Laux weaves the warp and woof of ordinary life into extraordinary and complex tapestries.
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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.
* * *
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
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.
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