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The Book of Men: Poems Hardcover – February 28, 2011
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From Publishers Weekly
Laux's fifth collection continues in her descriptive, storytelling vein: the at-hand, the matter-of-fact, the day-to-day are rendered in an earnest tone both sensuous and nostalgic. Something of a baby boomer's field guide, this book portrays the legacy of the 1960s from the perspective of one who has survived and must look back on what that decade did and didn't change. And so, the Vietnam War, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Mick Jagger, Cher, Frank O'Hara, and Superman all make appearances. Laux's treatment of this era isn't without sentimentality, but her true aim is more probing, more elegiac: Superman "sits on a tall building/ smoking pot, holding white plumes in,/ palliative for the cancerous green glow/ spreading its tentacles"; "It's 2010 and the doctors have given him another year in Metropolis." Laux's younger self has grown up, no longer that girl who knew "it was the summer of love/ and I wore nothing under my cotton vest,/ my Mexican skirt." Laux brings the book toward its close reconsidering women's bodies—specifically their breasts—and how they change: "your mother's are strangers to you now, your sister's/ were always bigger.../ your lover's breasts, deep under the ground,/ you weep beside the little mounds of earth/ lightly shoveled over them." (Feb.)
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Laux has somehow become the men, women and children of these portraits in an exchange of the power to live for the power to tell. --Andrew Tonkovich --bibliocracyradio.blogspot.com/2011/03/wednesday-march-23-poet-dorianne-laux.html
I think of (Laux) as the Ricky Lee Jones of poetry....sweet without being sentimental. Her poems are little songs of honest hope. --Dean Rader --therumpus.net/2011/05/the-hokum-of-her-clothes/
This is a bold raid by a female poet...Dorianne Laux dares to parse her life through the prism of men who've passed through it. --Dana Jennings, NYTimes --nytimes.com/2011/05/30/books/poems-by-dean-young-dorianne-laux-tom-sexton-review.html
"Dorianne Laux narrates the American dream and its collective unraveling with courage, compassion and exhilarating candour." -- The Poetry Trust, UK --thepoetrytrust.org/
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Top Customer Reviews
The first section of the book begins with sixteen poems, each about a different man, mythical or actual. Some poems also deal with the topic of men at large thematically. Laux succeeds at achieving razor sharp clarity with her powerful imagery, playful language, and surprising metaphors. In "Mick Jagger" she writes of the singer: "If you turn off the sound he's a ruminating bovine/a baby's face tasting his first sour orange or spitting spooned oatmeal out./Rugose cheeks and beef/jerky jowls." This sort of humor infuses the collection and keeps it engaging throughout. Despite "The Book of Men's" playfulness, each of its poems also holds a simple and striking truth. This is Laux at her best, juxtaposing humor and solemnity. At the end of "Late-Night TV," for instance, a poem recounting a narrator watching a late-night infomercial man, Laux writes: "Somewhere in the universe is a palace/ where each of us is imprinted with a map,/the one path seared into the circuits of our brains./It signals us to turn left at the green light,/right at the dead tree./We know nothing of how it all works,/how we end up in one bed or another,/speak one language instead of others,/what heat draws us to our life's work/or keeps us from a dream until it's nothing/but a blister we scratch in our sleep."
In the second section of the collection, Laux expands beyond poems only about men to write about subjects as diverse as Cher, the color gold, and the beauty of people's backs. A master observer, Laux adeptly captures the small details which bring these poems to life: "Cher/tall as a glass of iced tea,/her bony shoulders draped...rouged cheek bones and her/throaty panache/her voice of gravel and clover." "The Book of Men" celebrates the beauty of human imperfection, of both men and women.
Fans of Laux's work will not be disappointed. "The Book of Men" skips the "big things" and focuses on the small, over-looked, and in-between moments of life, setting up the human being as a tiny blip against a huge backdrop. The same intense imagery, non-judgmental voice, blend of comedy and seriousness, and stories about everyday life that are hallmarks of her previous collections are present here. However, "In the Book of Men," Laux achieves a level of precision with her language like never before. With its tight language and piercing clarity, this latest collection is Laux's crowning achievement. She states in the poem "Mine Own Phil Levine": "poetry was precision, raw precision/Truth and compassion: genius." If this is the case, then this is the most real poetry Laux has ever penned, as well as the most ingenious.
Laux doesn't write poems that are obscure, poems that intimidate readers. She communicates at the highest levels. The reader not only "gets" the poem, but feels it, experiences it.
I will often write a poem and "try it out" on a few friends who dislike poetry. I explain that if it doesn't make sense, I haven't done my job. Recently, I read Mother's Day to a few of these friends. Their responses ranged from: "Oh My God", to "I want this book."
I have called most of my poet friends to read the poem over the phone. It is perfect. In this poem we experience a moment we have had but couldn't put in words - a moment we know we will have at some time in our life. In so few words, we know Mother and daughter. We know their history, the way their minds work, the bond between them. We taste the mixture of sweet and sour, feel pain, joy, love and we are left reflecting on the beauty of a moment when worlds intertwine.
The entire collection is remarkable, and this is only one poem.
In the very first poem, Staff Sgt. Metz, Laux demonstrates her uncanny knack for heartfelt narrative: "Metz is alive for now, standing in line / at the airport Starbucks in his camo gear / and buzz cut, his beautiful new / camel-colored suede boots" (17). One could easily write an entire review addressing the craft, social/political commentary, and deliberate pacing of just those four lines! What's most striking about the poem, though, is the narrator's way of stepping onto the stage while still allowing us to keep our focus on the character of Sgt. Metz, which is exactly where it should be: "I can see into the canal in his right ear, / a narrow darkness spiraling deep inside his head / toward the place of dreaming and fractions, / ponds of quiet thought." This is where Laux shines: her subtle humanism, which is all the more striking because it comes from such an uncompromising voice.
There is plenty of subtle social and political commentary in this book, though that commentary comes, as it should, through the lens of personal experience. And when Laux does shift toward the overtly autobiographical, she does so with elegance and lyrical brevity, as exemplified by poems like 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 tufts of hair at the crown
where it ratted up while she slept... 75)
Even as she portrays the awkward mortality of the child caring for the parent, though, Laux's poem echoes with tenderness, measured humor, and redemption: "She's afraid.... I help her / with the buttons on her sweater. She looks / hard at me and says the word sleeve. / Exactly, I tell her and her face relaxes / for the first time in days."
Some of these same themes resonate in Lost in Costco, a poem that seems at first to be about an elderly, likely senile mother wandering off and getting lost in a typical American superstore crowded with "cheap jeans, open bins of discounted CDs," and "buzzing fluorescent lights" (55). Yet the poem takes an interesting turn wherein the mother is found by a piano, "[taking] requests from the crowd." This segues beautifully to the poems' closing, wherein the narrator remembers being a child and asking the mother to play certain songs, identified by humming "a few bars," trusting that the mother would play the right song though she had "so little to go on." This moment--both self-indicting and celebratory of an ailing mother's love and humor--is about as good as any I've ever read on the subject of aging.
Then in Fall, one of the final poems from this collection, Laux performs the kind of lyrical magic trick that got many of us interested in poetry in the first place. She pretty much manages in six lines to sum up more or less every vying school of poetic, religious, and philosophical thought, while still illustrating how goddamn silly and reductive they all are:
I'm tired of stories about the body,
how important it is, how unimportant,
how you're either a body
hauling a wrinkled brain around
or a brain trailing a stunned sheen
of flesh... (82)
Laux's poems are Confessional at times, especially in their unflinching examination of the body, yet her tongue-in-cheek ruminations on human nature remind me of the so-called New York School. That's an academic point, though; ultimately, what matters most is that these poems manage to be lyrical and uncompromising while also being insightful, tender, and immensely forgiving.
Personally, I define a "successful poem" as one that's entertaining to read, sounds good (with is shorthand for "It has richly textured use of alliteration, assonance, and the cadence of stressed versus unstressed syllables"), has some sort of intellectual/emotional depth behind it, and like J.D. Salinger said, makes you wish the writer were your friend. I've never met Dorianne Laux in person but The Book of Men (like her last book, Facts About the Moon) makes me want to buy her a drink and just sit and listen to whatever the hell she has to say, because odds are, it will be something worth hearing.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Initially filled with youthful memories of encounters with men, as you read The Book of Men, it...Read more