Reviewed by Isaiah Vianese
For revered poets, the “new and selected” collection is an important milestone; the book signals both a retrospective of one’s accomplishments, as well as points to the poet’s future. It can often be a sign that the writer is outside of the zeitgeist but still worthy of acknowledgement, much like the lifetime achievement award for an actor or singer. Dorianne Laux’s Only As the Day is Long: New and Selected Poems accomplishes these goals, cementing her reputation as one of the most important poets of the 1990s and early 2000s, while also observing Laux’s current creative preoccupations.
When Laux burst onto the scene with her first collection, Awake, in 1990, her work was praised for its honest depictions of an abusive childhood, as well as its exploration of adult female sexuality. Laux rose to fame in the footsteps of both Sharon Olds (infamous for her celebrations of sex and the body) and Philip Levine (who wrote poems praising working class life). Only As the Day… selects the best pieces from this inaugural book, balancing the dark and celebratory material. The opener, “Two Pictures of My Sister,” paints a grisly scene of abuse that gives way to resistance and empowerment: “She does not move or cry or even wince… her face / a stubborn moon that trails the car all night.” This inclination to find hope or strength characterizes much of Laux’s work. These pieces provide a powerful context for her more celebratory poems, like “On the Back Porch,” which revels in domesticity:
I want to smell this rich soup, the air
around me going dark, as stars press
their simple shapes into the sky.
I want to stay on the back porch
while the world tilts
toward sleep, until what I love
misses me, and calls me in.
When read in light of the earlier poems about abuse, this piece’s tranquility holds even more weight.
The poet’s subsequent books lean into her celebration of the body, as well as hope in the face of loss. What We Carry (1994) focuses on family life and romantic love, and its tone is best characterized by these lines from “Dust:”
And I wasn’t elated or frightened,
but simply rapt, aware.
That’s how it is sometimes–
God comes to your window,
all bright light and black wings,
and you’re just took tired to open it.
Laux often mixes celebration with pragmatism, balancing the fantastic with the practical. Similarly, Smoke (2000) counterweights the despair of loss with joy in the physical world–a world that is both grotesque and lovely. In “Life is Beautiful,” she writes about the common house fly, ending the poem with:
…If there is
a purpose, maybe there are too many of us
to see it, though we can, from a distance,
hear the dull thrum of a generation’s industry,
feel its fleshly wheel churn the fire inside us, pushing
the world forward to its ragged edge, rushing
like a swollen river into multitude and rank disorder.
Such abundance. We are gorged, engorging, and gorgeous.
Again, Laux and her editor have carefully selected poems from these collections, distilling their aesthetics and themes for the reader.
Her two late era books, Facts About the Moon (2006) and The Book of Men (2011), are also represented. Laux not only moved publishers for this period of career (from revered indie press BOA Editions to the larger W.W. Norton), but her poems also shifted perspective. Facts features some poems about love (“The Crossing,” “Vacation Sex”), but the majority of the collection–especially the pieces selected for this volume–focus on her concerns for the natural world (the title poem, “The Ravens of Denali,” and “The Life of Trees” being high points). Laux turns her eye away from her speaker and toward the world around her. The Book of Men makes a parallel choice, exploring gender via mostly male character sketches. Arguably, Men is the weakest of her collections because it is sometimes hindered by being a “concept book.” A poem like “Mick Jagger (World Tour, 2008)” stumbles like an old rocker, but her ode to the male form, “The Secret of Backs,” captures her gift for direct revelations: “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.”
This brings the reader to the final section of new poems, titled “Only As the Day is Long.” In these most recent works, Laux is still preoccupied with love, the body, and loss, but she centralizes those themes around the speaker’s mother. After some unevenness in The Book of Men, it’s refreshing to see the poet in top form with these twenty new pieces. Focusing on the mother’s passing allows her to contextualize her entire body of work, using her favorite themes while also casting them from a late-life perspective.The first poem in the section, “Lapse,” opens with, “I am not deceived, I do not think it is still summer,” which acts as a thesis for the new works. These pieces often make callbacks to older poems. In “Crow,” memories of the deceased mother return in expected places: “ After she died I’d shudder and look up / expecting to see her ghost. I wasn’t afraid, only hopeful.” These lines recall similar images from What We Carry’s “Dust” (referenced above), but recontextualized for this new vision of love and melancholy. Similarly, the closing poem, “Letter to My Dead Mother,” recalls Awake’s “On the Back Porch;” the speaker’s mother is making soup, and despite challenges and happiness, there is a joy in their home life together:
Dear Mother, I have tried. I think I know now
What you meant when you said, I’m tired.
I have no song to sing to your Death Star.
No wish. Though I kissed your cheek
And sang for you in the kitchen
While you stirred the soup, steam
Licking our faces–crab legs and potatoes–
Those were the days.
Laux’s speaker is no longer a young woman looking for love to call her back into the house; she is a woman who has sat with that love for a long time. It’s gone now, but she wishes for that sweetness again, despite everything.
When examining this collection as a whole, Only As the Day is Long: New and Selected Poems reminds the reader what makes Dorianne Laux such a great observer of the human condition. She always honors our desire to love one another. She continues to take this theme, twist it in the light, and find new angles through which to see the world.