Apr 7, 2010

Dorianne Laux's "Democracy": Urban Tubes of Humans

Democracy by Dorianne Laux : The
Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

Panoramic works like Dorianne Laux’s “Democracy” always raise at least one question for me: does each item in the rather long series of items (including characters) carry its weight? Is each image, action, and detail necessary? What would happen to the poem’s meaning, texture, rhythm(s) if this or that item were deleted?

In terms of theme, I think too of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and in turn, contemporary writer Charles Baxter’s magnificent “A Late Sunday Afternoon by the Huron” in his collection of stories, Through the Safety Net (mid-1980s).

Also, as is the case with many contemporary poems, long or short, a question here is why Laux breaks lines and stanzas where she does?

Am I the only one who hears “Democracy” as a companion poem to Sharon Olds’ “On the Subway” (March 4, March 9 here at Banjo)? There are important differences, but aren’t the similarities striking—the centrality of a vehicle of public transportation, of course, but also more?

Given the title, the reference to Republicans, and the poem’s overall content, is there any way to avoid calling this a political poem, whatever it might be in addition to that?

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gothpunkuncle said...

How's this fit the topic of the day?


Brenda's Arizona said...

I am not sure I see this as a political poem. Maybe she titled it 'Democracy' because she wanted it to come early in the index in the back of a poetry anthology. "Riding the Bus" would have come even later in the alphabetical listing than "Republican" would have!!

She could have substituted her use of the word 'republican' for "why people live in gated communities".

Her line "if it weren’t for them you could believe in god" - is 'them' Republicans or the people huddled on the step of the church?

So, democracy allows for her scenes? Hmmm. Maybe the weather creates these scenes, too. If it were 100 degrees and steamy hot, would she still say democracy allowed for children playing in open fire hydrants or the stench of sweat making the bus ride less than pleasant? Democracy... hmmm.

I love Laux's descriptions. I can see her sights!

And in seeing her sights, I can see Sharon Olds on the same bus. But there is all I see the same in these two poems.

Good find, Banjomyn.

Banjo52 said...

Brenda: "Her line "if it weren’t for them you could believe in god" - is 'them' Republicans or the people huddled on the step of the church?" I noticed that ambiguity too. Do you think it's purposeful or just unclear in a bad way?

I like your flip of the coin into hot weather. My answer is Yes, I think she'd see that scene too as democracy.

I'll hold back on more response to see if others pitch in.

GPU, is it just me or is the Cohen song's "tune" a dead ringer for "Tower of Love"? I still need to listen more carefully and patiently to the lyrics. Thanks for one more point of comparison.

gothpunkuncle said...

The jim Noir thing? Nah. That's not what you're asking. It's in the same basic part of Cohen's career that produced "Tower of SONG." Speaking of that, when does artistic style become a rut or a formula? To what extent can a poet expand the poetic and keep that brand name in tact? I'll expect 1,200 words on that by Friday. (HAH!)

Anonymous said...

Coincidence. Just got home after hours in the car, most of the time spent listening to right wing radio. The host was congratulating Seattle for passing a law that fines panhandlers $50 if they solicit too agressively or use a naughty word.

I don't think Republicans would challenge their characterization in this poem. So that's why I say it's not political.

The poet might be saying that anyone in the middle class, given the right degree of weariness, discomfort, and irritation, can temporarily drift in a less compassionate direction. Especially walking on streets clearly owned, regulated, ruled by another class entirely. "Yes you're down and out, but must you also stink?"

Maybe that's what she's talking about -- the geography of compassion. How it fades in close-up.

(And no, as cosen-womyn said, I can see the two poets might happen to ride the same bus, but that's all. This one is talking about something quite real.)

Banjo52 said...

BrAZ, what I hear is her being inclusive toward the others on the bus, after some initial reluctance. Isn't that more liberal than conservative? "Us" more than "They"? And of course she did not say "gated community," but "Republican." Granted there may be a strong connection, but . . . Also, I hear the last line or two as positive, something like, "Here we are, gathered together against the cold, trying to move forward on this halting but not hostile bus." do you hear many Republicans saying that? Wouldn't they find it thinly veiled communism? And I like your introduction of changing the weather to summer heat, but would anything change? "The world is challenging; we're in this together." Whaddya think?

And I agree, Laux paints a good picture here. But I thought Olds did, too--not just a clear pic, but also two dissimilar, potentially hostile characters thrown together by chance and public transit, one fearful, the other, we don't know, but the pairing causes much reflection by the speaker about racial and political history, and an awareness of her own advantages, taken for granted . . . all very political stuff . . .

and look where THAT got me . . . .

Banjo52 said...

I guess we have to define "political."

AH offers a nifty point about words. If Republicans don't deny this characterization of them, and if the masses have B.O., then there is no conflict or dialectic about politics going on.

Maybe so, tho' I still hear the last line as a positive note; however chugging and groaning the bus may sound, it's where the "we" are, those shunned or ignored by the Right. Right? Inclusion vs. Exclusion?

The teeny-bopper girl with her music is surely a life force, isn't she? But if I say that, what do I say about the guy with the swastika shaved in his hair?

Usually I like this kind of ambiguity or paradox, but I wish I felt more sure that such uncertainty is what the poem needs or desires for itself.

AH, "the geography of compassion fades in close-up." Nice turn of a phrase! Is that Laux's theme here? She's certainly made clear the downside, the hard part, of inclusion, but does that mean she's siding with the Republicans?

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