American Life in Poetry: URN

Kwame Dawes. Courtesy photo.

Dorianne Laux is one of our treasured poets. Her elegant poems grow out of the familiar.

“Urn” is beautifully inventive in the way she connects the moment of uneasy childlike delight in the inexplicable “magic” of a light switch (“I didn’t know/ where the light went”), with her struggle to face mortality.

Laux’s new collection of poems, from which this lovely elegy comes, “Only as the Day Is Long: New and Selected Poems,” appeared in 2020.

By Dorianne Laux

I feel her swaying
under the earth, deep
in a basket of tree roots,
their frayed silk
keeping her calm,
a carpet of grass singing
Nearer my god to thee,
oak branches groaning in wind
coming up from the sea.

We take on trust the dead
are buried and gone,
the light doused for eternity,
the nevermore of their particulars
ground up, dispersed.
As a child I didn’t know
where the light went
when she flipped the switch,
though I once touched
the dark bulb that burned
my fingertips, studied the coiled
element trapped inside
seething with afterglow.

American Life in Poetry does not accept unsolicited manuscripts. It is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2020 by Dorianne Laux, “Urn” from Only as the Day Is Long: New and Selected Poems (W.W. Norton & Company, 2020.) Poem reprinted by permission of the author and the publisher. Introduction copyright ©2021 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction’s author, Kwame Dawes, is George W. Holmes Professor of English and Glenna Luschei Editor of Prairie Schooner at the University of Nebraska.