August 2012

Rebecca Silber

poetry

The Book of Men by Dorianne Laux

Winner of the 2012 Paterson Poetry Prize, Dorianne Laux's fifth collection of poems, The Book of Men, speaks with a voice of insight and experience. To those familiar with her work, her wisdom should not come as a surprise.

An expeditious glance at the illustration on the cover of The Book of Men gives a general sense of the book's themes. The phallic imagery of flora and fauna blossoming out of a pair of white men's briefs conveys the sense of humor, personal growth, and life experience that Laux applies to decades of relationships. It is these relationships that she shares in her latest book of poetry.

The person-to-person relationships that Laux covers are not just her relationships with men. Yes, there are many poems that recount her past boyfriends, encounters like the one described in "Learning to Drive," "The long miles down the back road / I learned to drive on. The boy riding / shotgun. His hand on my hand on / the gear shift knob, our eyes locked..." Several other poems cover the transposed relationship she has now that she cares for her aging mother. The most poignant is "Mother's Day," "I passed through the narrow hills / of my mother's hips one cold morning / and never looked back, until now, clipping / her tough toenails, sitting on the bed's edge / combing out the tuft of hair..."

As in life, there are poems in this book where relationships are humorous, or humorous in hindsight. Laux doesn't hesitate to bring wit into her poetry and does so rather satirically in her poem entitled "Men": "It's tough being a guy, having to be gruff / and buff, the strong silent type, having to laugh / it off..." Laux's use of humor adds realism to her words and demonstrates that she doesn't view herself too earnestly.

Laux's poems also exude a sense of wisdom, a sort of sophisticated "been there, done that... learned from that." Take these lines from her poem "Bakersfield, 1969": "Back then / I was scared most of the time. But I acted / tough, like I knew every street..." Laux makes it clear that she made mistakes, that, like so many other people in their youth, she lived a little rashly. She looks back on these relationships with a knowing nostalgia. The reader can sense that she has welcomed all of her past encounters, good and bad, into her current understanding of herself. This is verified in "Antilamentation," "Regret none of it, not one / of the wasted days you wanted to know nothing, / when the lights from the carnival rides / were the only stars you believed in..."

The poems in this collection read as small narratives. The structures are varied, some long and some short, but the lines all read fluently and easily saunter through the mind. A few poems include quotations from other sources at their beginning. This is a tactic more customary to novels, but it works well for Laux. My favorite of these is the simple line she quotes from the movie Harold and Maude at the beginning of the poem "Lighter": "Aim above morality." "Lighter" tells the reader to go to a convenience store and steal something small, for the sake of the act -- a small gift for your suffering. "Haven't you suffered? / Haven't you been beaten down, condemned / like a tenement, gone to bed hungry, alone?"

The breadth of experience covered in The Book of Men presents Laux as a strong woman, proactive in her pursuits, and this proudly carries into and beyond her midlife. She touches on subject matter from her youth, in the 1960s -- Vietnam, Bob Dylan, Cher -- a time of carefree living, and juxtaposes them to the realities she is now facing, realities such as age spots, wrinkled brains, and disappearing into the past.

Laux's poetic narratives are little viewfinders into the decades that make up a life. The Book of Men is poignant for a reader of any age. The themes that she covers in this collection are universal. If readers have not already encountered them, the experiences are certain to be encountered in the future.

The Book of Men by Dorianne Laux
W. W. Norton & Company
ISBN 978-0393079555
96 pages