After Twelve Days of Rain
by Dorianne Laux (from ‘What We Carry’)
I couldn’t name it, the sweet
sadness welling up in me for weeks.
So I cleaned, found myself standing
in a room with a rag in my hand,
the birds calling time-to-go, time-to-go.
And like an old woman near the end
of her life I could hear it, the voice
of a man I never loved who pressed
my breasts to his hips and whispered
“My little doves, my white, white lilies.”
I could almost cry when I remember it.
I don’t remember when I began
to call everyone “sweetie,”
as if they were my daughters,
my darlings, my little birds.
I have always loved too much,
or not enough. Last night
I read a poem about God and almost
believed it—God sipping coffee,
smoking cherry tobacco. I’ve arrived
at a time in my life when I could believe
Today, pumping gas into 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,
balancing 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. And I understood
finally, after a semester of philosophy,
a thousand books of poetry, after death
and childbirth and the startled cries of men
who called out my name as they entered me,
I finally believed I was alone, felt it
in my actual, visceral heart, heard it echo
like a thin bell. And the sounds
came back, the slish of tires
and footsteps, all the delicate cargo
they carried saying thank you
and yes. So I paid and climbed into my car
as if nothing had happened—
as if everything mattered — What else could I do?
I drove to the grocery store
and bought wheat bread and milk,
a candy bar wrapped in gold foil,
smiled at the teenaged cashier
with the pimpled face and the plastic
name plate pinned above her small breast,
and knew her secret, her sweet fear—
Little bird. Little darling. She handed me
my change, my brown bag, a torn receipt,
pushed the cash drawer in with her hip
and smiled back.
Not much happens in ‘After Twelve Days of Rain’. The narrator does some cleaning, gets gas for her car, reminisces a bit, and buys some groceries. Yet somehow it’s a poem about everything. It’s a poem about ageing, loneliness, secularisation, the whole vast and turning world. It’s an epic work of philosophy: we journey through alienation and nihilism and a kind of conciliatory humanism in just five stanzas. I think it’s magnificent. The first time I read it, I cried, and then felt very peaceful.
An interesting thing about this poem is that it’s almost entirely devoid of metaphor. We have her alone-ness ‘echo/like a thin bell’ (how perfect!) but that’s pretty much it. Laux is a poet who absolutely trusts the physical details of the world to do the emotional work for her. For instance, she describes herself as ‘hatless’. A simple detail and a literal one: she is not wearing a hat. But the detail is perfect because the poem is about being ‘hatless’ in a wider sense of going unprotected against painful realisations. And also about being ‘hatless’ in a sense of letting the world touch you – physically (the rain on her head) but also spiritually – really noticing the colour of a candy bar wrapper, the smile of a teenage cashier, and letting these things bring you comfort. It’s a poem which encourages us to just sit in the present with everything that is – although we will all eventually grow old, die, get ill, feel lonely.
Other things I love: the ‘slish’ of tires, which jog her out of her reverie; the torn receipt, the ‘unstoppable’ seconds. Again, the details work hard, effortlessly embodying the quiet despair which underpins everyday life. At the close of the poem – and this is absolutely key to its success – Laux resists the temptation to explain the conclusion (if things actually are resolved) she reaches. She simply goes on ‘as if everything mattered’: cataloging and appreciating, with her keen eye, the gold foil of the candy bar, her brown bag, and the cashier pushing the drawer in with her hip.