Both Reckoning and Embrace: Dorianne Laux’s Only As The Day Is Long
Dorianne Laux’s new book, Only As the Day Is Long: New and Selected Poems, traces a path of lifelong losses. Beginning with a selection of poems from five earlier collections—Awake, What We Carry, Smoke, Facts About the Moon, and The Book of Men—the book leads with a sense of inevitability to the twenty new poems written in response to the death of Laux’s mother, poems that acknowledge the ambivalence of a complicated relationship even while they eulogize.
This was a mother who failed to intervene between father and children in a violent household. The book’s initial poems confront that brutal childhood trauma—the beating of a sister in “Two Pictures of My Sister” and the speaker’s sexual abuse in “I Have Always Done What Was Asked.” Childhood terrors are itemized in “Fear,” including “the soundless swing of the father’s ringed / fist, the mother’s face turned away.” In “Tooth Fairy” the speaker tries to reconcile the sparkling quarter left under her pillow with other memories:
curled into fists, a floor
of broken dishes, her chain-smoking
through the long silences, him
punching holes in the walls.
With such details, Laux establishes an emotional weight at the beginning of the collection equal to that of the lost-mother poems at the end. As the book continues, she traces a growing understanding of loss. In “Ghosts”, the forty-something speaker expresses nostalgia for her youth. “I want it back,” she tells us, “I want that girl” who “could have had so many lives.” In “After Twelve Days of Rain,” the speaker shares the epiphany she had when the spinning numbers on the gas pump suggested the swift passage of time: “I finally believed I was alone, felt it / in my actual, visceral heart.” We hear the echo of such realization more ominously in “Smoke” when the distanced speaker presents a claustrophobic, middle-of-the-night realization. Standing at the window, she does not dare to “enter” the night, “its eyes drunk / and swimming with stars” as death’s “shovel scrapes / the sidewalk.” It’s as though her cigarette is the only thing keeping the speaker alive.
Laux’s recurrent moon imagery is one of the unifying factors in this collection. In the opening poem, the sister’s face is “a stubborn moon that trails the car” and stays “locked in the frame… no matter how far I go.” In this way, the moon becomes a kind of burden that can’t be escaped. In “Late October” the moon is “a white dinner plate / broken exactly in half.” In “Moon in the Window” the speaker wishes she’d been “the kind of child / who watched the moon from her window,” but she keeps her head down, her “moon” a flashlight for reading under the covers. In “Dog Moon” the moon is a neutral, taken-for-granted entity (“kitchen clock,” “manhole cover”), an ominous sign (“ticking like a time bomb”), or an inescapable presence (“pouring borrowed light into every abyss on earth.”) These contradictory images parallel the ubiquitous and powerful presence of a complicated mother. They also culminate in an image of the mother as “moon-in-the-sky” in “Letter to My Dead Mother,” the final poem in the collection.
The title poem, “Only As the Day Is Long,” anchors the book’s final section. Its odd title suggests the shattering perspective shift that comes after the loss of a mother. When we say someone is honest/happy/hard-working “as the day is long,” we emphasize their positive qualities, suggesting their goodness is akin to the brightness of a seemingly endless summer’s day. But Laux’s addition of “only” turns the cliché on its head. She reminds us that daylight is fleeting, summer moves toward winter, and life is ephemeral. “Only As the Day Is Long” is an inverted sonnet, with the sestet and octet in reverse order. The opening sestet describes a quiet dreamscape afterlife, a “new house / on a block where no dog sings.” In the octet that follows, that calm is shattered as the speaker tries to sort out the unleashed chaos of her dead mother’s atoms. She attempts to catalogue them. On the one hand are the atoms that are present—“only her body’s / water atoms, her hair and bone and teeth atoms, / her fleshy atoms… her boozy atoms, her saltines / and cheese and tea.” But others are absent, the more abstract atoms of happiness and grief—“her piano concerto atoms” and “her atoms / of lies and lilies along the driveway.” The recounting is haphazard, a rush of phrases all in one sentence. Placing “her slippers” in the missing category is another bit of humor, clearly an important part of this mother/daughter relationship. It is also a poignant end: “Lord her slippers, where are they now?” Those slippers were every bit as important to the mother as her piano or her “lilies along the driveway.”
There are four other sonnets in the final section. Two of them powerfully repurpose material from other poets. In “Lapse,” Laux borrows her first line from Gwendolyn Brooks—“I am not deceived. I do not think it is still summer”—then spins it out in the form of Terrance Hayes’s “golden shovel,” using the words of that line to supply, in order, the end words of all successive lines. When the speaker of “Lapse” adds, “I do not think my dead will return,” she seems to be asserting her acceptance of loss. The “lapse” occurs in the final three lines, when another statement of acceptance turns into the desperate, emotional need of the newly bereaved: “It isn’t possible to raise them from their beds, is / it?” The line break allows the surprise of the question and an emotional jolt for the reader.
The second sonnet referencing another poet is “Death of the Mother” which uses end rhymes from Donne’s “Holy Sonnet 7.” The incantatory tone set by the epigraph and the religious weight of Donne’s sonnet suggests the almost god-like significance of the mother. The speaker prays to the Mother/God: “Unleash us, let your grace / breathe over us in silence.” This is another powerful reminder of the mother as universe.
The last two poems in Only As the Day Is Long bring together events and feelings, motifs and imagery, to encapsulate the mother-daughter relationship. The first of these poems, “Arizona,” chronicles the speaker/daughter’s last interaction with her mother, not the “best visit,” as the poem’s gritty details (the seedy motel and fast-food family dinner) suggest. Though the speaker in “Arizona” clearly cares for her mother, she’s restless, as she has always been. “I probably spent more time / in my car than any house I lived in,” she tells us. Even in the face of love and duty, this last visit to her mother, the speaker wants to escape, drive all the way to the Pacific, “then hairpin up the coast and arrive / like an orphan at Canada’s front door.”
“Letter to My Dead Mother,” the book’s final poem, unreels a jumbled inventory like that in “Only As the Day Is Long.” Here, though, instead of a single sentence careening with atoms, Laux has created a stuttering litany of salutations, using the word “Dear” to address the mother again and again, giving her a universe of names—White Raven, Swarm of Summer Sun, Scientific Fact, Third Rail, etc.—only addressing her as Mother for the first time in the tenth line, then not again until the thirty-fourth. The variety of other salutations suggests an attempt to come to terms with the mother’s many sides. “Dear White Raven, Dear Albino Crow” recalls lines from earlier poems such as “My mother is a crow on the lawn” from “Crow,” or the “shrewd eyes and slit-shine wings” of “The Ravens of Denali.” An everywhere bird, this black “boot of the bird family” seems an avatar for a loved, but difficult mother. The mother’s looming presence is addressed: “Dear Universe. / Dear Moon-in-the-sky like a toy. / Dear Reason for my being.” The poem acknowledges the difficulties of the mother-daughter relationship: “You were my panic in a dark house, my mistake / … my worst curse.” The speaker expresses her grief—“Don’t leave me alone—Blank as a stone”—but declares, in a powerful, one-line stanza, “I love you. I love you.” As with the “beer atoms” and lost slippers in “Only As the Day Is Long,” there are light touches to temper the seriousness. With “Dear Pulse, Clobber, Partaker, Cobbler. / Dear Crossword, Crick, Coffeepot, Catchall,” Laux uses alliterative wordplay to meld contradictions: the emotional or physical blow of “clobber” juxtaposed with the nurturing warmth of “cobbler.”
“Letter to My Dead Mother” is both reckoning and embrace. Longing and contradictions pile up as the speaker explores her feelings—an evolving task for the daughter/speaker whose journey started with a chronicle of abuse. The final memory, the longest sentence in this poem of choppy fragments, also suggests nurture. Laux brings in a key line from the lyrics of an old popular song to conjure a humor-laced image of togetherness, concluding the poem—and thus, the collection as a whole—with a look back at the childhood kitchen, coloring conflicted memories of her departed mother with affection and acceptance:
Though I kissed your cheek
And sang for you in the kitchen
While you stirred the soup, stem
Licking our faces—crab legs and potatoes—
Those were the days.