Only as the Day Is Long
Soon she will be no more than a passing thought, a pang, a timpani of wind in the chimes, bent spoons hung from the eaves on a first night in a new house on a street where no dog sings, no cat visits a neighbor cat in the middle of the street, winding and rubbing fur against fur, throwing sparks. Her atoms are out there, circling the earth, minus her happiness, minus her grief, 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 not her piano concerto atoms, her atoms of laughter and cruelty, her atoms of lies and lilies along the driveway and her slippers, Lord her slippers, where are they now? from Only as the Day Is Long (Norton, 2019)
I started writing a separate essay a day or so ago (on a poem from Hannah Emerson’s The Kissing of Kissing, which I can’t wait to share with you next week), but then the book today’s poem is from — Dorianne Laux’s Only as the Day Is Long — was sitting atop the tall pile of books that do not fit on the tiny bookshelf I keep filled with poetry next to my chair, and I flipped through the many dog-eared pages that mark this collection, because I dog-ear many pages that I love, and because I love many poems by Dorianne Laux, and I stopped to read this one, and I remembered reading its last line — Lord her slippers, where are they now? — a long time ago, and how it made me think of a story about my own mother that I will tell you later, and now I am writing about this poem today, because I love this poem, and because it grieves the loss of a mother, and because it makes me think of a mother-figure I have lost, and it makes me think of my own mother, who is alive and beautiful.
Many of the poems in the final section of Laux’s book speak toward the death of Laux’s mother, who was a figure, one can glean, of deep complexity, full not just of — as Laux’s poem “Death of the Mother” attests — a “lust for order” or “tyrannies / of despair,” but also of a “cavernous heart.” That poem ends with these lines:
You taught us how to glean the good from anything, pardon anyone, even you, awash as we are in your blood.
Maybe this is why I love Laux’s poetry so much. It is full of grace. It understands, I think, the bound-ness of this life, the fact of our frailty, and how our frailty begs for us to be loved whole, to be forgiven as often as we can for our failings and our inconsistencies — these, too, being facts of our frailty. Her poetry reaches almost always through complexity toward goodness, and sings a music out of the deep, unending sorrow that makes itself known alongside such goodness. Laux’s poem, “Cello” — one of my favorite poems ever written — illustrates this sense of compassionate dependence perfectly:
When a dead tree falls in a forest it often falls into the arms of a living tree. The dead, thus embraced, rasp in wind, slowly carving a niche in the living branch, sheering away the rough outer flesh, revealing the pinkish, yellowish, feverish inner bark. For years the dead tree rubs its fallen body against the living, building its dead music, making its raw mark, wearing the tough bough down, moaning in wind, the deep rosined bow sound of the living shouldering the dead.
There it is, in those final lines — perhaps the most apt depiction of the rough music and magic of life: the deep / rosined bow sound of the living / shouldering the dead.
Laux does this magical work again in the first line-spanning sentence of her poem, “Mother’s Day,” a sentence that — in one single, elongated, musical moment — spans an entire life and fills it with images at once near-divine and ordinary:
I passed through the narrow hills of my mother's hips one cold morning and never looked back, until now, clipping her tough toenails, sitting on the bed's edge combing out the tuft of hair at the crown where it ratted up while she slept, her thumbs locked into her fists, a gesture as old as she is, her blanched knees fallen together beneath a blue nightgown.
Here one can both see and feel a human enactment of the image of the two trees from Laux’s “Cello.” The aging mother falling into the arms of her daughter, who has not just returned from some long journey to take care of her mother, but who — because of love — also in some ways never left.
And so yes, it is true, I am thinking of mothers today. I am thinking of mothers and mothering. I am thinking of the word mother as both verb and noun. I am thinking of my own mother, and I am thinking of those who have mothered me who are not my mother, and I am thinking of the deep complexity of the very idea of motherhood, the bright glossy paint it is often covered with by our culture, this brightness that hides the pain and loss and near-constant-carrying that must be part of its heart.
Laux’s story illustrates that carrying. In a long-ago-published portfolio of poems, part of her bio reads:
Between the ages of 18 and 30 [Laux] worked as a gas station manager, sanatorium cook, maid, and donut holer. A single mother, she took occasional classes and poetry workshops at the local junior college, writing poems during shift breaks. In 1983 she moved to Berkeley, California where she began writing in earnest. Supported by scholarships and grants, she returned to school when her daughter Tristem was 9, and was graduated with honors from Mills College in the Spring of 1988 with a B.A. Degree in English.
It goes without saying that Laux lived a life so much more difficult than it ever had to be because of the simple fact that she was a mother — that, given her choice to care, she was made to work. And it goes without saying that our current culture makes it hard either to be a mother or to choose not to be one. I think of how marriage has been, for me, a gateway to questions of subsequent parenting. For my wife, I know, the questions are all the more numerous. Motherhood seems so often like a light-filled, airy expectation that, once chosen, can then become unsupported. If it isn’t chosen, there seems so often to be so little understanding of why someone might make such a choice. Either way, a supreme loneliness must ensue. This is a tragic thing.
I am thinking of a moment in Mike Mills’s film C’mon C’mon when Johnny, lingering at his sister’s desk, — his sister, who is at once a mother, and a sister, and a daughter, and a wife — picks up a book by Jacqueline Rose, and we hear aloud these lines:
Motherhood is the place in our culture where we lodge, or rather bury, the reality of our own conflicts, of what it means to be fully human…What are we doing to mothers when we expect them to carry the burden of everything that is hardest to contemplate about our society and ourselves? Mothers cannot help but be in touch with the most difficult aspects of any fully lived life.
The film not only illustrates the beauty (and sometimes messy though well-intentioned inconsistency) that can arise when compassionate care is shouldered from mothers, but it also illustrates how hard such a task is and how much there is to communicate. It wonders aloud how much care people are actually capable of caring, but, in doing so, it portrays an extended, at times gorgeous moment when care is reimagined and shared. I love this film dearly. Just looking at these stills moves me almost to tears.
And so, when I read Laux’s poem today, I feel her enacting the attempt to capture the so-much-ness of her mother’s presence — which was, as mentioned before, a complex presence, a presence of both “laughter and cruelty” — and how, in moments such as these, when faced with the largeness of mystery, we linger on litanies of the ordinary: the “bent spoons,” a “timpani of wind,” the no-longer-sound of a “piano concerto,” and yes, too, the “slippers.”
I read this focus on the ordinary as a mark of Laux’s care for mystery as a poet. I feel in Laux’s poem a recognition of her mother’s indescribability, of the fact that the real atoms of Laux’s pen-or-key-strokes are not enough to bring back the fullness of her mother, the grief and happiness and love and cruelty and care that makes up a soul that must bear so much. The final, stunning question — Lord her slippers, where are they now? — moves me so deeply, because it captures the reality of loss when the person who has been lost is incapable of being even remotely reimagined as living again — so fully and so deeply had they been alive.
That question makes me think of my own mother. It makes me remember my grandmother’s funeral from almost ten years ago, and how my mother, divorced from my father and having long since seen her mother-in-law, arrived at the funeral home just after they had closed my grandmother’s coffin. She asked the funeral directors if she could pay her respects, and they let her. They opened the coffin and let her see my grandmother. Telling me the story later, my mother told me how glad she was that my grandmother — a tiny woman in death, maybe just over four and a half feet tall — was wearing a sweater, though she lamented the thinness of it. I wanted to cry, hearing my mother’s story, thinking of what kind of care inspires someone to journey to the funeral of someone they had not seen in years upon years, and to notice — out of some kind of deep compassion — the thinness of a sweater. I wrote about this moment in a later poem. The care at the heart of my mother: to not want someone, in death, to ever be cold.
It has taken me years to sift through the sometimes ordinary, sometimes extraordinary moments of my past and see in such moments the careful noticing on the part of my mother — the journals and books she sent to me, the little library stickers she pasted on the inside covers of each, this forever-reassurance, this reminder she gave me that there might be something in me worth writing about, or writing toward. I do not think I would be writing poems — or anything else for that matter — if it were not for her. Once, when I visited her while she was sick, my mother gave me a drawing of the two of us outside of Robert Frost’s house. And though we’ve never gone, at least not yet, it’s fine. We have the present moment and it is beautiful and it is large and it is full of us. But that drawing, I sometimes think to myself — I wish I kept it. I feel it the way Laux’s speaker feels the loss of the slippers at the end of today’s poem. I want to gather up every object that might be filled with light and hold each one close.
The first line of today’s poem is equally as moving as the last:
Soon she will be no more than a passing thought
I think of the great sorrow that is the ineffable and inevitable nature of our fleetingness. How indescribable it is that people — especially those who mother us in any form — can just as quickly fill a room with light as they can leave it. Yes, in her poem “Urn,” Laux writes:
As a child I didn’t know where the light went when she flipped the switch
It’s hard not to think of death this way. For years, I felt mothered by my friend’s mother, Nancy. She was beautiful, radiant. She saw you as someone worth seeing immediately. I think of her with her camera, running alongside the trails of Van Cortlandt Park as my friends and I — she called us her boys — raced in college. I think of the golden-wheat quality of her hair behind the lens, how bright it seemed when the light caught it. And I think of the table where we sat in her house, her husband Michael cracking jokes after one glass of wine and then another. I think of how I never wanted to leave.
Not long after she died, I came over to the house and sat with Michael at that table. We read poems from Mary Oliver’s Selected and listened to songs that might play at her funeral. She would have loved this, Michael kept saying, and I kept thinking that Nancy might be around the corner somewhere, in another room filled with light still inside the house. But she wasn’t. I had never felt loss so big before. I thought there had to be somewhere where the brightness went, that it couldn’t just be gone.
Years after, I wrote an essay — “What I Want to Know of Kindness” — where I tried to pinpoint what it was exactly that Nancy had taught me through her mothering. It had something to do with grace, and masculinity, and compassion. In that essay, I wrote:
When Nancy was diagnosed with cancer, too young, and then beat it, and then was diagnosed again, and then again — well, it taught me something. It mostly taught me something about the deep inner strength that can exist inside a person, the grace that encapsulates such strength, and how strength itself should be divorced from any mention of stereotypical masculinity, should be redefined as moving through the reality of suffering with a compassion for the world.
This is why I hold my memory of Nancy so close, because to fail to realize what she taught me about being a man is to fail her memory. I think of her every time I receive a small kindness. I say to myself: it is alright to be loved. I think: to receive kindness is an act of kindness in itself.
I think I am so lucky to have been mothered by so many. It is a thing I will never know fully — the grace that has been offered me. What luck, that such grace has been so large that it is almost unknowable. I am holding the fact of this so close today.
I am holding close, too, the memories of kitchen tables and long nights and the small pieces of what I wish I could remember more. I am holding close the image at the end of Laux’s “Cello,” of the one tree holding the other. I am holding close the act of holding, and I am holding close the people who have taught me something about grace — that we are, as Laux writes, full of “lies and lillies,” and that it is this fullness that makes us who we are, that it cannot simply be one aspect of that fullness. And I am holding close the beauty of my own mother, and how, even though it took me years to realize such a thing, I know that she, too, taught me about fullness, and grace, and how much more beautiful the world can be if you take care to notice the thinnest sweater even in the midst of such great loss. We cannot hold everything, but I will hold the knowledge that each one of us is holding some small and ordinary bundle of light. All of that light must add up. It is the song our bearing makes. It must be some answer to the question of where the light goes when it seems to disappear.
If you’ve read any of the recent newsletters, you’ve perhaps noticed that I am offering a subscription option. This is functioning as a kind of “tip jar.” If you would like to offer your monetary support as a form of generosity, please consider becoming a paid subscriber below. There is no difference in what you receive as a free or paid subscriber; to choose the latter is simply an option to exercise your generosity if you feel willing. I am grateful for you either way. Thanks for your readership.
Ordinary Plots: Meditations on Poems + Verse is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Thank you for this beautiful essay Devin. You get to the essence of things. Much appreciated. Yours, Dorianne
So beautifully you show that bewilderment at the gone-ness of a loved one, how it seems they just have to still be there: "I kept thinking that Nancy might be around the corner somewhere, in another room filled with light still inside the house." Thank you as always.