I’ve been re-reading Dorianne Laux’s first book, Awake, published in 1990. I’m looking to other poets’ first books as a way to help me think about how to conceive of my own first book. This poem, “Ghosts,” is the first poem of the book, and it sets the tone for the poems that follow.
It’s midnight and a light rain falls
I sit on the front stoop to smoke.
Across the street a lit window, filled
with a ladder on which a young man stands.
His head dips into the frame each time
he sinks his brush in the paint.
He’s painting his kitchen white, patiently
covering the faded yellow with long strokes.
He leans into his work like a lover, risks
losing his balance, returns gracefully
to the precise middle of the step to dip
and start again.
A woman appears beneath his feet, borrows
paint, takes it onto her thin brush
like a tongue. Her sweater is the color
of tender lemons. This is the beginning
of their love, bare and simple
as that wet room.
My hip aches against the damp cement.
I take it inside, punch up a pillow
for it to nest in. I’m getting too old
to sit on the porch in the rain,
to stay up all night, watch morning
rise over rooftops.
Too old to dance
circles in dirty bars, a man’s hands
laced at the small of my spine, pink
slingbacks hung from limp fingers. Love.
I’m too old for that, the foreign tongues
loose in my mouth, teeth that rang
my breasts by the nipples like soft bells.
I want it back. The red earrings and blue
slips. Lips alive with spit. Muscles
twisting like boat ropes in a hard wind.
Bellies for pillows. Not this ache in my hip.
I want the girl who cut through blue poolrooms
of smoke and golden beers, stepping out alone
into a summer fog to stand beneath a streetlamp’s
amber halo, her blue palms cupped
around the flare of a match.
She could have had so many lives. Gone off
with a boy to Arizona, lived on a ranch
under waves of carved rock, her hands turned
the color of flat red sands. Could have said
yes to a woman with fingers tapered as candles,
or a man who slept in a canvas tepee, who pulled
her down on his mattress of grass where she made
herself as empty as the gutted fire.
I could be there now, spinning corn from dry cobs,
working fat tomatoes into mason jars.
The rain has stopped. For blocks the houses
drip like ticking clocks. I turn off lights
and feel my way to the bedroom, slip cold
toes between flowered sheets, nest my chest
into the back of a man who sleeps in fits,
his suits hung stiff in the closet, his racked
shoes tipped toward the ceiling.
This man loves me for my wit, my nerve,
for the way my long legs fall from hemmed skirts.
When he rolls his body against mine, I know
he feels someone else. There’s no blame.
I love him, even as I remember a man with cane-
brown hands, palms pink as blossoms opening
over my breasts.
And he holds me,
even with all those other fingers wrestling
inside me, even with all those other shoulders
wedged above his own like wings.
I’ve always loved how this poem is rooted in an innocent act of voyeurism. The speaker watches her young neighbors and sees her own story in their simple act of painting their kitchen. She’s making assumptions that may not be true, but it doesn’t matter. The couple is the diving board for her leap into her own story. And leaping is the engine of this poem. Laux leaps into her own past, saying, “I want it back. The red earrings and blue / slips. Lips alive with spit.”
The speaker then becomes the voyeur of the younger version of herself, talking about her in the third person as though she is a different person. This feels true to me. By this age, I feel as though I’ve lived a few different lives already, and in some ways, have been different versions of myself in those times.
And the music of this poem! Laux is a master of making music from plain language. If you read it aloud, you can hear it: “I’m getting too old / to sit on the porch in the rain, / to stay up all night, watching morning / rise over rooftops.” Or, “For blocks the houses / drip like ticking clocks.” We have a sharp, direct voice that slows us down so we don’t miss anything. Near the end of the poem, Laux turns the distance between her various selves into a bodily thing as she describes her lover wrestling with all these other selves: “And he holds me, / even with all those other fingers wrestling / inside me, even with all those other shoulders / wedged above his own like wings.” The last image of wings is transcendant, gesturing toward flight while also being weighed down by the discomfort of the “other shoulders.” The perfect ending of a poem that grapples with a desire for other lives and the life she is living now.