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Facts About the Moon: Poems by Dorianne Laux

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

         Paperback: 104 pages

         Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007

         Price: $14.95

         ISBN-10: 0393329623

         ISBN-13: 978-0393329629

 

 

No time lost, the opening poem immediately, stunningly, reminds me why Dorianne Laux still ranks among my top three favorite poets and keeps giving the other two a really hard time. “The Life of Trees” swirls me back into memory, all senses remembering. Once again, I am lying in my bed in the dark of a backcountry night, shack on a dirt road, tree branch scratching along the glass pane of my window.

 

… I want to sleep

and dream the life of trees, beings

from the muted world who care

nothing for Money, Politics, Power,

Will or Right, who want little from the night

but a few stars going dim, a white owl

lifting from their limbs, who want only

to sink their roots into the wet ground …

 

Because Laux understands and masters simplicity, and remaining simple in a complex world is one of the greatest arts of all. She speaks proletarian with the finesse of an intellectual, everything about these poems tapped into the blood of a common people in an uncommon world. She writes of the poor and homeless in “Democracy,” she makes us feel the highs and lows of everyday life, of angst, of growing pains, of loneliness and new connection.

“Vacation Sex” is a poem that is good and earthy and real, by God, real, not that drivel written in bad romances, posed for fantasy and never in reality, and never meant to be. Laux captures the couple that we are, our neighbors, our friends, dumping luggage at the door on the return home from vacation, and leaping back into the comfort of known bed, known body, known joy.

Nature, animals, earth, moon, connection with and between humans, these are the favorite things of Laux poetry. One of my favorites is “The Crossing,” in which the poet bride assesses the long-term value of a new husband by the way he treats an elk standing unmovable in the road. In the details, we are known.

Title poem, and moonlit we come to understand the light and shadow side of love, none purer than a mother’s, none more anguished and tested than the mother’s of a bad-boy son.

 

We don’t deserve the moon.

Maybe we once did but not now

after all we’ve done …

 

… you want to slap her back to sanity, remind her

of the truth: he was a leech, a fuckup,

a little shit, and you almost do

until …

 

I won’t finish that. Endings of poems, especially Laux’s, are such dynamite. They either blow up all in your face, a ruin, or, as Laux’s do, they blow up your heart, shatter it with rediscovered feeling, remembering, suddenly, what it feels like to be sensitive and raw and open and vulnerable to life: vacation sex, flashlights under sheets as a child reading at night, elk caught in headlights on the road, your heart “a blue cup fallen from someone’s hand.”

 

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Never Night: Poems by Derick Burleson

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

 

 

         Paperback: 64 pages

         Publisher: Marick Press (May 2, 2008)

         Price: $14.95

         ISBN-10: 0971267650

         ISBN-13: 978-0971267657



I’m not sure anymore, I can’t quite remember: have I read poetry before? Have I? This feels like a first love, after all, a discovery, a loss of guarded chastity, to wade deep into something as yet unseen and unknown and even now, somehow, unknowable. And yet I recognize this voice as almost my own, that is, not the words, but the voice that we all keep inside, deep inside, and allow others to hear perhaps only once in a lifetime. Derick Burleson stands like a dot on the satellite screen, nearly too tiny to see, but the satellite lens zooms in, and we see, we see, for the first time, we see what we have been trying to see all along.

Such strange juxtapositions, Burleson writes. His poetry is all contrast and light against shadow, miniscule against gargantuan, silence against thunderous noise. So much of the effect is like looking through an immense telescope, from either end—at one moment spotting that tiny dot of a man, standing on a cliff, and then moving to the other end of the telescope, to gaze out into the infinite, the eternal, the ever and ever. It is almost dizzying, yet we recognize it as the gaze of an open-eyed man. Burleson sees what we all see, or are willingly blind to, or cannot bear to see: that we are here for only a moment, that we are meaningless in the very same instant that we are nearly godlike with meaning.

Remembering the wild beauty of Alaska when I was too long ago there, I wonder if it is this kind of wild beauty that can produce such a poet, such poetry. Even the title poem, "Never Night," captures what can’t be held:

You’d like it here where

it’s never night, where the sun

circles, rather, until it ends

up where it started from,

east or west, rises, sinks

but doesn’t ever set,

where in the summer

you never need to sleep

and all day and all night

the sky is a series of blues

you’ve seen only once before,

blues van Gogh painted

at the end.

 

Burleson’s poems dig into loam and earth, beginning as a child just learning to separate from his mother, on all fours in the garden, even as he sinks into earth and joins his other mother—Mother Earth. He notes nature—“sand glittering alive with flecks of mica” and “the sun wanted to eat us all with joy”—but he also observes the daily grit of construction crews and Main Street as it floats away in a surreal flood, his father still seated at the floating kitchen table and watching the weather on the television set. He notes that “glass is a slow liquid” and how our own nature calls us to often break things down in order to see them built up again, or at least to see what’s inside, to understand a core value, even if it means destruction, or death, in the process. How precarious is life, yes, but how intense is our ability to love and live and survive and go on yet again.

In the poem “Late Valentines,” Burleson writes of such a profound and yet everyday love (and I dare anyone to find a woman who would not lay down all to receive such a Valentine):

If this were the last rhyme I ever write,

what should my hands choose to fabricate?

They’d spin straw into gold to bribe the fates,

stitch a bright charm against the sprain of night,

 

and weave one last tapestry of our tears,

so we can ache another ten thousand years.

 

And more:

…heaven is whatever we dream

when we sleep in the house, which has and will

continue to settle into what we become.

 

With uncanny ability, Burleson orders everyday words that in that particular order become an intoxicant. To pick it apart, we find only letter, alphabet, a grocery list, a car, a television set, a tree, a house, a blue window seen from space, a life, a death, yet when put just so, it becomes:

And when our talk fades, when music

 

is only music again, we will slowly dim,

just our eyes and the teeth of our shy smiles

still showing. We’ll go back

 

to our own places and finally sleep,

smug with the fierce pleasure

of knowing that soul is the particular

 

song we learn to sing, that our lovers

will always be gardens beside us,

blooming the colors we dream best,

 

graceful as the glittering waves,

bursting on a moonlit beach

beyond the foot of our beds.

 

Yes, I’m sure I have read poetry before this, and even written it, but after a time spent reading the poetry of Never Night, and I’m not sure if that was a morning or a week or half my lifetime, or read in a dream half-waking, I somehow think I have never quite read poetry, not like this, so simple and complex and true, so tiny and so big, and I want to go out into the street, or topple off my particular cliff, and stop the first person walking by to press this slender, pretty book into their hands. Or yours. Read this. This, see, is poetry.

 

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Mice Verses Man: Poetry by R. Jay Slais (chapbook)

 

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

 

Paperback: 39 pages

Publisher: Big Table Publishing Company Chapbook Series

Price: $12.00

ISBN: 978-0-9842473-2-5

 

 

I have published one of the poet R. Jay Slais' poems in The Smoking Poet, and in general, I like his work. As I sit down to take in this collection, however, I am initially distracted by its title, Mice Verses Man, wondering if the “verses” rather than “versus” is intended. Is the word play intentional? I turn to the title poem for a clue—after all, that’s all any reader can do—and find none to indicate the word play is intentional. When the poet later assures me that it is indeed intentional, I can only shrug—not everyone has the luxury of asking the poet his intention. His work must be able to stand alone.

 

And then, various grammatical and spelling errors in the copy. A hazard of my occupation—that I stumble on misspellings and typos and misuses and grammar gaffs, even as I, being human and being more writer at heart than editor, take an occasional fall into grammar abyss myself. Blatant error in publication gives me the twitches. Quite a few other errors in the chapbook make one wonder why the poet stopped short of checking copy with an editor or two prior to publication. A good editor, perhaps, reading it for accuracy, would catch such errors as “I did it as a favor for his mother/whom [sic] had begged me to let him stay”). This sort of thing distracts the reader from the poetry itself, and that should never happen.

 

Too many of the poems begin well, full of promise, but whimper out on a weak note. Systematically going through this collection and punching up the last lines would have done wonders. “A Two-Star Night,” for instance, is an interlude of intimacy, building the flame, but finishes so:

 

I stayed very calm, still as a windless night,

then she spoke my name. I never said I loved her,

but as she fell throughout the night,

I caught her in my arms.

 

Instead of a climactic ending, this is just a petering out into a night not worth remembering. It smacks of laziness, because other poems show the poet does have the skill to muster, can indeed turn the fine phrase, and is perfectly capable of leaving the reader catching her breath:

 

As I drank, my body poured

out of me slowly, like syrup,

a naked glistening jelly,

sweet on his tongue.

I shook, terrified to feel thrilled.

 

Or here, a tender and poignant poem in memory of the poet’s mother:

 

Each half day alive,

the other half died.

Morning would wake

with a wish

to go backward,

to search for the place

I let go of her hand

and took my first step.

 

In general, after reading the chapbook, I still like Slais’ work. It's earthy, topical to today (single fatherhood, broken hearts, new hope), honest. There is reason to keep writing. Unfortunately, such lines and verses are too few in this collection, only pointing to a talent not yet fully accessed and honed, but surely waiting for the poet to do so. I hope this poet will.

 

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