses the heart she grew from “paper and glue” to be a mother to her own mother.

In Only as the Day Is Long: New Poems, Laux examines the death of her mother and how Laux still processes the complicated emotions arising from that grief. The section relies on form, which signals a need for structure to contain the speaker’s still raw emotions. Laux works not only with the sonnet here, but she also writes a couple of poems in the Golden Shovel form, which was developed by Terrance Hayes. “Lapse” takes its end words from line eight of Gwendolyn Brooks’ “A Sunset of the City.” In using the form, Laux alludes to and honors Brooks’ poem that laments an aging mother’s new life after her children have left their home. Laux uses the poem to springboard into an exploration of the loss of her mother, who has become like a child to her. She grieves for the loss of her mother’s life and the speaker’s old way of living. Referring to the speaker’s dead, Laux writes: “It / isn’t possible to raise them from their beds, is / it? Even if I push the dirt with my bare hands? […]” No longer in denial about her mother’s death, the speaker transitions through Kubler-Ross’ Five Stages of Grief, ending with her seeming acceptance of the loss, but Laux delays a fully realized acceptance until “Death of the Mother,” which is the second of the Golden Shovel poems. Laux takes the end words from John Donne’s Holy Sonnet 7.  Using the form allows Laux the opportunity to compress the complications and the losses of her life into fourteen lines that she tunes within the structure of Donne’s rhymes. By using this form to begin the last section, Laux not only presents us with her journey through grief, but she also reveals her sincere and lifelong dependence on literature to guide her through life’s trials.

In “Only as the Day Is Long,” which takes its title from a phrase her mother used ironically to describe days that never seemed to end, Laux’s speaker begins by revealing that soon her mother “will be no more than a passing thought, / a pang, a timpani of wind in the chimes…,” but the speaker is not allowing the truth of grief to register with her yet. As the inverted sonnet progresses into its concluding octave, the speaker imagines her mother’s atoms floating around the world: “her fleshy atoms, her boozy atoms, her saltines / and cheese and tea, but not her piano concerto / atoms, her atoms of laughter and cruelty…” The speaker is imagining her mother everywhere and in everything, and in the last line of the poem, Laux’s speaker reveals one of the more touching moments in the collection, demonstrating how a grieving child clings to a dead parent: “Lord her slippers, where are they now?” Like the sunset revealing the moon, the poem reveals a grief for her mother that cycles, one that will never die.

By the collection’s end, “Letter to My Dead Mother,” referring to her mother in the poem as “Moon-in-the-sky like a toy,” firmly establishes the moon’s symbolic value in Laux’s poetry as a maternal symbol. Though the moon can also symbolize time, change, femininity, eternity, and other things, throughout Only as the Day is Long the moon consistently demonstrates her mother’s presence and importance and emphasizes the pain of losing her mother. In “Changeable Weather,” Laux underscores the mixed emotions that abuse survivors can feel about their parents, the ambivalence that floats just over a deep and abiding love for them.

We never knew which way to run:
into her arms or away from her sharp eyes.
We loved her most when she was gone,
and when, after long absence, she arrived.

In this case, Laux uses the iambic line to establish a sense of stability in emotionally charged lines while providing further structure with slant rhymes. Ingenious adaptation of formal structures allows Laux the emotional distance and framework in which to create poems of trauma and celebration alike, including these newest poems’ beautiful tributes to her deceased mother.

Using binaries, like the love/hate relationship survivors of abuse have with their abusers, masculinity and femininity, darkness and light (Laux’s references to the moon or sometimes the sun) and even the juxtaposition of metrical and non-metrical lines and, in the last section form with free verse, Only as the Day is Long provides the reader with a poetry of subtle and powerful variety, the full force of which may not be readily perceived because of Laux’s reputation as a free-verse poet writing about abuse and working class life. The poems in this collection, though mostly selected from previous collections, thrive within their new context, Laux re-envisioning her life’s work in light of having lost her mother. Laux’s willingness to be vulnerable, and her ability to create enduring beauty out of her vulnerability, will prove valuable to anyone searching the shadows of memory for truth, for meaning, or for peace.