I don’t always develop notions about a book based on the title alone, but when I heard the title of Dorianne Laux’s fifth and latest collection of poetry, I began to make some assumptions. The Book of Men. Surely here we would have a series of male portraits, a parade of the men that have traipsed through Laux’s life, some meditations on their significance, a few resounding proclamations about the penile Other.
How wrong I was.
While there are some stunning portraits of men here — a traveling soldier studied at an airport, an unruly foster brother, a hard-boiled homicide detective, an aging Mick Jagger strutting on television — the book’s most memorable poems concern women.
The most poignant of these is a pair of poems about a mother suffering from dementia. “Lost in Costco” finds her meandering through “the city/ of canned goods and 30-lb. sacks/ of dog food” before settling at a piano and “faking it, picking out the tunes, striking/ a chord like she’d do when we were young.” The poem’s strength lies in its slow revelation of the mother’s declining mind, a situation built on details and word choice and ending with the heartbreaking final lines: “…she’d say sing it to me and we’d hum/ a few bars: pop songs and Top 40 hits,/ TV theme songs or chewing gum jingles,/ our high, sweet voices giving her/ so little to go on.”
When the mother returns twenty pages later in “Mother’s Day,” her dementia seems to have progressed, so that she is like a child relearning the names of things. The narrator-daughter affirms the novel connections her mother makes: “I tell her about Amelia Earhart and she asks/ Air? and points to the ceiling. Asks Heart?/ and points to her chest. Yes, I say…When I recite lines from Gone/ with the Wind she sits up and says Potatoes!/ and I say, Right again.” The narrator, perhaps Laux herself, does not so much comfort her mother as find in the horror of senility a measure of beauty in the almost poetic turn that an emptying mind takes.
Laux balances the intensely personal with plentiful portraits of male and female pop culture icons peppered throughout the book. Her desire to be a young, awkward Cher and her paradoxical admiration for the distinctly un-regal “monarch” Mick Jagger are fairly straightforward, but “Bob Dylan” is more enigmatic, possibly an oblique memoir in the voice of the venerable songwriter.
I wasn’t wrong about the book’s containing a meditation on the male Other, however. “Men” is a tongue-in-cheek commiseration over the tribulations of maleness, declaring, “It’s tough being a guy, having to be gruff/ and buff, the strong silent type, having to laugh/ it off…”
Sure, Laux gets us men.
She gets everything right.
Publisher: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 500 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10110