Poetry

Poetry Sunday: ‘Staff Sgt. Metz,’ by Dorianne Laux

Editor’s Note: Happy Father’s Day to fathers and those taking on fathering roles. For a poetic tribute to fathers, see Rebecca Foust’s June 5 column on Maria Mazziotti Gillan whose poem brims with love for a remembered father but not tainted by sentimentality.

 

Staff Sgt. Metz

Metz is alive for now, standing in line
at the airport Starbucks in his camo gear
and buzz cut, his beautiful new
camel-colored suede boots. His hands
are thick-veined. The good blood
still flows through, given an extra surge
when he slurps his latte, a fleck of foam
caught on his bottom lip.

I can see into the canal in his right ear,
a narrow darkness spiraling deep inside his head
toward the place of dreaming and fractions,
ponds of quiet thought.

In the sixties my brother left for Vietnam,
a war no one understood, and I hated him for it.
When my boyfriend was drafted I made a vow
to write a letter every day, and then broke it.
I was a girl torn between love and the idea of love.
I burned their letters in the metal trash bin
behind the broken fence. It was the summer of love
and I wore nothing under my cotton vest,
my Mexican skirt.

I see Metz later, outside baggage claim,
hunched over a cigarette, mumbling
into his cell phone. He’s more real to me now
than my brother was to me then, his big eyes
darting from car to car as they pass.
I watch him breathe into his hands.

I don’t believe in anything anymore:
god, country, money or love.
All that matters to me now
is his life, the body so perfectly made,
mysterious in its workings, its oiled
and moving parts, the whole of him
standing up and raising one arm
to hail a bus, his legs pulling him forward,
all the muscle and sinew and living gristle,
the countless bones of his foot trapped in his boot,
stepping off the red curb.

 

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First published in The Book of Men (Norton 2011).Reprinted from The Book of Men: Poems by Dorianne Laux. Copyright © 2010 by Dorianne Laux. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

 

Dorianne Laux author photo_4-29-16Dorianne Laux’s most recent books of poems are The Book of Men, winner of the Paterson Poetry Prize, and Facts about the Moon, recipient of the Oregon Book Award and short-listed for the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. Laux is also the author of Awake, What We Carry, finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Smoke. Her work has received three “Best American Poetry” Prizes, a Pushcart Prize, three fellowships from The National Endowment for the Arts, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 2001, she was invited by late poet laureate Stanley Kunitz to read at the Library of Congress.  In 2014, singer/songwriter Joan Osborne adapted her poem, “The Shipfitter’s Wife,” and set it to music on her newest release, “Love and Hate.” Ce que nous portons (What We Carry), translated by Helene Cardona, has just been published by Editions du Cygne Press, Paris. Laux teaches poetry and directs the MFA program at North Carolina State University and is founding faculty at Pacific University’s Low Residency MFA Program. Dorianne Laux is represented by The Field Office Agency: [email protected]. Visit her website at www.doriannelaux.net.

Author Photo Credit:  Alexis Rhone-Fancher. Order The Book of Men at www.books.wwnorton.com.

 

Poet’s Note

I rarely write about things as they happen—more often I find myself recollecting moments in Wordsworthian tranquility—but Staff Sgt. Metz came in a rush as I sat at the airport after having observed this compelling young man. I was outside writing the poem in my notebook when, like a miracle, he walked out and stood directly in front of me. When he stepped off the curb, the last line was written.

 

Notes on “Staff Sgt. Metz”

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

In this free-verse poem of 38 lines divided into four irregular stanzas, Laux makes a powerfully effective statement about the involvement of the United States in wars in the Middle East. Aside from the sheer importance of the statement’s message, its power derives largely from masterful critical choices—about tone, nuance, diction, and even form—made by Laux in drafting the poem.

Let’s begin by summarizing a few points I’ve made in other columns featuring poems with political content. Some people think politics has no place in poems, but others vehemently disagree, and still others believe all poetry is political whether it intends to be or not. Some Language Poets believe that language itself, being the product of the (white, male, privileged) power base, is inherently and inevitably political. Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum, it cannot be denied that political poems are an important part of our contemporary canon, and that some are more effective than others.

What makes a political poem effective? In a lecture I once heard at Bread Loaf, Irish poet Eavan Boland said that the best ones do NOT bash us over the head with their message but instead lay the groundwork for thinking the readers undertake for themselves, allowing them in effect to “discover” in their own hearts and minds the idea the poet is trying to promote. Poems that rant and harangue (or more mildly lecture and preach) can alienate readers and make them stop listening. A holier-than-thou speaker’s diatribe against a perceived injustice can be annoying, but worse, can be so extreme as to enable readers to avoid their own complicity or responsibility. A more subtle approach lowers the risk of losing readers and raises the chance the poet will sway them to at least see a glimpse of the poet’s point of view. But the most powerful political poems are those that actually implicate the speaker and thereby the readers themselves.

Today’s is one such poem. What are some of the craft choices that make it so successful? At the Meta level, one is the choice of using free verse, a form that by its nature appears less didactic and more accessible than formal poetry. I’ve made the point before that free verse is anything but “free” and is instead a form like others, with its own set of rules and expectations requiring at least as much technical virtuosity as, say, a sonnet. Robert Frost said that writing it is like “playing tennis without a net.” With meter, line length, and rhyme scheme not prescribed, the poet must write without a template and according to his or her own internalized vision of what the poem requires. Too many writers interpret “free verse” as “anything goes,” and the result is the flood of flaccid, sometimes apparently unrevised poems we sometimes see in today’s journals.

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  • Mickey June 19, 2016 at 12:36 pm

    Excellent poem; I was there watching, feeling, seeing with the poet. Thank you so much. My library has a copy of this book. I’ll put it on hold. I want to read more. More thanks.

    Reply