Nostalgia, that Boomer specialty, gets a going-over in Dorianne Laux's Superman: The Chapbook. Being all of six poems (which arrived in handsome card stock in a clear plastic slipcase), Laux' s chapbook performs the impressive trick of seeming much bigger than it is. It does this, not by putting the past's faded glory to bed but by bringing it forward for scrutiny and finding, in doing so, no loss of mystery. This little collection's title is not just a clever marker: it gets us into the opening poem tout de suite, where we find the Man of Steel overlooking Metropolis like a kindly but bored gargoyle contemplating Paris. We know he is one of our own because of his evident fondness for herb ("Superman sits on a tall building/ smoking pot"); his super being notwithstanding, he suffers he ennui of the working man:
He lifts his head from his hands
as the sun sets, the sound of muffled gunfire
in every city of the world ricochets
through his gray brain. He'll take care of it
tomorrow, the thankless, endless task
of catching dirty bombs and bullets
Like any working stiff, he no longer finds incentives to "leap," and there is moreover the spreading sense of mortality that cloaks him better than any cape ("Kryptonite/ bending its rays up toward his scarlet heart"). I remember Carolyn Kizer musing about the loss of Zeus in the collective memory of usable literary touchstones in favor of contemporary pop tags like cartoon characters and movie icons. Her concern was, you might say, the standard classical one ("They'll have to footnote Minnie Mouse."). I suggested (only to be dismissed) that Superman might sub for Zeus in the non-classically trained brain, and here Dorianne Laux, taking up the idea, presciently sees with what result. Deconstructions of this sort generally redound to the poet's credit: she gathers our trust in pulling the masks off gods. As Brodsky remarked, increases in humility are always a good idea. Were we to leave the matter there, we'd be left, however, with the consolation of a good idea but with few extentuating benefits. Laux, to her credit, pushes fearlessly ahead.
In "Cher," she broadens her pantheon's plinth with an ode to the elusive singer ("I wanted to be Cher"), the old Cher, "before they shoved/ pillows in her tits, injected/ the lumpy gel into her lips." In distinguishing between the authentic Cher and the later, refurbished celebrity, she locates authenticity with green age, but she is shrewd enough to see that such identifications are themselves beholden to things beyond the reach of innocence. It was as if Cher's posing with the doltish, blunt-fingered Sonny ("in front/ of the Eiffel Tower, The leaning tower of Pisa,/ The Great Wall of China,/ The Crumbling Pyramids") never completely painted over the fact that the "authentic" Cher was itself a persona. Her "hit-or-miss beauty" turned out to be a gamble that the imperfect could compete with the perfect. And yet, who could not identify with some version of the adolescent wish to find the ideal in the ordinary, beauty in the snaggle of the given?
I wanted her
rouged cheek bones and her
throaty panache, her voice
of gravel and clover, the hokum
of her clothes
It was this transformation from plain to fabulous that, you might say, authorized Sonny and Cher to sing "the oldest, saddest songs." The poet too knows that these songs have to come after-the-fact (and before not-unavoidable parody sets in), if they are ever to be sung. And so they do: in a sense this chapbook is singing them.
"Bakersfield," for anyone who passed open-eyed through the 60s, could almost have stopped at the title. To say "Bakersfield" is like saying "Bay Area," only the implied content would have factored in the dust and heat, the trailer park, some country music hummed sotto voce, and more whiskey than pot. Here the draw is a mopey boy, the kind who will not last a lifetime, but who will nevertheless be linked to memory for the time ("I liked him. That's what I remember."):
He was a bit slow
like he'd been hit hard on the back of the head
but nothing dramatic.
Accosted by the mother for her forward ways, Laux responds, "I stopped seeing him/ after that thing with his mother." "How we endured it," she wonders and admits, "Back then/ I was scared most of the time." As Taj Mahal intones, "If you ain't scared, you ain't right." The bluesman's quoted aperçu is said of the time, perched on the lip of slow-motion come-downs, after the botching of its supposedly meaningful highs. The quotation is meant to be prospective too.
How anyone gets anywhereto say nothing of whyis the presiding question that hangs over Superman: The Chapbook. In "Late Night TV," she watches the flourishes of a commercial actor who demonstrates the cleansing "power" of a detergent, and one wonders about the links of cleaning with forgetting and about the parodic ease with which a filthy shirt is rendered spotless, while memory is often powerless to expunge the tarnish of trivial scenes. For all that, unexpectedly echoing Frost, Laux nicely distinguishes between the mindlessness of the presentation and the destiny that brought the announcer to his inane pass: "By what road did he travel/ to the late night station?" Laux is expert in letting details and unremarkable acts leverage deeper moments and more nuanced strata: nothing is left to starve of its own insignificance.
But the fact that so much that is resistant to rational meaning seeps into daily thought while bearing intimations of significance suggests that it is we who are driving around in a lower-than-desirable gear, our articulations stuck at the level of feelings and hunches, not rapid enough to capture nuance on the fly, nor sort through the cacophany of phenomena that surrounds us. The danger is that we come then to a tipping point when too much begins to tip over into whatever. Laux eyes the danger, but she doesn't succumb to it.
In "The Beatles," Laux wonders as everybody born before 1970 does, why the Beatles broke up ("the whole/ Yoko Ono thing seemed an excuse/ for something deeper." Considering the usual list ("wives, ex-wives, mortgages/ thoroughbreds and waist-coated butlers") she concludes,
Maybe they arrived
at a place where nothing
seemed real. A field
bigger than love or greed or jealousy.
An open space
where nothing is enough.
And here I must suppress the urge to clear my throat. The realthe what-is-the-case of our livesdepends, you might say, on editing and the haphazard presentation of things to our senses. The thinginess and ordinariness of life come with no guarantee that they're going to be synonymous with the really real: all too often, our choices flame out into personal preference and favoritism. The heart, after all, has its reasons where rational action (like the Beatles staying together) can't make any further headway.
The follow-up question of how we got anywhere at all, with or without the Beatles, is the subject of "Yard Sale." Here Laux churns up wonder for the fact that the singularity we are told enfolded all of us, all our stuff, including all the stuff we live among and negotiate our way through, was our unbelievably tiny point of origin, before the Big Bang spangled ourselves and our stuff across the vast nothingness. She does this by considering the very preposterous nature of matter's eventual configuration, and the imagines this rabbit pulled from that hat:
. . . a garage filled with spokes and spikes, sections of fence, grand hammers and glowing clamps, an
extravaganza of penny nails ticking in row of open jars on endless shelves of darkness, collapsed lawn
chairs, gold rakes, sacks of fertilizer and rock salt . . .
You get the idea. The poem is Laux's Theogony, a poem of creation that recognizes both constant tendency toward devaluation and waste and the ongoing value of endless division and diversification. For us, it's the diversity, of course, that keeps imagination in play by always showing the player another move. It is "one humongous yard sale burned clear and washed up, lapping at the shore of the unknown lawn."
Just like with the Beatles, there is too much to know, but everything to desire. So what's the street value of these nostalgias? There is knowingness to be sure, but between loving and knowing, Laux gives us a clear idea of where she stands. Superman: The Chapbook give us credible assurances us that the apple of the eye matters more than what the mind can break off and chew.