Dorianne Laux
Spirit Level


         "When making an axe handle

                 the pattern is not far off."  --Gary Snyder


My mother was either horizontal on the couch,

or vertical, a plumb line from her spine

to the top of her head to the ceiling that spins

when she drinks, alcohol and an air bubble

trapped, sealed and fixed inside her, her face

carved from wood, a tear gliding slowly

down the curve of her cheek.  My mother

was once a spirit in this world. Once

she breathed for me, above me, beside me,

behind me.  Now I feel her warm breath

on my neck summer nights, peering

over my shoulder as I write every poem, whispering

Let me in.  I let her in.  I remember every time

she picked me up or set me down, put me

to bed or woke me from dreams, and now

I see how my whole life has been a dream,

one she built for me from the ground up,

her daughter, my mother the axe, beautiful

tool with which she shaped me, a house

much like the one she lived in, but smaller,

fewer rooms, a tiny unusable attic

and a cluttered basement.  I let her in,

like she let me in.  She became my carpenter,

stone mason and bricklayer, piling me up

cell by cell, the blade that shaped my legs,

my arms, my surveyor, millwright. 

She used herself as a template, her genes

tough, her organs elastic,  her eyes and nose,

forehead and mouth.  And when her body

from which my body was made

was slipped into the hot retort, I burned

too.  She refused the beveled casket,

the oiled mahogany box, last drawer

for the dead, wanted only the fury

of fire, the blue white flames unmaking her

with their licking tongues, house

her grandmother built, and her grandmother

before her, all of them giving what they

had been given, the hardwood floors,

staircases and banisters, their deepest

cupboards, their heavy doors flung wide

so the breeze I would be could blow through. 


Found In Volume 51, No. 02
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Dorianne Laux
About the Author

Dorianne Laux’s sixth collection, Only As the Day is Long: New and Selected Poems was named a finalist for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Her fifth collection, The Book of Men, was awarded The Paterson Prize. Her fourth book of poems, Facts About the Moon, won The Oregon Book Award and was short-listed for the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. Laux is also the author of Awake; What We Carry, a finalist for the National Book Critic’s Circle Award; Smoke; as well as a fine small press edition, The Book of Women. She is the co-author of the celebrated text The Poet's Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry.