Only as the Day is Long
New and Selected Poems
by Dorianne Laux
New York: W.W. Norton & Company
A review by Dana DeliboviDorianne Laux was not someone I ever chose to read. I knew she wrote longer narrative and confessional poetry, but I like poets who write short lyrics. I heard her poems depicted lots of robust American sex, all flesh and zippers, but I like poetic sex that’s either unrequited or heavily veiled. I understood she told stories of the working class. That’s a harrowing place for me, a place I almost killed myself to leave behind.
So I’m still wrestling with why I felt drawn to buy her collection, Only as the Day Is Long. Maybe my instinct perceived what my reason could not—goodness knows, it wouldn’t be the first time. I loved this book, and I regret not reading Laux sooner
Only as the Day Is Long is a superbly curated volume, the best of a life’s work. Poems are arranged chronologically, starting with selections from Laux’s first book, Awake (1990). The first poem from Awake, the opening salvo, is a narrative confession, all right, but certainly not of the grey-light-at-the-summerhouse variety. “Two Photographs of My Sister” conjures two pictures: one from a camera and the other from memory, one of a child in a cast-off swimsuit and the other of a teenager beaten with a belt by her father.
She dares him.
Go on. Hit me again.
He lets the folded strap unravel to the floor.
Holds it by his tail. Bells the buckle
off her cheekbone.
She does not move or cry or even wince
as the welt blooms on her temple
like a flower opening frame by frame
in a nature film.
The remorseless, almost clinical brutality of this image hooked me on Laux—I could not look away. After that, I was caught completely by the poem’s end, where Laux admits that her sister’s swelling face still follows her, like a “stubborn moon that trails the car all night…locked in the frame of the back window.”
I had to keep reading. In poem after poem I found a brave and untamed narrative that compelled me to care: the endless chores and abuse of a tough childhood; the mystery of debased parents who somehow managed to craft glitter-covered change from the tooth fairy; and the sacred, lost ritual of “Smoke” selected from the book (2000) of the same name.
Who would want to give it up, the coal
a cat’s eye in the dark room, no one there
but you and your smoke, the window
cracked to street sounds…
Laux is has a particular gift for poems about everyday objects and the stories they hold. A favorite of mine is one of the book’s new poems, “My Mother’s Colander.” A whole world of childhood literally sifts though this object, part culinary tool, part toy. I physically felt my own childhood in Laux’s final image: kids holding the colander aloft in the sun, its star-shaped holes making “noon stars on the pavement.”
Less appealing to me are the poems of sexuality and celebrity in Laux’s corpus. Many of the sexual poems often indulge in body parts and whoops and the doffing of underwear—items that are out of my prudish comfort zone, and which remained out of my comfort zone despite Laux’s deft prodding. An exception: “The Shipfitter’s Wife,” in which sex after work is a way for the wife to comprehend, almost to metabolize, the husband’s toil—“The clamp, the winch, the white fire of the torch, the whistle, and the long drive home.” Perhaps my prudishness also caused me to dislike the celebrity poems about the sensual mystique of Mick Jagger and Cher. These poems, selections from The Book of Men (2011), felt contrived, painfully so since Laux’s work about everyday life rings so true.
In terms of craft, Laux is a master of two poetic skills I admire greatly and only wish I could approximate. The first skill is the generous use of verbs, especially the stout Anglo-Saxon verbs. “Antilamentation” a poem against regret, is a prime example of Laux’s barrage of verbs: beat, curse, crimp, chew, pitch, and more. The second skill is the just-right line break. Laux never breaks a line haphazardly; every break, punctuated or not, adds to both meaning and music. This is perfectly illustrated by these lines from “What We Carry,” the title work of Laux’s 1994 book.
He tells me his mother carries his father’s ashes
on the front seat in a cardboard box, exactly
where she placed them after the funeral…
What body of water would be fit
for his scattering? What ground?
After reading Only as the Day Is Long, it struck me that I could never write an objective review about it. I could never say with conviction that any and all readers would like this book. That’s because what I most loved in the book were the stories and images that mirrored my own life. Laux’s earliest years were spent in New England; I grew up there. Laux’s father was in the navy; my father was a navy veteran who worked as a boat-builder. Like Laux, I once smoked like a chimney and listened at night to the sounds of my drunken street. I changed social class through education and writing. But the question that remains is why, after so many years of knowing about Laux and avoiding her, did I now pick up her book?
I’m still not sure. It might be simply a matter of the extra time I have these days. I’m older, semi-retired, happily at home, and freer to explore.
Or maybe it’s taken me this long to touch the wounds my of hard-knocks past—the kind of past that informs so much of Laux’s work. A legacy like that dogs you, and its bite-marks hurt, no matter how many degrees you rack up or how many poems you publish. A battered colander, a smoke in the dark, or a sister’s livid welt sticks with you, in Laux’s words, “no matter how many turns you take, no matter how far you go.”
Dana Delibovi is a poet and essayist from Lake Saint Louis, Missouri. In 2020, her work has appeared in The Confluence, Apple Valley Review, Linden Avenue, and Noon. She is the 2019 winner of the James Haba Award for Poetry.