A Word on Grief

This is a paper I wrote for a college class I was taking in the Fall of 2004. The paper is an explication of “The Word”, a poem by Dorianne Laux.

The challenge of grasping the complex issues that surround grief is a common theme in contemporary poetry and literature. Whether the grief is for a lost loved one, or for the end of a relationship, it is something that everyone will confront at some point in their lives. The fact that this hardship is a common facet of life is part of what makes literature that takes on the task of identifying with grief so powerful. In her poem, “The Word,” Dorianne Laux takes on the challenge of understanding grief. The use of the past tense is an overriding device she uses to clarify the idea that the speaker has experienced the loss of a lover. The speaker invites us to share her experiences by describing the places where she and her partner made love. She tells us why a great deal of value is placed on the word screwing, and then goes on to show us why it is so hard to leave that word behind. Every day objects stand as reminders that bring the word back to the forefront for her. Even attempts to run away from the word prove to be impossible. It surrounds her everywhere she goes. A detailed examination of Laux’s poem shows us that we cannot escape from grief.

In the first stanza, we learn about the intensity of feeling between the two lovers. Laux uses italics to show us that that one word, screwing, has special significance for the speaker. We also discover the passion shared between the two as the speaker goes on to detail the various locations where she and her lover had intimate encounters. * There is no specific reference to the places by name. Laux describes these locations in vague terms, “on the rug in front of the mirror, draped / over the edge of a hotel bed, on balconies / overlooking the dark hearts of fir trees / or a city of flickering lights.” (lines 2-5). The lack of a name for a location leaves us with the idea that where they did it wasn’t as important as the fact that intense desire was shared between the two lovers. This intense desire had more importance to the speaker and further exemplifies her grief.

We learn about the speaker’s perceptions of her lover’s feelings in the second and third stanzas and discover how this deepens her connection with him and intensifies her pain. The word was something that was savored by her lover. Lines five through nine describe this for us: “You’d / whisper that word into my ear / as if it were a thing you could taste– / a sliver of fish, a swirl of chocolate / on the tongue.” This displays how deeply the speaker’s lover felt when they were together. The speaker was surprised by this love and it caught her off guard: “This soft s and hard c / was a new sound—querulous, slow” (lines 11-12). This is unfamiliar territory for our narrator, both the love she experienced and the pain that followed.

In the fourth and fifth stanzas of the poem, the speaker tells us of her confusion and attempts to escape from her grief.* The speaker tries to distract herself from her pain by thinking about the literal meaning of the word. In lines 19 and 20, she describes, “A silver lid / sealed tight on a jar of skinned plums.”; notice how the use of the word is carefully avoided in reference to the jar. Laux implies the word and uses its avoidance to tell us that the speaker is running away from screwing, as though the word itself embodies grief. No matter how hard the narrator tries not to think about it, even an every day object reminds her of the word they shared and the pain associated with that memory.

Further indications that she is running away from her grief in a literal sense, and that it is inescapable appear in the last two stanzas of the poem. The speaker finds herself at a lake that she hasn’t mentioned previously. As the narrator watches the dragonflies hover over the lake, she realizes that they are screwing: “I see two blue dragonflies hovering, end / to end, above the pond, as if twisting / the iridescence deep into each other’s / body” (lines 20-23). The magnitude of feeling between the two lovers is renewed in a split second as the speaker immediately thinks of the word. She tells us this in the last lines: “And your voice / comes back to me through the trees, this word / for what we couldn’t help but do / to each other—a thin cry, unwinding.” (lines 25-28). The memory of the word and the deep emotions shared by the lovers comes back as the narrator hears his voice in her mind. As she thinks of these things, the speaker finds herself crying out in pain. Grief is haunting her again and she has been unable to escape from it even in a strange place.

The most powerful lesson in this poem is that grief is not something we can avoid; it’s something that we have to accept. Throughout the poem, we see examples of how grief can creep into our every day tasks and come back into our minds. Learning from that experience makes us all stronger as individuals. Running away from it only prolongs the grief and leads us away from a sense of closure. Accepting death and loss as a part of our lives is an important lesson in our human experience, one that we all share in and must endeavor to understand.

Work Cited

Laux, Dorianne. “The Word.” Smoke: Poems by Dorianne Laux. New York: BOA Editions Limited, 2000. 27.