This poem by Dorianne Laux, gradually and after several readings, keeps growing on me. It begins and ends in such simple fashion, but it gives us much to appreciate and think about.
On the street outside the window
someone is talking to someone else,
a baffling song, no words, only the music
of voices, low contralto of questions,
laughter’s plucked strings – voices in darkness
below stars where someone straddles a bike
up on the balls of his feet, and someone else
stands firm on a curb, her arms crossed, two
dogs nearby listening to the human duet
stars falling through a summer night
a sudden car passing, rap song thumping,
but the voices, unhurried, return, obligatos afloat
on the humid air, tiny votives wavering
as porch lights go out – not wanting it to stop –
and Mars rising over the flower shop, up
through the telephone wires
A conversation is overheard, but not understood. The conversation takes place outside the window of an unidentified speaker. The two people talking in the street are also unidentified. The speaker describes what is going on at street level and in the sky of a dark summer night.
The vocabulary of music is used to describe the conversation. The comparison, made so explicitly and repeatedly, appears to be the main point of the poem on first reading. The quotidian experience of hearing the hum of human speech is made poetic by the speaker describing it in terms of song, music, contralto, plucked strings, duet and obligatos.
There is also a great deal of music in the poem itself. Listen to the sonic art of alliterative phrases like “low contralto of questions” and “below stars where someone straddles a bike” and “obligatos afloat”.
Having said that, “Against Endings” really fascinates me because, though brief and simple and mundane, it juxtaposes the grounded physical experience of our lives and the limitations of human consciousness with the mystery and beauty of the universe.
The unknown plays an important role in this poem. The word “somebody” is repeated four times, no meaning can be gained from the “baffling” sound of voices, and it all takes place in darkness. The limits of human understanding and consciousness are established and insisted upon.
So are the limits of our physical presence on this planet. The scene is firmly anchored at street level, and we are reminded of the inescapable pull of gravity by two images – a boy pressing the balls of his feet down into the pedals of his bike, and someone else with their feet firmly planted on the curb. Above them stars are falling and Mars is rising. It recalls to me a quote by Oscar Wilde: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
This poem does not evoke the despair and hopelessness of the gutter. Instead it points out the music and beauty of human existence, while simultaneously putting it into some kind of perspective with the expansive and unknown and transcendent dimensions of the universe and our dreams.