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by Dorianne Laux

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Dorianne Laux’s long-awaited third book of poetry follows her collection, What We Carry, a finalist for the 1994 National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry. In Smoke, Laux revisits familiar themes of family, working class lives and the pleasures of the body in poetry that is vital and artfully crafted—poetry that "gets hard in the face


Dorianne Laux’s long-awaited third book of poetry follows her collection, What We Carry, a finalist for the 1994 National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry. In Smoke, Laux revisits familiar themes of family, working class lives and the pleasures of the body in poetry that is vital and artfully crafted—poetry that "gets hard in the face of aloofness," in the words of one reviewer. In Smoke, as in her previous work, Laux weaves the warp and woof of ordinary lives into extraordinary and complex tapestries. In "The Shipfitter’s Wife," a woman recalls her husband’s homecoming at the end of his work day:

Then I’d open his clothes and take
the whole day inside me—the ship’s
gray sides, the miles of copper pipe,
the voice of the foreman clanging off the hull’s silver ribs. Spark of lead
kissing metal. The clamp, the winch,
the white fire of the torch, the whistle,
and the long drive home.

And in the title poem, Laux muses on her own guilty pleasures:
Who would want to give it up, the coal
a cat’s eye in the dark room, no one there
but you and your smoke, the window
cracked to street sounds, the distant cries
of living things. Alone, you are almost
safe . . .

With her keen ear and attentive eye, Dorianne Laux offers us a universe with which we are familiar, but gives it to us fresh.

Dorianne Laux is the author of two previous collections of poetry from BOA Editions, Ltd., and is co-author, with Kim Addonizio, of The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Joys of Writing Poetry (W.W. Norton, 1997), chosen as an alternate selection by several bookclubs. Laux was the judge for the 2012 A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Contest, and is a tenured professor in the creative writing program at the University of Oregon. Laux lives in Eugene, Oregon.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
It is not surprising that each of Laux's and Addonizio's third collections of poems are being published in close proximity by the same house. In 1997 the pair coauthored The Poet's Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry (Norton); both have published two previous collections with BOA; both use candid and unsentimental personal history as a prime subject matter; and both have stronger work in earlier collections. Many of Addonizio's (Jimmy & Rita) straight-talk poems in Tell Me, dedicated to Laux, depict honest characters who are in the destructive, but often unrevealing, clutches of hard-drinking, doomed relationships, and all manner of problems that subsequently arise. Some of the poems raise the question of what happens when you risk emotional honesty and it doesn't work: in "The Divorcee and Gin," she writes, "God, I love/ what you do to me at night when we're alone,/ how you wait for me to take you into me/ until I'm so confused with you I can't/ stand up anymore." The situations are often compelling, and the performancelike language lends them an air of melodrama that many be intentional, but they don't really rise above the status of well-lineated memoir. The largely domestic and narrative poems of Laux's Smoke shift between internal and external landscapes in a manner that at moments recalls early Richard Hugo: "Somewhere/ a Dumpster is ratcheted open by the claws/ of a black machine. All down the block/ something inside you opens and shuts." Her strongest work here achieves a solid music by using direct address in poems such as "Books" and "The Shipfitter's Wife." Yet the plainspoken approach, aiming at understatement, often specifies too little, letting emotional nuance go unarticulated. While both poets may work in parallel registers, the effect of each is distinct. Unfortunately, many poems in both books do not quite locate the seemingly powerful places that generate the work. (Oct.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

BOA Editions, Ltd.
Publication date:
American Poets Continuum Series
Edition description:
1 ED
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.20(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


Who would want to give it up, the coal
a cat's eye in the dark room, no one there
but you and your smoke, the window
cracked to street sounds, the distant cries
of living things. Alone, you are almost
safe, smoke slipping out between the sill
and the glass, sucked into the night
you don't dare enter, its eyes drunk
and swimming with stars. Somewhere
a Dumpster is ratcheted open by the claws
of a black machine. All down the block
something inside you opens and shuts.
Sinister screech, pneumatic wheeze,
trash slams into the chute: leftovers, empties.
You don't flip on the TV or the radio, they
might muffle the sound of car engines
backfiring, and in the silence between,
streetlights twitching from green to red, scoff
of footsteps, the rasp of breath, your own,
growing lighter and lighter as you inhale.
There's no music for this scarf of smoke
wrapped around your shoulders, its fingers
crawling the pale stem of your neck,
no song light enough, liquid enough,
that climbs high enough before it thins
and disappears. Death's shovel scrapes
the sidewalk, critches across the man-made
cracks, slides on grease into rain-filled gutters,
digs its beveled nose among the ravaged leaves.
You can hear him weaving his way
down the street, sloshed on the last breath
he swirled past his teethbefore swallowing:
breath of the cat kicked to the curb, a woman's
sharp gasp, lung-filled wail of the shaken child.
You can't put it out, can't stamp out the light
and let the night enter you, let it burrow through
your infinite passages. So you listen and listen
and smoke and give thanks, suck deep
with the grace of the living, blowing halos
and nooses and zeros and rings, the blue chains
linking around your head. Then you pull it in
again, the vein-colored smoke,
and blow it up toward a ceiling you can't see
where it lingers like a sweetness you can never hold,
like the ghost the night will become.

                                      * * *

                              LAST WORDS

                                                                              for Al

His voice, toward the end, was a soft coal breaking
open in the little stove of his heart. One day
he just let go and the birds stopped singing.

Then the other deaths came on, as if by permission—
beloved teacher, cousin, a lover slipped from my life
the way a rope slithers from your grip, the ocean
folding over it, your fingers stripped of flesh. A deck

of cards worn smooth at a kitchen table, the jack
of spades laid down at last, his face thumbed to threads.
An ashtray full of pebbles on the window ledge, wave-beaten,
gathered at day's end from a beach your mind has never left,

then a starling climbs the pine outside—
the cat's black paw, the past shattered, the stones
rolled to their forever-hidden places. Even the poets

I had taken to my soul: Levis, Matthews, Levertov—
the books of poetry, lost or stolen, left on airport benches,
shabby trade paperbacks of my childhood, the box
misplaced, the one suitcase that mattered crushed

to nothing in the belly of a train. I took a rubbing
of the carved wings and lilies from a headstone
outside Philadelphia, frosted gin bottles
stationed like soldiers on her grave:

The Best Blues Singer in the World
Will Never Stop Singing

How many losses does it take to stop a heart,
to lay waste to the vocabularies of desire?
Each one came rushing through the rooms he left.
Mouths open. Last words flown up into the trees.

                                      * * *


You're standing on the high school steps,
the double doors swung closed behind you
for the last time, not the last time you'll ever

be damned or praised by your peers, spoken of
in whispers, but the last time you'll lock your locker,
zip up your gym bag, put on your out-of-style jacket,

your too-tight shoes. You're about to be
done with it: the gum, the gossip, the worship
of a boy in the back row, histories of wheat and war,

cheat sheets, tardies, the science of water,
negative numbers and compound fractions.
You don't know it yet but what you'll miss

is the books, heavy and fragrant and frayed,
the pages greasy, almost transparent, thinned
at the edges by hundreds of licked thumbs.

What you'll remember is the dumb joy
of stumbling across a passage so perfect
it drums in your head, drowns out

the teacher and the lunch bell's ring. You've stolen
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn from the library.
Lingering on the steps, you dig into your bag

to touch its heat: stolen goods, willfully taken,
in full knowledge of right and wrong.
You call yourself a thief. There are worse things,

you think, fingering the cover, tracing
the embossed letters like someone blind.
This is all you need as you take your first step

toward the street, joining characters whose lives
might unfold at your touch. You follow them into
the blur of the world. Into whoever you're going to be.

                                      * * *


Death comes to me again, a girl in a cotton slip.
Barefoot, giggling. It's not so terrible, she tells me,
not like you think: all darkness and silence.

There are wind chimes and the scent of lemons.
Some days it rains. But more often the air
is dry and sweet. We sit beneath the staircase
built from hair and bone and listen
to the voices of the living.

I like it, she says, shaking the dust from her hair.
Especially when they fight, and when they sing.


Meet the Author

Dorianne Laux was born in 1952 in Augusta, Maine and is of Irish, French and Algonquin Indian heritage. In 1983 she moved to Berkeley, California where she began writing in earnest. Five years later she earned her B.A. degree in English from Mills College. Laux's first book of poems, Awake, published by BOA Editions in 1990, was nominated for the San Francisco Bay Area Book Critics Award for Poetry. Her poetry has appeared in numerous American journals and anthologies. She has received poetry fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the National Endowment for the Arts. Currently, she teaches creative writing at the University of Oregon in Eugene, Oregon.

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Smoke 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
oh, these poems are sooo good. the imagery and language just flows and works so wonderfully. she can turn any ordinary event into something extraordinayr. full of memorable lines