Monday, February 2, 2009
Dorianne Laux is the author of five collections of poetry, including The Book of Men (Norton, 2010) and Facts About the Moon (Norton, 2006). She is also the coauthor, with Kim Addonizio, of The Poet’s Companion. Among her awards are a Pushcart Prize, two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a Guggenheim fellowship. She is a professor of poetry at the University of Oregon’s Creative Writing Program and lives in Eugene, Oregon, with her husband, the poet Joseph Millar.
FACTS ABOUT THE MOON
The moon is backing away from us
an inch and a half each year. That means
if you're like me and were born
around fifty years ago the moon
was a full six feet closer to the earth.
What's a person supposed to do?
I feel the gray cloud of consternation
travel across my face. I begin thinking
about the moon-lit past, how if you go back
far enough you can imagine the breathtaking
hugeness of the moon, prehistoric
solar eclipses when the moon covered the sun
so completely there was no corona, only
a darkness we had no word for.
And future eclipses will look like this: the moon
a small black pupil in the eye of the sun.
But these are bald facts.
What bothers me most is that someday
the moon will spiral right out of orbit
and all land-based life will die.
The moon keeps the oceans from swallowing
the shores, keeps the electromagnetic fields
in check at the polar ends of the earth.
And please don't tell me
what I already know, that it won't happen
for a long time. I don't care. I'm afraid
of what will happen to the moon.
Forget us. We don't deserve the moon.
Maybe we once did but not now
after all we've done. These nights
I harbor a secret pity for the moon, rolling
around alone in space without
her milky planet, her only child, a mother
who's lost a child, a bad child,
a greedy child or maybe a grown boy
who's murdered and raped, a mother
can't help it, she loves that boy
anyway, and in spite of herself
she misses him, and if you sit beside her
on the padded hospital bench
outside the door to his room you can't not
take her hand, listen to her while she
weeps, telling you how sweet he was,
how blue his eyes, and you know she's only
romanticizing, that she's conveniently
forgotten the bruises and booze,
the stolen car, the day he ripped
the phones from the walls, and you want
to slap her back to sanity, remind her
of the truth: he was a leech, a fuckup,
a little shit, and you almost do
until she lifts her pale puffy face, her eyes
two craters and then you can't help it
either, you know love when you see it,
you can feel its lunar strength, its brutal pull.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
The poem began in the summer of 2004 as I had a dinner table conversation with our friends in Eugene, Oregon, poet Maxine Scates and her husband Bill Cadbury, and my husband, Joseph Millar. We were sitting on a deck overlooking the Willamette River and the full moon was out in all its mid-summer glory. One of us asked, probably me since I know next to nothing, how the solar or lunar system works. I think Bill began to tell us, and he was fine up until it came to how the earth, sun and moon rotate in tandem. The candle was the sun and the sugar bowl was the moon. The sweet and low ramekin was the earth. For planets we had to steal more salt and pepper shakers from neighboring tables. No matter how we twisted and turned them, we just couldn’t quite figure it out. Hardly anything stumps Bill, and so over the next few weeks it became a game, one of us would look something up and then try to explain it to the others. We were not getting very far. No one could really visualize it. Sometime later I happened to be watching The Discovery Channel and there was a special about the moon. It was amazing. Among the many facts I learned that night the one that stuck was the fact that since the expansion of the universe, the moon has been steadily and significantly backing away from the earth, which meant the moon once appeared much larger in the past and would only appear smaller in the future. I couldn’t get over it. I went to bed trying to imagine it and woke up thinking about it. I was obsessed. I even re-watched the movie Joe and the Volcano with Tom Hanks because there’s this scene in it where he’s left everything behind, his job, his country, his life, and is floating in a make-shift raft on the ocean and wakes to the moon rising over the water. He struggles to stand and face it and is dwarfed by it, and says, “Dear God, whose name I do not know, thank you for my life. I forgot how big... Thank you for my life.” I also read everything I could get my hands on about the moon. That fascination has been long-lived as I’m still reading about the universe and am just now I’m finishing up Timothy Ferris’ Coming of Age in the Milky Way. The second aspect of the poem is that my extended family was going through a life-crisis, a not uncommon state of affairs for them, so that was in the back of my mind. I was in the process of working to pull away from them. Maybe I became obsessed with the moon as a way to curb my obsession with the latest family crisis. But the tug of the family is tremendous. Even a crazy family can seem better than no family. The poem is two obsessions in collision.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
I had thought about it so long that when the poem finally came it came out fairly close to finished. But as you can see I worked on it, if abstractly, in my head for months.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I was inspired first by the moon, then by the facts, then by the human affairs in relation to the facts, then love vs. the facts. The sweat and tears occured in trying to figure out how the lunar system worked, in trying to imagine how the sky looked to people eons ago, wondering what it was like to be made so small by the moon, how bright it must have been at night, how dark the night sky will be in the future. Which was a fun, curious, childlike kind of thinking, not too much sweat, and few tears, except for thinking about the suffering of my family, and the moon.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
That the listing of the facts was in some way interesting was my only concern. The form is open and easy, just a voice speaking in a fairly regularly broken line. The leap from the planetary to the personal might have been a technique had I thought of it consciously, but I didn’t. It happened naturally, organically, without my being aware of it until I had finished the poem. I really thought the poem was about the moon, and these two people I had made up, the woman and her boy, strangers to me, but realized then it was my mother and my sister, or my sister and my niece, in disguise.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print? How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?
“Facts about the Moon” first appeared in a journal produced by the Loft Literary Center in Minnesota called Speakeasy. The editor, Bart Schneider, asked me for something and I sent it along. It was a wonderful journal filled with great articles, stories and poems and had a political bent. I’m not sure it still exists. It may have gone the way of a number of fine print journals. The poem was also reprinted in 2005 as a poem of introduction to the Love Light issue of an on-line magazine called The Blue Fifth Review, and can still be found in the archives. I’m grateful to both magazines for giving the poem a chance, and a life.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
This poem is more of an example of how fact and fact are negotiated. There are the scientific facts recited one by one, and then the fact of human love set against those facts. Human love, especially family love, is complicated, scary, irrational, messy. The moon’s historically romantic symbolism is also set against this more complicated aspect of human ruin, and love: unjustified love, harmful love, a kind of unconditional love or love in spite of the facts.
Is this a narrative poem?
The narrative appears halfway through the poem and so the lyric is set against the wall of science. My hope is that the human narrative gives life to the facts or that the facts give life to the narrative.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
I do know that I read James Wright’s Above the River around that time, and he’s famous for the leap, so he was probably an influence, and Philip Levine’s uncompromising vision and voice. As I said, it takes a village. I’m grateful for any and all influences.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
Not beyond a general reader who needs to be clear about what’s going on. I like my poems to be understood by anyone walking down the street, waiting at a bustop, driving a cab, waiting tables or even a mother sitting in a hospital room with a kid who’s O.D’d. Unfortunately, those people read very little poetry. Even so, I write for them.
Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?
I called Bill Cadbury right after I wrote the poem as it felt like the culmination of all our failed research. He said, “I think you’ve got a winner there”. It felt good. In that sense, the poem was written for Bill who was a linguistics professor for 30 years at the University of Oregon, and our little group of moon-gazing poets. So clearly, I write for him/them too. I showed the poem to my husband when he got home from work and he made some suggestions, then to my writing friends who made a few more. Mostly I share work now with my husband and my friend, poet Ellen Bass. Phil Levine always takes a good look at a book before I publish it. My editor at Norton, Carol Houck Smith, recently died. She edited the book, Facts about the Moon, and was the one to suggest that the poem be the title poem of the book. My friend Maxine Scates found the painting by Magritte, a tree with a moon in its crown. It takes a village.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
I think it’s in the range of what I’ve been doing all along. The science is new, but the human side of things—that’s my ultimate interest. Who are we in relation to the world around us. What, here on earth, is the meaning of our lives.
What is American about this poem?
The violence of it. The adolescence-out-of-control of it. The mother alone of it. The fuck up, little shit of it. The family-in-crisis of it. The Philip Levine-ish forget us of it. The guilt and shame and what have we done of it. The in-the-final-hour love of it.