Beginnings are brutal, like this accident
of stars colliding, mute explosions
of colorful gases, the mist and dust
that would become our bodies
hurling through black holes, rising,
muck ridden, from pits of tar and clay.
Back then it was easy to have teeth,
claw our ways into the trees — it was
accepted, the monkeys loved us, sat
on their red asses clapping and laughing.
We’ve forgotten the luxury of dumbness,
how once we crouched naked on an outcrop
of rock, the moon huge and untouched
above us, speechless. Now we talk
about everything, incessantly,
our moans and grunts turned on a spit
into warm vowels and elegant consonants.
We say plethora, demitasse, ozone and love.
We think we know what each sound means.
There are times when something so joyous
or so horrible happens our only response
is an intake of breath, and hen
we’re back at the truth of it,
that ball of life expanding
and exploding on impact, our heads,
our chest, filled with that first
From What We Carry (Boa Editions, 1994)
Moonlight pours down
without mercy, no matter
how many have perished
beneath the trees.
The river rolls on.
There will always be
silence, no matter
how long someone
has wept against
the side of a house,
bare forearms pressed
to the shingles.
Even pain, even sorrow.
The swans drift on.
Reeds bear the weight
of their feathery heads.
Pebbles grow smaller,
smoother beneath night’s
rough currents. We walk
long distances, carting
our bags, our packages.
Burdens or gifts.
We know the land
is disappearing beneath
the sea, islands swallowed
like prehistoric fish.
We know we are doomed,
done for, damned, and still
the light reaches us, falls
on our shoulders even now,
even here where the moon is
hidden from us, even though
the stars are so far away.
We were afraid of everything: earthquakes,
strangers, smoke above the canyon, the fire
that would come running and eat up our house,
the Claymore girls, big-boned, rough, razor blades
tucked in the ratted hair. We were terrified
of polio, tuberculosis, being found out, the tent
full of boys two blocks over, the kick ball, the asphalt,
the pain-filled rocks, the glass-littered canyon, the deep
cave gouged in its side, the wheelbarrow crammed
with dirty magazines, beer cans, spit-laced butts.
We were afraid of hands, screen doors slammed
by angry mothers, abandoned cars, their slumped
back seats, the chain-link fence we couldn’t climb
fast enough, electrical storms, blackouts, girl fights
behind the pancake house, Original Sin, sidewalk
cracks and the corner crematorium, loose brakes
on the handlebar of our bikes. It came alive
behind our eyes: ant mounds, wasp nests, the bird
half-eaten on the scratchy grass, chained dogs,
the boggy creekbed, the sewer main that fed it,
the game where you had to hold your breath
until you passed out. We were afraid of being
poor, dumb, yelled at, ignored, invisible
as the nuclear dust we were told to wipe
from lids before we opened them in the kitchen,
the fat roll of meat that slid into the pot, sleep,
dreams, the soundless swing of the father’s
ringed fist, the mother’s face turned away,
the wet bed, anything red, the slow leak,
the stain on the driveway, oily gears soaking
in a shallow pan, busted chairs stuffed
in the rafters of the neighbor’s garage,
the Chevy’s twisted undersides jacked up
on blocks, wrenches left scattered in the dirt.
It was what we knew best, understood least,
it whipped through our bodies like fire or sleet.
We were lured by the Dumpster behind the liquor store,
fissures in the baked earth, the smell of singed hair,
the brassy hum of high-tension towers, train tracks,
buzzards over a ditch, black widows, the cat
with one eye, the red spot on the back of the skirt,
the fallout shelter’s metal door hinged ot the rusty
grass, the back way, the wrong path, the night’s
wide back, the coiled bedsprings of the sister’s
top bunk, the wheezing, the cousin in the next room
tapipng on the wall, anything small.
We were afraid of clotheslines, curtain rods, the worn
hairbrush, the good-for-nothings we were about to become,
reform school, the long ride to the ocean on the bus,
the man at the back of the bus, the underpass.
We were afraid of fingers of pickleweed crawling
over the embankment, the French Kiss, the profound
silence of dead fish, burning sand, rotting elastic
in the waistbands of our underpants, jellyfish, riptides,
eucalyptus bark unraveling, the pink flesh beneath
the stink of seaweed, seagulls landing near our feet,
their hateful eyes, their orange-tipped beaks stabbing
the sand, the crumbling edge of the continent we stood on,
waiting to be saved, the endless, wind-driven waves.
From Smoke (BOA Editions, 2000)
DORIANNE LAUX’s most recent books of poems are The Book of Men, winner of the Paterson Poetry Prize, and Facts about the Moon, recipient of the Oregon Book Award and short-listed for the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. Laux is also author of Awake, What We Carry, finalist for the National Book Critic’s Circle Award, and Smoke. Her work has received three “Best American Poetry” Prizes, a Pushcart Prize, two fellowships from The National Endowment for the Arts, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 2001, she was invited by late poet laureate Stanley Kunitz to read at the Library of Congress. In 2014 singer/songwriter Joan Osborne adapted her poem, “The Shipfitter’s Wife” and set it to music on her newest release, “Love and Hate”. She teaches poetry and directs the MFA program at North Carolina State University and she is founding faculty at Pacific University's Low Residency MFA Program.