The Perplexing Other
A Review of Dorianne Laux’s The Book of Men
by A. Anupama
“It was the title. I admit, I thought that maybe Dorianne Laux was giving us the answer key right here in her new collection of poetry, The Book of Men. I ran to get a copy. Well, I didn’t actually. I downloaded mine on a reading tablet, I admit, which I don’t like to do with poetry books, but I was in a hurry to take a look. Luckily, Laux’s book isn’t the sort of visual poetry that loses some of its elegance in the tablet. Even so, I dislike the way mine breaks a poem on the screen or shifts to landscape when I shift the tablet to the side, as when I lie on the couch to read. It is different, something to get used to, and it reveals my own expectations of the experience of reading as I adjust settings so that it annoys me less, or contemplate upgrading to a newer model. It just added to my experience of Laux’s theme—the struggle to read our perplexing others, to reveal to ourselves our expectations of love and life.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that this wasn’t the “answers” book I had imagined, but rather a place for Laux’s questions to flourish, seeding our own questionings. Some of the poems are personal ones, about past lovers and friends. She also picks out a few of the “gods” of the Sixties, men whose art defined her generation: Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Mick Jagger. She takes her attention to them, with questions, requests, awe, and dismay. Her personal reactions and observations are rendered with humor and vulnerable honesty.
In the poem titled “Bob Dylan,” the epigraph is taken from his song “Father of Night,” which is a stark contrast to Laux’s poem. Dylan’s song lyrics are almost hymn-like in their tone of reverence to the Father. Laux’s poem’s Father is asleep on a bench somewhere; he is someone who has abandoned the speaker of the poem, a speaker who says things like “I knew there was no mercy but me.” The image of the ant in the middle of the poem is Laux’s portrait of Dylan:
one, without a leg, limped
in circles, sent two front legs out to stroke
a crooked antenna, a gesture
that looked to me like prayer. I knew
it wasn’t true.
Her doubt sends her “on with my empty plate, / like everyone else, calling, calling.” I considered too, that Laux might have meant the poem to be read as a persona poem, in which case, the ant would be one of the regular folks of Dylan’s songs, and the old man is the Father of that song, but changed into a vagrant “his sack of clothes beneath his matted head.” What a change from the Father in the Dylan song, who builds rainbows, teaches birds to fly. This one is “twitching in dream. One hand clutching / the bald earth, the other waving me down.” It is strange and ambiguous. I wondered when I read this–is this a good thing? The birds in this poem are not flying. The ants are not praying. But the speaker has gotten down on knees and has noticed the dreaming old man’s waving, beckoning.
The question “is this a good thing?” came up again for me at the end of the poem “The Beatles.” Laux lambasts them with her sarcastic hypothesizing on why the band broke up. Was it love? Was it greed? Was it a damaged sense of reality? Laux’s last stanza suggests an answer:
Maybe they arrived
at a place where nothing seemed real. A field
bigger than love or greed or jealousy.
An open space
where nothing is enough.
If nothing itself could be enough, that’s the answer isn’t it? If nothing is enough, then desire itself is frustrated to the point of annihilating itself—isn’t that a good thing? Or, is desire the only eternal thing for our cultural gods who, by singing from the heart, have gorged themselves with wealth and fame by creating insatiable desire—Beatlemania and the reverence of fans even today? The multiplicity of meanings in Laux’s one-line punch is remarkable for the cascade of new questions it sets off. I found myself examining the post-Beatles activities of its members, mulling over the possibilities of what the answer could be. It brought me up short at the present, with McCartney writing a romantic opera for the New York City Ballet and Starr’s official website displaying a photo of him in a gesture of two fingers up for peace and love. I couldn’t really place a value on the merits or sincerity of these projects. And that seems to be Laux’s brilliant point. Her sarcastic tone evaporates into uncertainty, seeding questions.
The poem “Men” is a deliberately crafted statement, but a statement with subtle lies in it. So the questioning starts again. Laux begins with
It’s tough being a guy, having to be gruff
and buff, the strong silent type, having to laugh
it off—pain, loss, sorrow, betrayal—or leave in a huff
Every line of the poem ends in the “f” sound, except the penultimate line.
Son, brother, husband, lover, father, they are different
from us, except when they fall or stand alone on a wharf.
The word “different” frustrates the pattern of the poem, emphasizing its presence in a way that sets off questions again. There is this doubt. If one were to reverse all the adjectives and metaphors in this poem to make it “easy being a girl,” would the poem say the same thing? And what about the word “lover” in the middle of that same penultimate line? Every other word in the line can only be used to refer to men. The placement makes “they are different” seem ever so slightly like a lie. The final image stating that men and women only seem alike when in suffering or solitude seems ambiguous after that. The question again–is that a good thing?
Interestingly, in the second section of the book, Laux questions her mother, her mother’s friend, her niece, a pregnant mare, Cher, a female neighbor, a female friend, Emily Dickinson–a lot of people who are not men! And there’s a poem about a dog howling at the moon who “has one blind eye, the other one’s looking up.” A poem about gardening, “pulling stones like tumors up,” and another about gold, “Color of JCPenney’s jewelry, trinket / in a Cracker Jack box…” Laux’s collection makes a meandering progress from questioning the gods, to questioning her companions, to questioning the animals and the inanimate objects in our lives. She arrives at the last poem, which is a meditation on trees overlooking water, essentially a nature poem. Here she compacts the questions, so elegantly, in the stark comparison between the pine tree leaning from a cliff over the ocean and the “blossoming cherry growing up over / the shed’s flat roof,” dropping petals into a pond. In this poem, she embraces the passion and desire in human experience at the beginning, and at the end gives us a haunting image of our mortality:
and a few bright petals settle
onto the black pond. They float only a moment
before the moon-colored carp finds them
with his hairy ancient lips, and one by one
carries them down.
The Book of Men as a whole does this, and this final poem mirrors the brilliant movement of the collection from its beginning to end.
Charles Harper Webb’s article about Laux’s poetry in the most recent issue of The Writer’s Chronicle (October/November 2011) focuses of the power of her work. Webb offers some insight into technical elements in her poems, but he concludes that the success of her poetry comes from her willingness to allow her personality to blaze strongly in a way that is accessible to the typical reader. The result is that the enduring quality of human emotions illuminates her poetry. I agree, and I would add that she has let her wisdom blaze here in The Book of Men with her willingness to enter into her own questions unwaveringly.