The Book of Men by Dorianne Laux (W.W. Norton & Co., 2011)
Blue Rust by Joseph Millar (Carnegie Mellon Poetry Series, 2012)
A Reflection by Casey McAlduff
On Saturday, August 10th, the Library will host poets Dorianne Laux and Joseph Millar at the Emerald Tablet, a creativity salon that aims ‘to bridge the traditional gap between diverse activities and art forms’. It will not be an evening to miss.
Both Laux’s and Millar’s most recent works, The Book of Men (Laux) and Blue Rust (Millar) induce the perfect set up for a liberating, down and out San Francisco-style Saturday night. Both books are not afraid to get gritty, digging into those ‘dirtier’ tropes of American life—the worker and the rocker, the machinery and the garden, the war and the party. The voices present in each book and the lens through which they contemplate the world are equal parts freeing and restrictive, ultimately allowing both The Book of Men and Blue Rust to explore the poets’ deeper concerns about wildness and contentment in the wake of work, aging, and death.
Take Laux’s poem, “Fourth of July”, for instance, where through her window, the speaker contemplates the actions of teenage boys lighting off fireworks:
“What’s liberty to the checkout girl
selling smokes and nuts, greenbacks
turning her fingers to grease? The boys
insist on pursuing happiness, their birthright
a box of matches, crackers on strings,
sparkler, fountains, missiles, repeating shells,
Roman candles, Brazilian barrages.”
This question of what liberty means to us while we go on with our working lives pervades both Laux’s and Millar’s poetry, their deft perceptions allowing us to think, too, about the ‘checkout girl’, and about how (almost) all of our paid work depends upon the continuation of leisure and consumption— the continued pursuit of happiness. Although the boys’ birthright reads at first as merely a claim to reckless adolescence, the list of flammable objects soon morphs into the larger effects of their pursuit; the sparklers become missiles, the missiles repeating shells. By the end of the poem, and the end of the night, these boys are “draped like dead men over the couches,” having celebrated too much, making their neighbors afraid (48).
Throughout The Book of Men & Blue Rust, we’re encountered by this freedom-work binary; we’re asked to question the personal correlations we draw between moments of vocation and vacation. The Book of Men confronts rock stars like Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and Cher, but it also contains poems titled after army personnel, hard-pressed, blue collar towns, and one poem for Phil Levine, who wrote poetry “when not working the night shift” and to whom the book is dedicated. The book and many of its poems is infiltrated with this near-equal emphasis on both labor and leisure.
These poems, like “Fourth of July,” seem to point toward the enchantment of entertainment (“I don’t want anything to suffer,” Laux writes in “Bob Dylan”) but also to the discontentment of it, even for the book’s more famous personas (there is no satisfaction for the Beatles, who “arrived at a place where nothing seemed real…An open space/ where nothing is enough” (46)).
If you’ve ever been lucky enough to not work on a holiday, then you know this particular kind of freedom hangover, an inflated kind of fun where you momentarily forget that your work provides for your revelry; that, in our context, liberty is reliant upon debt. It seems to me as if it’s more than Laux’s ability to “just get guys” that’s at work in The Book of Men; to me, Laux presents a reality more so dictated by labor than it is by gender, even despite the book’s title. The poet is not claiming an invasion of the male brain as we stereotypically assume to know it merely in order to maintain the stereotype; rather, she is using the stereotype as a platform to investigate why it is the pursuit of happiness that is an unalienable right of men and not happiness itself.
In an aligned but distinct fashion, Joseph Millar also catalogs the worker that can’t make the jump from wages to joy so easily. In his moving long poem “Ocean”, Millar delves into the psyche of a man whose life-din is “always the sound of the hull slapping down.” The man is forlorn about a past night at “the sad bar, barren of women,” and is portrayed by the poet in a moment of recollection as he attempts to remember the song a diner waitress hummed that night, after the bar. He laments:
“If she asked you about your family
you could show her their silhouettes
in a drop of saltwater
from Wingaersheek Beach
you keep in a jar by the window.”
Like the boys in “Fourth of July” who become so consumed by their independence that they wind up despondent, this character too is lonely, estranged from the community, and instead of being a “young, up-turned face,” (Laux, 47) is defined in “Ocean” by “the caulked seam of metal” (36). He is a man who comes to in the tragedy through the revelation that “Thy sea is so great/ and my boat is so small” (37). Even though the Independence Boys keep sleeping, we can imagine them next to Millar’s man one day, bellied up, despairing.
The seas of Dorianne Laux’s and Joseph Millar’s poetic verses are, as they should be, versatile ones, which slip from smooth rides to moments of collision in the break of a line. Happiness it seems is unattainable, especially with the individual’s idea of contentment constantly shifting. By the end of The Book of Men and by the end of Millar’s “Ocean,” the speakers are still working, but their egos have let up on their insistence for independence. Both pieces end with the imagery of the garden, and a turn away from the ego and personal reward toward the greater image of fertility: life as reward unto itself.
Laux‘s accolades are many: she’s been selected for Best American Poetry three times, including 2013; she’s been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship; has won the Oregon Book Award; and was shortlisted for the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize and as a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award … amongst others.
Millar has won a Pushcart Prize and was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award. He has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Montalvo Center for the Arts, and Oregon Literary Arts, and has been published in many outstanding journals.