For the Sake of Strangers
For the Sake of StrangersIntroduction
Dorianne Laux's "For the Sake of Strangers" first appeared in her second poetry collection, What We Carry (1994). It was included in Ten Poems to Last a Lifetime (2004), a collection of thought-provoking poems compiled by Roger Housden. The poem is about the experience of continuing through daily life despite feeling immense grief. By using the word "we," Laux demonstrates that she is writing about a universal experience shared by many of her readers. Much of Laux's poetry strives to reflect shared universal experiences. She is often praised for the way she manages to incorporate detail into poems that explore such shared experiences. Although "For the Sake of Strangers" is about an individual who is struggling with emotional pain, Laux creates a picture of hope as she describes strangers, unaware of the speaker's pain, showing kindness. The poem depicts a remedy to loneliness and hopelessness. The pain felt by the poem's speaker is a common problem, but the solution is somewhat unexpected.
"For the Sake of Strangers" is written in free verse, which gives it a modern appeal and informal tone. Laux uses few literary devices, choosing a straightforward approach to her expression instead. Still, a careful reading of the poem reveals a sophisticated use of subtlety that adds layers of meaning and insight. By describing a series of strangers and their treatment of the grieved person, Laux creates an uplifting picture of the power of the kindness of strangers. She draws understated connections between the people in the poem, pointing to the universality of human experience. The people are strangers to the speaker in the poem, but they are not strangers to the speaker's pain. They have compassion for her because they, too, have felt grief.
Born on January 10, 1952, in Augusta, Maine, Dorianne Laux is the daughter of Alton Percy Green, an Irish paper mill worker, and Frances (Comeau) Green, a nurse. Frances left her husband and sons, taking her daughter to California. She remarried, and the child took her stepfather's surname, Laux. In her twenties, Laux worked at an assortment of jobs, including gas station manager, maid, and donut maker. As a single mother to a daughter named Tristem, Laux struggled to continue her education but managed to take only occasional classes and writing workshops at a local junior college. She moved to Berkeley, California, in 1983. As she started to take her writing more seriously, she sought scholarships and grants that made it possible for her to return to school when her daughter was nine years old. Laux graduated with honors from Mills College in 1988. She married Ron Salisbury in 1991, but the marriage ended three years later. In 1997, she married the poet Joseph Millar.
Laux's career has been spent writing and teaching. Her poetry was first published in Three West Coast Women (1983), which featured her work and the poetry of Laurie Duesing and Kim Addonizio. Subsequent collections featured only Laux's poetry; Awake was published in 1990, What We Carry (in which "For the Sake of Strangers" first appeared) was issued in 1994, Smoke was put out in 2000, and Facts about the Moon was released in 2005. Laux also collaborated with Addonizio to write The Poet's Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry (1997). Additionally, Laux's poetry is included in numerous anthologies and has been published in such publications as Ploughshares, American Poetry Review, and Kenyon Review. To date, her work has been translated into French, Italian, Korean, Romanian, and Brazilian Portuguese.
As a teacher and professor, Laux has been on the staffs of the California College of Arts and Crafts, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Oregon, where, in 2005, she was an associate professor in the Creative Writing Program. In addition to being a guest lecturer at various colleges, including Antioch University and California State University, Laux has been the writer in residence or visiting writer at the University of Arkansas, University of Memphis, University of Idaho, and Hamline University.
Laux's poetry has earned her critical recognition. She won a Pushcart Prize in 1986, her first poetry collection was nominated for a San Francisco Bay Area Book Critics Award, and What We Carry was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist for poetry in 1995. She has also been the recipient of fellowships from such organizations as the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2001, the poet laureate Stanley Kunitz invited Laux to read at the Library of Congress.
"For the Sake of Strangers" describes the daily life of a person trying to carry on despite the heavy weight of grief. Throughout the poem, Laux uses the pronoun "we" to show that the experience she is describing is a universal one. Dealing with grief and trying to reenter the flow of life in the midst of it are experiences shared by the speaker and the reader.
Laux begins by stating that no matter how difficult it is to carry the weight of grief, it has to be done. The speaker says that by rising and gathering momentum, the "dull strength" is found to be in crowds of people. Laux then describes a young boy enthusiastically giving the speaker directions, which indicates that the speaker reached out to him first to ask for help. Rather than wandering around lost, she found the strength to ask for what she needed. This is relevant on a literal and figurative level. Next, Laux describes a woman who kindly opens a door for the speaker and then waits patiently as she goes through it. The speaker does not sense that the woman holding the door is in a rush to get on with her own business, but rather that she is content to extend this small kindness. That the speaker describes herself as an "empty body" passing through the door, however, suggests two things. First, it suggests that the woman holding the door is unaware of the speaker's emotional state. Second, it suggests that the speaker feels numb to the pain of her own loss. This is a common feeling for those working through grief.
The speaker then remarks, "All day it continues, each kindness / reaching toward another." The speaker goes through the entire day feeling that the kindness that total strangers show to her becomes a sort of chain that gets her from the beginning of the day safely to the end. She feels that the comfort and support she receives are ongoing. When she gives the example of a stranger singing to no one as she passes, trees offering their blooms, and the smile of a "retarded child," the reader understands that the speaker has started to see her world through a particular lens. The speaker now sees the world as a place where everyone and everything reach out to her to ease her pain and bring her small joys. Of course, she is personalizing things that are not necessarily meant for her benefit, but that is not as important as the fact that the speaker chooses to embrace the world because she feels that it embraces her. She has adopted a very optimistic perspective.
When Laux next adds that "they" always find her and seem to be waiting on her, she reveals how the speaker has come to believe that the world is not only kind to her but also actually waits on her and pursues her in order to protect her from her own despair. She sees the world not just as a temporary escape or distraction but indeed as her only hope for healing. She perceives the world as reaching out to her to save her from the pain that would drive her off the edge of her own grief. She rationalizes this idea by concluding that "they" (the strangers) must have once been in her situation and therefore know what it is like to be summoned by pain, grief, and loneliness. The speaker feels that her despair tries to pull her away from the world and "off the edge," while the world tries to save her from herself. She describes the intangible nature of this tug-of-war when she writes about "this temptation to step off the edge / and fall weightless, away from the world."
Powerlessness and Weakness
The poem begins with the statement that regardless of the kind or size of grief, there is no choice but to carry it. The speaker then describes reengaging the world by simply rising and allowing momentum to build. Although momentum can produce speed and be powerful (especially when something heavy is gaining momentum), it is not an image of personal power. Momentum is not speed that is controlled or guided. When it is used as a metaphor in the poem, it depicts speed acting on its own. The momentum in the speaker's life is an unknown, as the rest of the poem indicates. Whether the momentum will build and take the speaker hurtling deeper into despair or lift her out of despair and back into normalcy and contentment remains to be seen. Regardless, the speaker is not in the driver's seat.
The speaker seems very clear about how she thinks and feels and how she perceives the world, but she understands her own powerlessness to direct her path to healing. She uses "dull strength" to get through crowds, and she is in an "empty body" that is "weightless" at the end of the poem. She finds herself in a world that pursues her to save her, while at the same time she feels the pull of despair and destruction. Despite being in the middle of this tug-of-war, she makes no apparent effort to move in one direction or another. She seems to be at the mercy of her own struggle, destined to go to whichever side is ultimately the stronger of the two.
Hope and Support
The main idea of "For the Sake of Strangers" is that deep despair can be cured by the kindness of strangers. The speaker describes interactions with a series of strangers who, despite knowing nothing of the pain of her emotional struggles, show her enough kindness to give her hope that she can pass through her pain as surely as she passes through the glass door held open by the patient woman in lines 6 and 7. The speaker also encounters a boy who gladly gives her directions, a singing stranger, a smiling child, and even a blossoming tree. In the speaker's mind, all of these people and things regard her as someone deserving of kindness, and they make an effort to reach out to her in her time of need. This feeling of being supported and embraced by the world gives the speaker hope. Without that sense of support and embrace, she is certain that she would be so consumed by her own despair that she would give in to the "temptation to step off the edge / and fall weightless, away from the world." To her, the world itself holds her close, encouraging her to stay with it. In fact, the world is so committed to holding on to her and keeping her from the edge that it pursues her and waits for her (lines 13-15). The world and its inhabitants are protective of the speaker and seem to have a stake in her recovery from her grief.
Topics For Further Study
- Research the five stages of grief and determine at what stage the speaker is in at the time of the poem. What is the next stage? Write a poem expressing the speaker's feelings in the next stage. Determine what stylistic elements of "For the Sake of Strangers" you think might still be appropriate for your poem and which should be changed to make your poem the best possible expression of the speaker's emotional progress.
- In the poem, the speaker is in the midst of grief. Think of a time when you had to carry the weight of grief. Write about your experience of grief in a way that is most comfortable for you, telling how you felt when you were among people as you carried your private pain. For example, you may choose to write a poem, an essay, a song, or a monologue.
- Using pictures from magazines, photocopies from books, or other items, create a collage depicting the people described in the poem. Arrange the images in a way you feel captures the spirit of the poem. Be sure to include a copy of the poem in your collage.
- Take a walk in your community in an area where there are lots of different people. Take note of how many people are friendly to you and how many people do not seem to notice you at all. What is your general impression of strangers, based on this walk? How similar to or different from the experience of the speaker in "For the Sake of Strangers" is yours? If you were taking the same walk during a time of personal struggle, would you be uplifted or further depressed? Using a camera and music you have chosen, create a visual presentation of your experience and show it to your class. Discuss your conclusions.
- Read about depression to gain a better understanding of what sufferers experience. Look for at least five works of art that depict depression in different people, different times, or different settings. Make photocopies of the artwork you have chosen and compile them in a folder. Whenever possible, include information about the artists' motivations in creating the particular works.
- The kind of emotional distress endured by the speaker in the poem is often described in literature. Find three examples of literary characters burdened by grief. Your examples should be drawn from varying time periods, cultures, and social circumstances. Write brief plot summaries of their stories, with character sketches. Recruit two friends for a dramatic presentation in which each of you plays the part of one of the characters. Your three characters will be engaged in discussion about their commonalities and their differences.
Although the poem ends before the speaker has healed from her grief, Laux gives the reader some indications about the first steps to take. The speaker moves toward her recovery both passively and actively. Passively, she accepts the help of strangers and interprets their actions in a way that makes her feel loved and supported. Before she can benefit from what strangers offer her, however, she must actively choose to reenter her community and interact there. In the third line, Laux says, "We rise and gather momentum." Although the momentum may be involuntary, the choice to rise is not. The speaker makes a decision to get up and be among other people. The first person with whom she feels a connection is a boy giving her directions. This implies that she asked him for directions rather than choosing to wander aimlessly. Her decision to ask for directions is a decision not only to engage a person in an interaction but also to make a choice about where she wants to go. Without the speaker's active and passive steps toward her own healing, she would be doomed to "step off the edge / … away from the world."
Laux maintains a conversational, emotionless tone in "For the Sake of Strangers" despite the subject matter. She achieves this tone by using a stream-of-consciousness flow, few literary devices, free verse, and informal language. This casual tone indicates that the speaker is aware of her difficult situation but is numb to the painful emotions associated with it. Whether she is speaking to someone or merely recording her thoughts, she comes across as more of a narrator than a person struggling through grief. This reveals a great deal about the speaker's emotional state.
Stream of Consciousness
"For the Sake of Strangers" is written in a stream-of-consciousness style that gives the poem a very spontaneous, honest feel. Readers feel that they are listening in on the speaker's private thoughts and are given a special insight into how she perceives the world. As her perception of the world changes, her language and observations reflect that in a very honest, believable way. This type of writing also makes it easy for readers to relate to the speaker and move into the flow of the poem without the hindrances of formality, structure, or carefully chosen words. A stream-of-consciousness poem gives readers the speaker's unedited thoughts and feelings, and it is therefore both honest and personal.
"For the Sake of Strangers" is written in free verse, which is unrhymed verse without metrical constraints. Free verse sounds like everyday conversation. The use of free verse is more common in modern poetry, and many readers find it less formal and more accessible. In "For the Sake of Strangers," the use of free verse allows the speaker to express herself in a straightforward manner that has a spontaneous, natural quality.
Security, Stability, and Contentment in the Early 1990s
In America, the early 1990s were years of general economic and political stability, technological and medical progress, social stability, and vibrant culture. President George H. W. Bush held office from 1989 to 1993. Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev held a summit in 1991, officially ending the cold war. Military efforts were made by American troops in other parts of the world, including the Middle East and Somalia, but people were safe at home and supportive of the troops abroad. The Gulf War (1990–1991) protected Kuwait from the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's invasion and liberated the small nation. The 1990s began with the reunification of Germany and the end of apartheid in South Africa, so people felt that things were improving globally as well. Although Bush's popularity was strong during and after his military endeavors, it waned when the recession of the late 1980s failed to improve.
Famous Americans of the early 1990s included Steve Jobs and Bill Gates as the faces of the rapidly progressing computer industry, Martha Stewart as the face of lavish entertaining at home, Ross Perot as the face of capitalism, and Michael Jordan and Andre Agassi as the faces of elite athletics. Popular music included grunge, rap, and hip-hop, and young people became more involved in their communities.
The 1990s had its share of tragedy, including the 1992 riots in Los Angeles following the acquittal of police officers who had been filmed beating a black man, Rodney King, after a traffic stop and the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City. Although life in America was certainly not perfect, the early 1990s were years of general well-being, security, opportunity, and contentment.
Compare & Contrast
- 1994: Most interaction between people is either in person or by telephone. Because people relate to each other through direct communication, most of the accepted rules of courtesy still govern interaction.
Today: With tens of millions of people using e-mail to do everything from keeping in touch with family members to selling their cars, the rules of social interaction are changing. The faceless nature of e-mail, coupled with the fact that communication does not take place in "real time," often makes people less inclined to adhere to traditional rules of courtesy and conduct.
- 1994: During the 1990s, awareness of psychological depression and its treatment make significant progress. In 1994, particular emphasis is given to research into the genetic causes of manic depression, or bipolar disorder. As a result of research and public education, depression carries less of a stigma than it did in the past, and people suffering with it are given more hope. Millions of patients approach their primary care physicians for help; about half are treated by their physicians, with the other half ultimately treated by psychotherapists. Treatments include therapy and prescribed antidepressant drugs.
Today: Being diagnosed with depression is rarely a shameful thing, and sufferers are offered psychological and medical support. Many antidepressants are available for prescription, and most licensed therapists have experience in this area. In addition to medication, patients are encouraged to make lifestyle changes to support their recovery.
- 1994: Americans enjoy a general sense of well-being. The economy in 1994 is stronger than it has been in years, and there are no international threats on American soil. Overseas, genocide begins in Rwanda as the Hutus begin to decimate the Tutsis, and American troops are sent to Haiti in an effort to end human rights violations and restore democracy. Many Americans are concerned about global tragedies but feel safe from threats at home.
Today: Having suffered the tragedy of September 11, 2001, in New York City, Washington, D.C., and western Pennsylvania and then the horrors of Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf Coast, Americans feel more vulnerable than they did in decades past. They feel the anxiety that comes with uncertainty and insecurity. Although these events remind Americans that they are not invincible, they do serve to bring them together with a stronger sense of community, charity, and compassion for each other.
Critics often describe Laux's poetic voice as strong and convincing. In the Women's Review of Books, Alison Townsend looks at What We Carry, the collection in which "For the Sake of Strangers" was first published. Townsend comments, "Laux's voice is taut, tough, sensuous…. Her medium is the autobiographical lyric-narrative poem, but one so thoroughly grounded in the real world that it becomes a kind of transparent container, transmitting experience with uncanny immediacy." In Ploughshares, Philip Levine recommends What We Carry to readers, describing it as "gritty" in its realistic depiction of modern life. Laux's reviewers often applaud her clarity of expression and her ability to bring to life an image or an experience. Townsend expresses a similar admiration when she comments that Laux gives "scrupulous attention to detail" and "locates her poetry in the things of this world—the physical, the real, the daily." This is what is so appealing to many of Laux's readers; they can relate to her experiences as expressed in her poetry, because they tell the stories and describe the feelings of many women.
Laux's forthright style is so characteristic that, in a review of Laux's and Kim Addonizio's book The Poet's Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry, Molly Bendall of the Antioch Review writes, "The passion toward poetry that these two writers/editors feel is certainly evident. What is also evident is their bias. They prefer the plain-spoken, direct, and easily explainable poem based on personal experience." Townsend finds What We Carry to be a particularly strong collection of Laux's poetry: "Laux's voice has always been wise, deep and completely unself-pitying. But there is in this collection a certain fullness of spirit."
Jennifer Bussey holds a master's degree in interdisciplinary studies and a bachelor's degree in English literature and is an independent writer specializing in literature. In this essay, she follows the psychological journey of the speaker in Laux's poem.
As Laux's "For the Sake of Strangers" opens, the speaker tells the reader that she is burdened by the weight of grief. The opening statement sets the stage for the poem that follows, emphasizing the speaker's emotional burden as the axis on which the rest of the poem will spin. In effect, the speaker introduces herself to the reader by identifying herself as a grief-stricken person. She does not tell the reader anything about the cause of her grief, how long she has been suffering, or how she feels about her difficult situation. Instead, she states matter-of-factly that people must carry painful burdens in life. As she continues, describing a day among strangers, she takes the reader on her psychological journey from pain to hope and healing.
In her first statement, the speaker explains that grief is a burden that is not only universal but also inescapable. She further suggests that grief comes in many packages, some small and some large. She says, "No matter what the grief, its weight, / we are obliged to carry it." By saying that it does not matter what the grief is or what its weight is, the speaker reveals that not all griefs are the same but they are all burdensome. From this, the reader understands that the speaker begins her psychological journey feeling trapped and burdened, with no way to free herself.
Despite her burden, the speaker manages to "rise and gather momentum" as she ventures out in public. She has come to a point in her grief where she is motivated to muster what little energy and "dull strength" she has to reenter society. At first, she sees the world as a place populated by faceless crowds (line 4). Because she sees only crowds through which she is pushing, she most likely feels as invisible to them as they are to her. She does not see any individuals, and because she makes no connection, she must feel that those in the crowd do not see her as an individual either. At this point in the poem, the speaker feels as lonely and isolated as she did in her own home. She is experiencing one of the ironies of human experience, feeling alone in a crowd.
Line 5 marks a turn with the words "And then." A change is taking place, and it happens in the form Criticism of a young boy who gives her directions "so avidly." The shift happens very subtly. First, strangers have changed from a crowd of indistinct people into a particular, enthusiastic young boy. Second, the reader can infer that since the young boy is giving directions, the speaker must have asked for them. In other words, it was she who first made the effort to reach out to interact with someone, rather than continuing to push through the crowd. Her effort is rewarded with the friendly, energetic help of a boy.
Next, a woman patiently holds open a glass door. The speaker realizes, as a result, that she is not invisible and that she is considered worthy of common courtesy. A stranger takes the time to hold open a door for her and then waits patiently as she goes through it. The speaker describes her "empty body" going through the door, but this is merely a description of how she feels, not how the woman sees her. Because she feels burdened by her grief and is depleted by it, she feels empty and numb, but she is discovering that feeling empty inside has not made her disappear altogether in the eyes of others. Just as she does in the interaction with the young boy, the speaker makes a decision to take action to engage the world. Here, she goes through a door, which seems a fairly passive thing to do—except for the fact that the door is glass. This means that she can see through the door, see what is on the other side, and she makes a choice to move knowingly from one place to another. On a literal level, this is a small but important step for someone so emotionally burdened. On a figurative level, however, this is a much bigger step, because it represents the speaker's willingness and ability to make choices that change her situation. Even though she does so cautiously (it is a door through which she can see, after all), the decision indicates that she is ready to take hold of her life again and choose to move in new directions.
In lines 8 and 9, the speaker claims that the rest of the day passes as a chain of kindness extended to her by strangers. The reader can safely assume that the speaker is recalling the day with a bit of selective memory, bringing her new perspective to her memory. She has come to see the world as a loving and supportive place; thinking back on the day, she recalls only the random acts of kindness that worked together to lift her spirits. The fact that her perception has become skewed toward her newfound optimism is clear in lines 9 through 12. In these lines, the speaker claims that "a stranger singing to no one," "trees offering their blossoms," and "a retarded child / who lifts his almond eyes and smiles" are all offering love and kindness to her. The reader, of course, recognizes that the singing stranger is, in fact, singing to no one (including the speaker), the trees are merely obeying the laws of nature, and the child is probably smiling as an expression of his own contentment, not at being happy to see the speaker. These lines describe an important new phase of the speaker's psychological journey, because instead of seeing bleakness and isolation everywhere, the speaker sees optimism and caring—although here, too, the speaker's perceptions are subjective, emotional, and probably inaccurate. In short, the speaker has found a way to hope.
The speaker's newly hopeful outlook is carried a step further when she perceives the world not only as caring but also as protective of her. She remarks, "Somehow they always find me, seem even / to be waiting, determined to keep me / from myself." Unable to save herself from her own despair and uncertainty, she finds hope in believing that the world will take care of her, protecting her even from herself. The world of loving strangers finds her, waits for her, and seeks to guard her. She explains that they know about her innermost struggles, about "the thing that calls to me," because they have been in the same situation and heard the same call. Because they have survived their grief, they recognize it and know how to protect her from it. This is comforting to her because, at this point, she feels incapable of protecting herself in her grief. Notice how Laux creates subtle tension in the poem, reflecting the tension in the speaker's mind, by describing how the speaker "pushes" herself through crowds in line 4 and is simultaneously pulled by the call of her despair in line 15. Because the speaker feels summoned by "the thing that calls to me" to "step off the edge," it is little wonder that she is so relieved to find that the world is peopled with strangers anxious to guide her to safety.
At the end of the poem, the speaker hints that her grief has driven her almost to the edge, where she is tempted to step off "and fall weightless, away from the world." This sounds as if the speaker has considered suicide as an antidote to her emotional suffering. The way she describes her feelings suggests that falling away is making a choice to step into a great unknown, which is frightening. Finding that strangers are so friendly and caring is certainly a relief, and even though she adds layers of fantasy to her encounters with the world, her decision to embrace a world that seems to embrace her is a step toward healing. She finds a way to feel less alone, less hopeless, and less vulnerable because complete strangers value her enough to reach out to her.
Given the course the poem takes, there is new insight in the speaker's first statement. It is interesting that she uses the word "obliged." This word carries two meanings and points to the two forces in the poem. From the speaker's point of view, "obliged" means "obligated." Faced with a devastating experience, there is no escape but to feel grief and somehow to muddle through it. But "obliged" can also mean "grateful," and this reflects the point of view of the strangers. As the speaker concludes, the strangers she has met throughout the day have actively pursued her in order to protect her from the devastation of grief that they have themselves managed to survive. They have already completed the psychological journey on which she finds herself, and they have the wisdom and perspective to see her situation more clearly than she does. Consequently, they are obliged to help her. In the opening line, the strangers are also "we." Read it again: "No matter what the grief, its weight, / we are obliged to carry it." The strangers are compassionate and insightful, and they are grateful to carry some of the speaker's burden for her. Perhaps the word "we" indicates that, someday, the reader will heal from her pain and be able to extend kindness to others in their suffering, so that she can lighten their load as strangers have done for her.
Source: Jennifer Bussey, Critical Essay on "For the Sake of Strangers," in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.
Pamela Steed Hill
Pamela Hill is the author of a poetry collection, has published widely in literary journals, and is an editor for a university publications department. In this essay, she examines the hopefulness in Laux's poem, made all the stronger by its close association with despair, isolation, and grim determination.
The first four lines of Laux's "For the Sake of Strangers" suggest a generic "everyman" persona—a voice common to all humankind in describing the "weight, / we are obliged to carry." The pronouns "we" and "us" imply the bond that runs throughout humanity. It is a bond that links the reader to the poet as well, as she relays her message about something "we" all share: grief, heaviness, and the "dull strength" that somehow gets us through.
These opening lines also appear to set the tone of the poem—somber, bleak, resigned. They depict a world in which people are burdened by sorrow and must accept that the best they can hope for is to find the will to "rise and gather momentum" in order not to falter completely. One source of the weariness seems to be the "crowds" that the individual must push through, implying that each of us is only one drop in a big sea or only an insignificant part of the masses. Interestingly, the idea of crowds points to strangers, and strangers are at the core of this poem's meaning.
The turning point in "For the Sake of Strangers" comes early, in the fifth line of an eighteen-line poem. Here, the speaker takes center stage, and the generic "we" persona is lost in the immediacy of one person's individual experience. The way Laux begins the line—"And then"—suggests a continuation of the sentiment already established, but the only thing that continues is the bond between human beings, and it grows stronger as the poem progresses.
What Do I Read Next?
- Kim Addonizio's Tell Me (2000) contains deeply personal poetry that strives to show the darkness and light of her own experiences. Her subjects include family, love, heartbreak, and confession.
- Written by Addonizio and Laux, The Poet's Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry (1997) is the poets' effort to share their wisdom and encouragement with would-be poets. They offer chapters on subject matter, the elements and craft of writing, and the life of a poet.
- Compiled by Richard Ellman, The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry (2nd ed., 1988) offers anyone interested in sampling modern poetry a wide range of writers, styles, and subjects. The introduction to each poet's section gives the reader background and context that helps to better understand and appreciate the poet's work.
- Laux's What We Carry (1994), is considered by critics to be a good representation of her work in general. In it, she explores themes of femininity, sexuality, struggle, and everyday life.
Line 5 not only turns the "we" into "me" but also begins the introduction of strangers into the speaker's life. Here, a "young boy" is helpful in giving directions—a seemingly simple, uneventful task, but he does it "so avidly." This description suggests an intentional act of kindness, a courtesy performed by someone anxious to do a good deed. The woman who holds open the door is portrayed as patient and, apparently, courteous and thoughtful. Notice, though, that the speaker describes herself—her "body"—as "empty." This self-evaluation is important in the poem, and the fact that it is presented rather subtly makes the personal appraisal all the more interesting.
Much of the remainder of the poem addresses the strangers whom the speaker encounters and the pleasant surprise she experiences at their unwarranted kindness. She even feels the warmth of "a retarded child" who seems to connect with her with "his almond eyes." All day long, she passes by strangers who give new meaning to the wearisome "crowds" that the speaker has always felt a need to shove her way through. The word "Somehow" that begins line 13 implies that she does not know why her feelings of anonymity and emptiness are contradicted by the generous acts of strangers who make her feel special and not like just another face in the crowd.
The latter part of this work draws the speaker further into herself, and, at the same time, strengthens the bond between her and the strangers who, in a sense, come to her rescue. She reveals the emotional struggle and the inner turmoil that she carries as a "weight"—the "thing that calls" to her, apparently from inside herself, where she cannot be free of it. The speaker does not, however, feel completely alone in her battle to resist the negative urges that haunt her. Instead, she reasons that the "thing" that will not leave her alone "must have once called" to the strangers as well. Again, she recognizes a bond between human beings, although a frightfully depressing one that tempts "us" to "step off the edge" and give up on life altogether.
The beginning and the ending of "For the Sake of Strangers" are misleading in their grim tones and sorrowful messages. In a sense, they misrepresent the very core of the poem, disguising its deeper theme of hopefulness, kindness, and unity among the most unlikely people—total strangers. The connotations that surround grief, weight, dull strength, and the notion of stepping off the edge do not leave much room for considering anything positive, yet there is something that keeps the speaker going, something that prevents her from making the final "fall … away from the world." It is this element alone that points to the poem's central message of hope and survival.
None of the strangers whom the speaker encounters does anything particularly remarkable—they hold open a door, sing joyfully, smile at her. But she enhances these common, chance meetings by including an encounter of a different sort, one that would be truly remarkable, if taken literally: "trees / offering their blossoms" just to make her feel better. Obviously, the trees are not doing anything intentional, but the speaker's perception of their desire to comfort her insinuates her own wish to be comforted. It also speaks to her finding such purpose and consolation in simple acts of strangers, acts that may commonly go unnoticed.
One may argue that the ending of a poem reflects its true sentiment, and that is a valid point to consider. In this case, however, the meatier part of the work lies in its middle lines. And if that is not enough to convince the skeptic, then the title itself needs to be pondered. The word "sake" can mean both "behalf" (welfare, interest, regard) and "purpose" (reason, goal, aim), and, here, the latter is most pertinent. The strangers who pass by the speaker—actually acknowledging her existence—seem to be there for a reason. It is as if they are "waiting" for her, "determined" to keep her safe from her own despairing thoughts. By their sake, she is alive and even daring to be optimistic.
Overall, Laux presents a twofold poem. The speaker recognizes individual and personal human despondency but also concedes a general human bond that derives its power from the fact that it is shared. Yes, she carries the heavy weight of grief and, yes, she must often "rise and gather momentum" in order to force herself to make it through the day. But her burdensome effort is then rewarded by an unexpected return effort from the "crowds" she typically considers so taxing. Her ultimate assessment is that there is enough common good in humanity to outweigh the load of individual grief.
The idea of bearing a weight plays heavily in "For the Sake of Strangers," as it does in the collection in which the poem appears. Laux titled the book What We Carry to imply an overall theme of human burden, and in some of the volume's works the weight is too much to bear. This poem, however, is at least one exception. Surely, the weight is heavy here, but it is mollified by a greater force—simple human kindness. It is a kindness made all the more special by the fact that it comes from strangers who could just as easily have ignored the speaker or even been rude to her, as the idea of "crowds" often suggests.
While this is an admittedly brief poem, it is packed with both obvious messages about dealing with grief and more subtle notions on overcoming sorrow. The greatest difference lies in the smothering effect of self-absorption and the relief of opening oneself up to the bonds that tie the human race together. The word "strangers" may connote a detached feeling by itself, but Laux has managed to bring it around to the same nuance as "friends." That alone says there is an overall spirit of hope in the poem.
Source: Pamela Steed Hill, Critical Essay on "For the Sake of Strangers," in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.
Dorianne Laux and Michael J. Vaughn
In the following interview, Laux and Vaughn discuss her poem "Abschied Symphony" and Laux's approach to structure, organization, and theme in her poetry.
Dorianne Laux is one of the best of the West Coast poets. She was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for her 1994 book, What We Carry, and with long-time cohort Kim Addonizio (herself a recent National Book Award finalist), she co-authored The Poet's Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry (1997, W.W. Norton). Laux teaches in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Oregon in Eugene.
When Laux read recently in my adopted hometown of Tacoma, Washington, I interviewed her for my column in the Tacoma News-Tribune. Considering the paper's lay audience, I thought it would be nice to get away from the constant generalized philosophizing of poetry articles, and instead use the opportunity to hone in on a single poem: "Abschied Symphony," from Laux's book, Smoke (2000, BOA Editions). Because of space limitations, I had to use only excerpts of the poem, and cut out large parts of the interview. Here at the TMR website, however, we have no such limitations—and we have the luxury of a poetry-savvy audience. That said, let's begin with the poem itself (which Ms. Laux has graciously given us permission to reprint) and then proceed to the interview.
Someone I love is dying, which is why,
when I turn the key in the ignition
and the radio comes on, sudden and loud,
something by Haydn, a diminishing fugue,
then back the car out of the parking space
in the underground garage, maneuvering through
the dimly lit tunnels, under low ceilings,
following yellow arrows stenciled at intervals
on gray cement walls and think of him,
moving slowly through the last
hard days of his life, I won't
turn it off, and I can't stop crying.
When I arrive at the tollgate I have to make
myself stop thinking as I dig in my pockets
for the last of my coins, turn to the attendant,
indifferent in his blue smock, his white hair
curling like smoke around his weathered neck,
and say, Thank you, like an idiot, and drive
into the blinding midday light.
Everything is hideously symbolic:
the Chevron truck, its underbelly
spattered with road grit and the sweat
of last night's rain, the Dumpster
behind the flower shop, sprung lid
pressed down on dead wedding bouquets—
even the smell of something simple, coffee
drifting from the open door of a cafe;
and my eyes glaze over, ache in their sockets.
For months now all I've wanted is the blessing
of inattention, to move carefully from room to room
in my small house, numb with forgetfulness.
To eat a bowl of cereal and not imagine him,
drawn thin and pale, unable to swallow.
How not to imagine the tumors
ripening beneath his skin, flesh
I have kissed, stroked with my fingertips,
pressed my belly and breasts against, some nights
so hard I thought I could enter him, open
his back at the spine like a door or a curtain
and slip in like a small fish between his ribs,
nudge the coral of his brains with my lips,
brushing over the blue coil of his bowels
with the fluted silk of my tail.
Death is not romantic. He is dying. The fact
is stark and one-dimensional, a black note
on an empty staff. My feet are cold,
but not as cold as his, and I hate this music
that floods the cramped insides
of my car, my head, slowing the world down
with its lurid majesty, transforming
everything I see into stained memorials
to life—even the old Ford ahead of me,
its battered rear end thinned to scallops of rust,
pumping grim shrouds of exhaust
into the shimmering air—even the tenacious
nasturtiums clinging to a fence, stem and bloom
of the insignificant, music spooling
from their open faces, spilling upward, past
the last rim of blue and into the black pool
of another galaxy. As if all that emptiness
were a place of benevolence, a destination,
a peace we could rise to.
[Michael J. Vaughn]: Is there a strategy to the stanzaless style (and is there an academic term for "stanzaless")? Driving the narrative forward? Or perhaps just taking out one poetic element to simplify, as in a prose poem? I notice Kim Addonizio likes to do that, too. Or is it just something you do instinctually?
[Dorianne Laux]: No, no term for the stanzaless style, at least not one I know. Yes, stanzas do stop the reader for a moment, allow for a rest, as in music, or often are used to signal a transition of some kind. But in a poem like this, the relentlessness of the forward movement is a way to keep the reader in the thrall of the poem's subject, which is death, and which rests for no one and gives no one rest. It was instinctive, though you can look to other stanzaless poems to see where that instinct was developed—Whitman comes to mind, and later, Sharon Olds and C. K. Williams.
I notice in your stanza'd poems, you often organize your lines into twos, threes, and fours. Is there an organizational need there?
Yes, the need to organize, to separate one movement from another, scenes, ideas, images, times and locations, the stanza can help with all these things and more. But this poem takes place on a drive from a parking lot to somewhere. Though we don't know the final location, we can assume it's home. The narrator never gets home though, except in her imagination, which also makes sense in terms of how we respond to death, the pain of grief—it's an endless ride for the living, at least until their own death releases them.
The giveaway first line. There's got to be a term for this, too ("confessional prelude"?), but I did the exact same thing in a novel. Pretty much you're telling the reader, "This is what the poem's going to be about," "Someone I love is dying …" I love the feeling of expectation that this sets up in the reader's mind; it makes them read the poem (or the novel, or the play) entirely differently, hungry for explanations and details. Again, intentional or just "what happened"?
No, no term for this one either. It's just one of those lines that, as you say, announces itself rather boldly. I think death gives us this boldness of speech. You see the bravery of those facing death and you too become brave in the face of it. I received an email recently from a woman, an exstudent I'd met briefly a few years ago. Her sister's husband died in the Twin Towers on September 11. She said when speaking of her sister: "I worry about her and miss him so much—she of course is deep in the beginning stages of grief; I just hope she makes it to the stages. I feel as if I can be blunt with you, somehow." Death gives us permission to be blunt, as does poetry. Our defenses are stripped from us, which is why she could speak of the worst when telling me about her sister, and why she could speak to me so openly. What is there to lose when all has been lost? And yes, it was again an intuitive move, but in light of what we know about death, an appropriate move. Something in me said: Just say it. And when I did, the poem began to emerge. Isn't that how we comes to terms with the inevitable, with reality? I have another poem in that section in which the narrator never really accepts the death until she says the actual words, out loud: "He's dead. He's not coming back." It's the first time she believes it. Language is a way to help our vision of the world match up to its reality. It can also release us from that other world we have to live in, with all its protective fantasies and denials, so we can survive. We break out of that psychological world, too. And sometimes, it's poetry that helps us to do that. Poetry that can help us to go on living.
I love the stabs of simple sentences near the end: "Death is not romantic. He is dying." Great rhythmic interruption there. Do you write by musical mandates sometimes? Especially in a "symphonic" poem?
Yes, rhythm and rhyme; in my case, internal rhyme (there's a term for you!) is always of utmost importance. In this poem, I had the symphony playing in my head and that helped me to find a rhythm for the poem. I tried to be symphonic in my approach, another reason, possibly for the lack of stanzas. In terms of those specific lines, they act as a different kind of rest, as well as an introduction for what's to come. Think of Beethoven's, 5th Symphony for example, the power in those first notes: dum-dum-dum-DUM. The last note deeper to give it even more power: He is dying. Then, what follows, is this lovely high fast sweet music—but it derives its power and texture from those first strong, ponderous, grief-stricken, enraged notes which play in your mind as a backdrop. I hear such suffering behind those sweet desperate notes of his—life is always sweeter when set against death. Or, as one great poet said, "Death is the mother of beauty."
Nasturtiums. Lots of poems with nasturtiums in them. Is there something about nasturtiums? I had a friend who used them so much I started calling him "Nasturtium Boy." He switched to Daturas.
I had no idea there were so many poems with nasturtiums in them. What are they? I consider them to be my personal flower! I grew up in San Diego where we had nasturtiums growing in front yards all over town. I love them. They're a tough little pinwheel of a flower. And the circular shaped leaves are so beautiful—little green umbrellas. Lilies are the flower of death so I knew I needed another kind of flower, something small and seemingly insignificant, but that had this tenacious upward movement about it. Not quite a vine, but almost. Abundant. Colorful. Relentless.
Ending the poem on a dangling preposition. I love it! 'Bout time we bury that grammatical myth once and for all. And how stilted and British it would be to say, "… a peace to which we could rise."
Yes, sometimes you have to break the rules to get the sound right, to get the motion into the words. There was a last line I deleted after that line. It was "… a peace we could rise to, if we could rise." I realized I didn't want the poem to be endstopped like that, to conclude on a visually downward motion—the image of someone on the floor in sorrow, unable to rise—but the motion of rising, that yearning we all have to find some explanation, some solace. And maybe, to end somewhere in the realm of possibility, looking up to the universe with a desperate hope.
I know from your booknotes that "abschied" is German for "farewell," but tell me about the symphony itself.
Haydn had been commissioned to compose music and play for a king in some northern province. He was given a full orchestra and the contract was for a month. The king kept asking them to stay on longer which was a great honor, and even if it wasn't, I guess you don't say no to a king. Months passed. The orchestra members were getting tired and cold as winter came on, and were missing their families who they had left behind. Haydn, unable to bear their suffering any longer, decided to write a symphony to help them leave without offending the king. In succession, each member played their last solo and then left the stage until only a lone violinist remained. When he finished the piece he walked off the stage, leaving it empty. The king then turned to Haydn and said something to the effect of, "I get the message," promptly called them a carriage and they all packed up and went home. Haydn called it his Farewell Symphony. (Absolutely true story. I saw it on PBS.)
Source: Dorianne Laux and Michael J. Vaughn, "An Interview with Dorianne Laux," in http://www.themonserratreview.com/interviews/DL_interview.html, 2005, pp. 1-4.
In the following essay, Housden analyzes Laux's poem "For the Sake of Strangers," finding that Laux "is asking us to immerse ourselves in the full experience of our humanity."
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Source: Roger Housden, "Back from the Edge," in Ten Poems to Last a Lifetime, Harmony Books, 2004, pp. 59-64.
In the following excerpted review of What We Carry, Townsend calls Laux's voice "taut, tough, sensuous" and asserts that the poems in this collection "teach us how to give ourselves up to the world, how to love."
Often when I read women's poetry I realize that I am trying to understand what kind of ethos or personal mythology the poet is creating. What is her relationship to time, place, history? How does this intersect with home, work, love, family? What kind of self-portrait has the poet created, and how does this reflect her self-image and her relationship with the outside world?… Dorianne Laux writes a poetry of gritty and tender self-disclosure that documents life as a creative woman in late twentieth-century America….
I read Dorianne Laux's first book, Awake, with enormous pleasure, and have eagerly awaited the publication of her second, What We Carry. Laux's voice is taut, tough, sensuous. Her province is the ordinary world as it reveals itself to be miraculous, whether in a rainbowed pool of oil at a gas station, the sight of her daughter leaning into the side of a horse, a car full of women friends singing, or the mystery and beauty of her husband's body. Her medium is the autobiographical lyric-narrative poem, but one so thoroughly grounded in the real world that it becomes a kind of transparent container, transmitting experience with uncanny immediacy.
Laux achieves this transparency through scrupulous attention to detail. More than any other poet I know, she locates her poetry in the things of this world—the physical, the real, the daily. Her long stanzas pulse with energy, moving toward the next revelation, sometimes before we're even ready:
Today, pumping gas in my old car, I stood hatless in the rain and the whole world went silent—cars on the wet street sliding past without sound, the attendant's mouth opening and closing on air—as he walked from pump to pump, his footsteps erased in the rain—nothing but the tiny numbers in their square windows rolling by my shoulder, the unstoppable seconds gliding by as I stood at the Chevron, balanced evenly on my two feet, a gas nozzle gripped in my hand, my hair gathering rain.
And I saw it didn't matter who had loved me or who I loved. I was alone. The black oily asphalt, the slick beauty of the Iranian attendant, the thickening clouds—nothing was mine…. ("After Twelve Days of Rain,")
Laid out as carefully as cards, meticulously controlled through enjambments and pauses, the details are the emotion in this poem. In this most unlikely of settings, she hears her "actual, visceral heart," before the sounds of things going on around her come through again, "… the slish of tires / and footsteps, all the delicate cargo / they carried saying thank you…." Her only choice is to to go on, climbing into her car "as if nothing had happened—/ as if everything mattered…."
Laux's voice has always been wise, deep and completely unself-pitying. But there is in this collection a certain fullness of spirit. In poem after poem she recognizes and celebrates her ability to survive and enjoy life. In "Singing Back the World" a careful of women Mends bursts into spontaneous song:
I don't remember how it began. The singing. Judy at the wheel in the middle of "Sentimental Journey." The side of her face glowing. Her full lips moving. Beyond her shoulder the little houses sliding by. And Geri. Her frizzy hair tumbling in the wind wing's breeze, fumbling with the words. All of us singing as loud as we can. Off key. Not even a semblance of harmony. Driving home in a blue Comet singing "I'll Be Seeing You" and "Love Is a Rose."
A deep celebration of female friendship, "[no]thing but [their] three throats / beating back the world," the poem is both praise song to and an example of the ways creativity makes it possible to go on.
In the sequence of poems about family that makes up the central section of the book, Laux muses on having a teenage daughter, on her own mother's ebony piano, on the adult world's incursions and intrusions into her childhood, in language that is fierce, precise and loving. One of the things I admire most about Laux's work is that knowledge, though it often comes painfully, is always modulated by awareness that is somehow transformative: a twelve year-old looking at a sexually explicit magazine simultaneously dusts off his baby brother's pacifier each time it falls into the dirt. And always there is the redemptive power of love. In "Family Reunion," having suddenly realized there is no film in her camera, Laux writes:
… I smile at my family, ask them to stay where they are just a few minutes longer as I press the blank shutter again and again, burning their images into my own incorruptible lens, picture after picture, saving them all with my naked eye, my bare hands the purest light of my love.
I had the feeling as I read this poem and others that the speaker has moved out from beneath some burden—that she is, in some way, more fully, more joyfully inhabiting the world.
The book opens with the speaker out in her back yard at midnight, chasing away fighting cats ("forty-one years old … / broom handle slipping//from my hands, my breasts bare, my hair / on end, afraid of what I might do next"), and closes with an immensely celebratory series of poems on the mysteries of the body, love and marriage. Laux, whose first collection contains what are probably some of the most significant contemporary poems about incest, here turns her attention to the joys of the body. As in all her work, she is both tender and fierce, able to evoke "the dark human bread" of flesh and the sweetness of lovers kissing, "their faces like roses crushed / together and opening."
In my favorite poem from this section, "The Thief," a tender seduction takes place. The speaker is torn between "not wanting to interrupt his work" and being unable to "keep [her] fingers / from dipping into the ditch in his pants, / torn again with tenderness / for the way his flesh grows unwillingly / toward [her] curved palm, toward the light." Speaking for the beauty and necessity of union, this poem takes the lover and her husband into the "other world he cannot build without [her]." That "other world" is what Laux gives us. "It took me so long to learn how to love, / how to give myself up and over to another," she says near the end of "For My Daughter Who Loves Animals." Luckily for us, these poems teach us how to give ourselves up to the world, how to love.
Source: Alison Townsend, "What We Carry," in Women's Review of Books, Vol. 12, No. 2, November 1994, pp. 19-20.
Bendall, Molly, Review of The Poet's Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry, in Antioch Review, Vol. 56, No. 2, Spring 1998, p. 246.
Housden, Roger, "For the Sake of Strangers," in Ten Poems to Last a Lifetime, Harmony Books, 2004, pp. 57-64.
Laux, Dorianne, "For the Sake of Strangers,", What We Carry, Boa Editions, 1994, p. 23.
Levine, Philip, "Editor's Shelf," in Ploughshares, Vol. 21/1, No. 66, Spring 1995, p. 202.
Townsend, Alison, Review of What We Carry, in Women's Review of Books, Vol. 12, No. 2, November 1994, pp. 19-20.
Ellmann, Richard, and Robert O'Clair, Modern Poems: A Norton Introduction, Norton, 1989.
One of the most respected publishers of literary anthologies offers this collection of works by 119 poets, along with essays about the poets and about reading poetry. The styles and perspectives of the poets are wide-ranging, giving the reader a grasp of modern poetry.
George, Don, ed., The Kindness of Strangers, Lonely Planet, 2003.
This book contains excerpts from the writings of various travel writers who find that their journeys around the world often bring them in contact with warm, generous people who offer help and encouragement. Collectively, these stories point to the basic goodness of people regardless of culture or situation.
Kowit, Steve, In the Palm of Your Hand: The Poet's Portable Workshop, Tilbury House, 1995.
Kowit offers numerous exercises and examples to help students understand what makes poetry good and how to write it. The lessons are meant for be-ginning and experienced poets alike.
Kübler-Ross, Elisabeth, and David Kessler, On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages, Scribners, 2005.
Kübler-Ross originally established the five stages of grief for the dying, but her life's work led her to realize that they were also useful for the surviving loved ones. In this book, Kübler-Ross elaborates on her findings, offering research and wisdom to comfort the hurting.
Laux, Dorianne, Awake, BOA, 1990.
This was the first collection of poetry that featured only Laux's work. Consistent with her later collections, her style here is straightforward and strong, and her subject matter includes the best and worst of human experience.