Individual, Unknowable Man
Reviewed by Thomas Turner.
The Book of Men, Dorianne Laux’s latest offering of poetry, is a tableau of the male archetype. The poems, far from presenting the stereotypical nature of man or the masculine, are linked together by the diversity and plainness of different men. Men are captured here in their habitat, specks operating in a humungous and incomprehensible world. No matter how small or great, whether trailer trash or Superman, the men in the poem are set adrift and forlorn but for the simple satisfaction they find in life, women and the world.
Belief plays are large role within the characters Laux puts forth in her poems. The theme of the unknown is presented as the expansive and maddeningly unknowable world that no man can ever conquer. In the first poem, “Staff Sgt. Metz,” the military man is gazed upon by the narrator as she recalls painful memories of war. Her hope for the world long gone, she focuses on the one image that gives her certainty, Metz, the man:
I don’t believe in anything anymore
god, country, money or love.
All that matters to me now
is his life, the body so perfectly made,
Mysterious in its workings…
Man is presented as an object in a materialistic world where all that exists is flesh and thing. The symbolic?god, country, money, love?is unknowable. But flesh is.
In Laux’s poems man becomes a geography on which the narrators of the poems can project their faith, hope and belief. In “Learning to Drive,” the narrator reminisces about the time a young man, after showing her the ropes finally lets her “go it alone” as “his back pressed / against all that emptiness.” Monks, seemingly counterintuitive to the motif of the unknown woven through Laux’s tome, fit right in as the geography of their monastery is a place “where nothing enters or leaves this quiet” ?an otherworldly place where belief still has meaning (yet is, ironically, impermeable).
The chief end of man in these poems is lost in the nihilistic fog mankind often finds itself in. Not being able to hinge meaning onto anything, man’s belief becomes arbitrary: the lights from the carnival rides / were the only stars you believed in, loving them / for their uselessness, not wanting to be saved (from “Antilamentation”). Continuing, the poet asks “who will hear the whisker of silence / we will leave in our wake?” in the aptly titled “Who Needs Us?”
Juxtaposed as specks of white on an eternal black canvas, Laux’s poems are like gazing into a philosophical photo album. The men are present, drifting in and out of women’s lives, each other’s lives, trying to function in a world that is always unconquerable and always out of grasp. Men, in togetherness, always seems to fragment into individual, unknowable man. In the symbol of the solitary man, championed in the Western tradition as the Odysseuses and the John Waynes of the world, the sheer power of men such as Metz and the fragility of the unnamed characters scattered throughout the poems forms a frightening paradox: to be alone and adrift is to be both the ultimate man and to be completely lost in the void. Laux’s poetry brings out the dark side of riding off alone into the sunset: could it be just vanity?