Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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SHJ Issue 7
Spring 2013

[Four Poems]

Dorianne Laux

San Diego, 1965

When I  turn 13, the world population reaches 3.3 billion.
I can’t know that in my cul de sac, my yard fenced
in 2000-year-old-redwood slats. I know nothing
of our place in the galaxy, little of my species, 
except that we are persistent, generous, neglected. 
I know this from my sisters and brothers, the way
they soldier on in the face of my father’s rage,
their bare spines steadfast beneath his belt, by how
they pull their T-shirts back over their heads 
and walk away, a pride of lions lugging
their bikes out onto the street. Russia suffers
another crop failure but I don’t know this
as I eat my Cheerios before we walk to the movies
and pay a dollar each to see Dr. Zhivago.
I fall in love with Julie Christie 
and Omar Sharif, the girl on the dam 
holding her balalaika. I don’t know why
everyone is fighting, but I’m on the side of the poet. 
I go home and make pencil sketches
of Rita Tushingham in her boiler suit
and Wellingtons, her bangs swept to one side
beneath her babushka. I draw Cher
in her bell bottoms with hair-thin lines,
shade in the folds at her elbows and knees.
I see something on the TV about Watts
and Selma, Malcolm X, but no one black
lives in our block of pre-fab Navy houses, 
the lawns dotted with dandelions 
that after years of mowing have learned 
to grow shorter stems, so there’s no one
to deny or betray except each other and ourselves. 
I like Andy Warhol’s Campell’s soup can
because we open them for dinner, the lid
peeling away under the greased gears
and beveled blade. The Beatles are singing
Yesterday and I won’t remember anything
about my foster brother shooting himself
in the foot. I cannot imagine 3.3 billion people 
living on the earth and I can’t help even 
one of them. Kevlar is about to be invented
by a woman named Stephanie Louise Kwoleck
which will keep my older brother alive 
during his parachute dives into the jungles
of Vietnam. She has my middle name
and her invention will protect him so he can
return undamaged, unscathed.

—Previously published in Pebble Lake Review (Spring/Summer 2011)


First Light

Lightly, she had to touch him lightly,
because he almost wasn’t there, that first boy
who came to her beneath the drunken stars,
clothes unwound like bandages revealing
the flesh that glowed within like bread, salty
clavicle, arched bone filled with marrow
she sucked as her womb shook, the bellows
of her breasts billowing, soft pillows
he now pressed his tilted head against,
his breath unspooling into the hollow
of her throat, lifting the finest hairs
at her neck’s nape. She stroked him then,
like a horse, his long back, his darkling spine,
and watched the grasses on the hills sway
and ripple, listened to the loud crickets
chip away the night. She had stepped
into the oldest church, the windows
broken, her bare feet on stones hauled up
from the valley below thousands of years ago,
the sun and stars still inside them, and she had
stood there, a non-believer, and wept.

—Previously published in Blip Weekly (November 2010)
[Blip Magazine is now New World Writing.]


Second Hand Coat

We lay in his king-sized bed, me and the man I’d met hours before 
at the beach, the aria of my orgasm still echoing in the still summer 
air, disturbing the dust motes into pale paisley swirls that hung in 
bars of sunlight over the white sheets. Those were the days 
I believed I could love anyone, giving my body away like bread, my 
lips swollen from kissing. He told me his wife had recently died in 
this bed, suicide. I didn’t look at him or touch his hand. I stared up 
at the nubbled ceiling, its white moonscape, and continued to 
breathe. There were boxes half-packed, the walls whiter in squares 
where he’d taken pictures down, rice paper lampshades stacked in 
a corner near a small potted palm, a silver mister. We smoked 
a whole pack of cigarettes down to their white filters, crushing them 
into a saucer propped on a pillow between us. He said he’d woken 
soaked in her blood. He was from somewhere back east. His name 
was Sellers McKee. We were together, if you could call it 
“together,” for a few weeks. One night we stayed up late, ate pizza 
and watched Jay Leno. I smeared sauce on the bedspread and when 
I got up to clean it he said Don’t bother, I’ll use it for packing. 
Later, we had a fight about whether the word decorative was pro- 
nounced dec-ra-tive or decor-a-tive. Every day something would 
disappear, the clock from the kitchen, every white mug in the cup-
board, a plaster cast of a someone’s left hand. Once he came over to 
meet my mother because she was from Maine and he’d grown up 
somewhere near there. He brought her the potted palm as a gift. 
They talked and flirted for hours while I did something else. 
Toward the end he had a party, invited a bunch of his friends. He 
took my hand and pulled me into the bedroom. Someone in the living 
room turned the music down right in the middle of my notorious 
song. He kept saying Go on, It’s okay and I suddenly got it that he 
wanted them to hear it, that he’d set me up. I could never decide if 
that bothered me or not. The last day he told me to open the closet. 
I looked in at her dresses, arrayed in color-coded rows, white silk 
blouses and black pencil skirts, sandals, then heels, then winter 
boots. He said Take anything you want. I settled on a coat, tan with 
tortoise-shell buttons, a creamy cashmere lining you could unzip 
and discard in spring. I was overwhelmed by his generosity. I kept 
saying Thank you, thank you as he led me to the door. Then it was 
over, and for the next few weeks I went out with a garbage 
man who’d pick me up in a big white truck. His name was Sam, 
which I probably only remember because I sang it like a child’s 
song whenever he called. It’s Sam, I’d sing, Sam, Sam the garbage 
man, if he can’t do it no one can, and he’d say, deadpan, nothing in 
his voice at all, Yeah, yeah, darlin, it’s me.

—Previously published in Blip Weekly (November 2010)
[Blip Magazine is now New World Writing.]


Listening to Paul Simon

Such a brave generation. 
We marched onto the streets
in our T-shirts and jeans, holding
the hand of the stranger next to us
with a trust I can’t summon now,
our voices raised in song. 
Our rooms were lit by candlelight,
wax dripping onto the table, then
onto the floor, leaving dusty
starbursts we would pop off
with the edge of a butter knife
when it was time to move. 
But before we packed and drove
into the middle of our lives
we watched the leaves outside
the window shift in the wind
and listened to Paul Simon,
his cindery voice, then fell back
into our solitude, leveled our eyes
on the American horizon
that promised us everything
and knew it was never true:
smoke and blinders, insubstantial
as fingerprints on glass.
It isn’t easy to give up hope,
to escape a dream. We shed
our clothes and cut our hair,
our former beauty piled at our feet.
And still the music lived inside us,
whole worlds unmaking us 
in the dark, so that sleeping and waking 
we heard the train’s distant whistle, 
steel trestles shivering 
across the land that was still ours 
in our bones and hearts, its lone headlamp 
searching the weedy stockyards, 
the damp, gray rags of fog.

—Previously published in Two Weeks: A Digital Anthology of Contemporary Poetry (Kindle Edition, January 2011)



SHJ Issue 7
Spring 2013

Dorianne Laux

directs the MFA Program for Writers at North Carolina State University and lives in Raleigh. Her most recent collection is The Book of Men, published by W.W. Norton & Company (August 2012). She has become one of America’s leading contemporary poets.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury