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Archive for the ‘Lawrence Raab’ Category

poem is on post on the left

 

 

My Life Before I Knew It

by Lawrence Raab

 

I liked rainy days

when you didn’t have to go outside and play.

At night I’d tell my sister

there were snakes under her bed.

When I mowed the lawn I imagined being famous.

Cautious and stubborn, unwilling to fail,

I knew for certain what I didn’t want to know.

I hated to dance. I hated baseball,

and collected airplane cards instead.

I learned to laugh at jokes I didn’t get.

The death of Christ moved me,

but only at the end of Ben-Hur.

I thought Henry Mancini was a great composer.

My secret desire was to own a collie

who would walk with me in the woods

when the leaves were falling

and I was thinking about writing the stories

that would make me famous.

Sullen, overweight, melancholy,

writers didn’t have to be good at sports.

They stayed inside for long periods of time.

They often wore glasses. But strangers

were moved by what they accomplished

and wrote them letters. One day

one of those strangers would introduce

herself to me, and then

the life I’d never been able to forsee

would begin, and everything

before I became myself would appear

necessary to the rest of the story.

 

 

You have go where you’ve gone to be where you are, I used to tell my kids. It’s a syntactical mess, of course, and maybe that’s why it’s less memorable to them than my other bon mots (Don’t be the drunkest girl at the party and Stay away from porn culture). Thank goodness for poet Lawrence Raab. In “My Life Before I Knew It” he says everything I wanted to tell them about heading off regret and seeing grace at work in your life.

 

I love Lawrence Raab. He’s droll and such a wonderful story-teller that the weightiness of his poems always catches me off guard. The ending of “My Life So Far,” for instance. With the lightest touch and the quickest maneuver, using One day and and then the way a dancer uses pause and pivot, he turns this amusing portrait of an awkward boy towards heart-swooning romance—

 

and then

the life I’d never been able to forsee

would begin, and everything

before I became myself would appear

necessary to the rest of the story.

 

 

This line—The life I’d never been able to forsee—almost makes me burst. Is there a more wondrous experience than to look back on the grubby, embarrassing moments of your life and see that with some invisible magic those moments led you, blind and headstrong as you were, towards the very thing your heart had secretly desired?

 

*

 

Here’s a biography of Raab from a previous post:

 

Lawrence Raab was born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in 1946. He went to Middlebury College and earned his masters from Syracuse. He’s taught at University of Michigan, American University, and these days at Williams College. He’s one numerous awards and grants and has published seven collections of poetry.

 

Raab has also written screenplays and adapted Aristophanes’ The Birds for theater.

 

 

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Vanishing

by Lawrence Raab

 

First you worry that you’ll never get

what you want, later that you’ll lose

what you have. In between

for a time you just trusted

the course of your life, assumed

things would fall into place.

Most of them did. But now,

not quite all of a sudden, every new pain

is a sign, then a promise.

Even if you didn’t take death seriously

when you were young, you understood

that was the story. Your kids

leave home, your dog sleeps most of the day.

Letters arrive wanting to know

if you’ve planned for the future.

You walk out on the porch:

there’s a field, then a mountain,

so familiar you have to look hard.

The letters say, It’s never too late.

All things vanish. You know that.

All the things you love

vanish. Can you love this idea?

Is that the task? you think. To try?

 

 

This is the last of the death series. The End.

 

Just as enthusiasm for exercise and dieting flag around January 11, so has my interest in this depressing project. There’s too many other depressing things in the world for a prolonged memento mori. Also, I just heard a song that I want to post, a hopeful song that made me cry. So let’s get through this last bit of morbidity and move on.

 

That said, there’s much humor in Lawrence Raab’s “Vanishing.” It’s one of the reasons I love him. The subject is heavy and complicated, but his language is plain, his tone light. Reading this poem is like watching someone flick a toe at a huge boulder that, strangely, astoundingly, rolls away on impact.

 

Take the opening lines. Was there ever such a compact version of 21stcentury, consumer-driven life? It’s so pithy and pitiless it’s almost funny—

 

First you worry that you’ll never get

what you want, later that you’ll lose

what you have.

 

And then the closing lines, written as if they were mere passing thoughts and not a profound encapsulation of earthly existence—

 

All things vanish. You know that.

All the things you love

vanish. Can you love this idea?

Is that the task? you think. To try?

 

Casually posed, the speaker’s questions are ontological; there’s a whole theology in the answers. If you “love” the idea that everything you care about vanishes, then every thing and every moment becomes precious beyond value. Nothing can be taken for granted. Not even the field out back, not the mountain in the distance—

 

You walk out on the porch:

there’s a field, then a mountain,

so familiar you have to look hard.

 

This making the familiar unfamiliar, seeing anew, making the ordinary precious, that has always been the province of the poet. But it is also, Raab suggests, life work for all of us.

 

I posted the poem on a tree along a walking path of well-trafficked suburban park.

 

*

 

Here’s a biography of Raab from a previous post:

 

Lawrence Raab was born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in 1946. He went to Middlebury College and earned his masters from Syracuse. He’s taught at University of Michigan, American University, and these days at Williams College. He’s one numerous awards and grants and has published seven collections of poetry.

 

Raab has also written screenplays and adapted Aristophanes’ The Birds for theater.

 

 

 

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poem is between Picasso face and “Land of Morning Calm” flyer

 

The Rest

by Lawrence Raab

 

You’ve tried the rest.

You’ve waited long enough.

Everything catches up with you.

 

And you’re too old,

or too young.

Or you don’t have the money

 

or you don’t have the time.

Maybe you’re shy, and maybe

you’re just afraid.

 

How often have you heard it,

have you promised

yourself you’d try

 

something really different

if you had the chance?

Though you can’t help but wonder

 

if all those people

know what they’re doing, now

you’re saying it with them:

 

Eventually everything

catches up with us,

and it starts to show.

 

We’ve waited all our lives, or as long

as we can remember, whichever

is long enough.

 

 

I pinned Lawrence Raab’s “The Rest” on a bulletin board at my local post office. This poem depresses me, it feels heavy in spite of Raab’s expert light touch. But I’ve gotten Raab really wrong before, so I leave it to you. Hopeful or hopeless? Or am I asking the wrong question?

 

From a previous post:

Lawrence Raab was born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in 1946. He went to Middlebury College and earned his masters from Syracuse. He’s taught at University of Michigan, American University, and these days at Williams College. He’s one numerous awards and grants and has published seven collections of poetry. This poem, “Marriage,” comes from his 1993 collection What We Don’t Know About Each Other.

 

Raab has also written screenplays and adapted Aristophanes’ The Birds for theater.

 

 

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Screen Shot 2014-12-17 at 11.27.28 AMI’m thinking about Miss Emily Litella today. For those too young to remember the Saturday Night Live character created by Gilda Radner, Emily Litella was a commentator on Weekend Update back when Jane Curtain anchored. Miss Litella was a daffy little lady with a high voice and a hearing impairment. She was invited on the show to respond to issues of the day, but she always misheard what the issue was. To her ears, “presidential elections” was “presidential erections,” and “endangered species” was, well I’m sure you can guess. It’s certainly not endangered.

 

Miss Litella would get more and more upset in her commentary until eventually Jane Curtain would cut her off with a correction—it’s “make Puerto Rico a state,” not “make Puerto Rico a steak, “Miss Litella. And then Gilda Radner would look at the camera and say sweetly, Never mind.

 

And so, regarding my last post, in which I got into a lather about Lawrence Raab’s poem “Marriage, “ I say this:

 

Never mind.

 

I got it all wrong. And I have it on good authority, from Lawrence Raab himself.

 

I had posited that the man in the poem was deflated by his wife’s revelation about their early courtship. I compared his reaction to Gabriel Conroy’s come-down at the end of James Joyce’s “The Dead.” I went on about how real marriage begins when you let go of the image you’ve created of a person who doesn’t exist and accept the one who does.

 

Wrong, wrong, and wrong.

 

Mr. Raab responded when I sent him the link to my post. (I always send poets a link if he or she is still alive. At least half the time I get a response.)

 

He wrote, I’m glad you like the poem, although I have never thought that he would be deflated by her story; it’s too good a story, and her reason for not initially answering relates directly to him. 

 

In a subsequent email he told me that he’s heard the poem is often used at weddings.

 

I’m sure there’s a reason I interpreted the poem as I did, but I don’t want to know it. I tend to be cynical and let’s leave it at that.

 

So here’s my question: if you hadn’t read my post, how would you have read the poem?

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poem is under left-hand concrete urn

poem is under left-hand concrete urn

 

Marriage

By Lawrence Raab

 

Years later they find themselves talking

about chances, moments when their lives

might have swerved off

for the smallest reason.

What if

I hadn’t phoned, he says, that morning?

What if you’d been out,

as you were when I tried three times

the night before?

Then she tells him a secret.

She’d been there all evening, and she knew

he was the one calling, which was why

she hadn’t answered.

Because she felt—

because she was certain—her life would change

if she picked up the phone, said hello,

said, I was just thinking

of you.

I was afraid,

she tells him. And in the morning

I also knew it was you, but I just

answered the phone

the way anyone

answers a phone when it starts to ring,

not thinking you have a choice.

 

 

(I’m having trouble formatting this poem in WordPress, and formatting is so important here. Apologies. Please see the proper formatting in the photograph below.)

IMG_2219

 

Here’s a poem possible only once upon a time when everyone had a landline and the one way to know for sure who was calling was to answer the phone.

 

If the couple in this poem had courted more recently, he would have called her cellphone, then texted, emailed and left a voicemail. There would be no we-almost-lost-each-other-forever. Either he would have tracked her down or he would have known she was ignoring his calls.

 

But even with the outdated technology of the poem, his version is overly-romanticized. We don’t know the whole story, of course, but surely he would have kept trying to reach her after she didn’t answer. Surely there would have been another opportunity to connect before their lives/might have swerved off/for the smallest reason.

 

Years later, happy years it would seem, she demolishes his version of their love story. It turns out that the single moment when their lives might swerve off course is not the missed phone calls so many years ago, but the telling of her secret this late in their relationship. It wasn’t kismet, she tells him, it was a choice, at first a conscious one formed in fear, and then an unconscious one formed out of habit.

 

You can just see the poor fellow’s face fall. It’s not devastating news—nowhere close to I’m in love with your brother and I’ll let the IRS agent in on my way out–but it’s deflating. He doesn’t know her as well as he thought. His treasured romantic-comedy relationship is going to have to be re-cast.

 

It reminds me of the last beautiful scene in James’ Joyce’s The Dead. Gabriel Conroy and his wife Gretta are in their hotel room after his aunts’ annual holiday party. Just before they had left the party he had watched her listening at the top of the stairs to a song played in a distant room. He couldn’t decipher her strange expression but it excited him, made him look forward to a night of intimacy. As he takes her in his arms in the hotel, he asks what she’s thinking about. The song, she says, “The Lass of Aughrim.” Then she throws herself on the bed, sobbing. Blue balls to follow.

 

She tells him what he’d not known before. When she was a young girl, a sickly boy named Michael Furey had fallen in love with her and used to sing “The Lass of Aughrim” to her. The night before she was leaving for school, he came outside her window in the rain and told her he did not want to live if she left. He died a week later.

 

After this revelation she falls asleep, and Gabriel is left alone, humiliated, angry, then by turns tender and wistful. Just before the story ends with the immortal lines about the snow falling faintly and faintly falling upon all the living and the dead, there’s this:

 

He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.

Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love

 

That’s marriage, right there, that bittersweet understanding. Maybe I’m putting a more hopeful spin on Joyce’s story than it merits, but understanding that your spouse is not you, and that your spouse is not the person you thought they were early in your romance, can be the beginning of real love and a real union.

 

Years ago when my husband and I were moving to Michigan and arguing about every house we looked at, our 80-year old realtor, now long dead but at the time long-married, told us that married people are like two trees. She used her forearms to show us the trees side by side. Separate trees, Millie said, but always growing beside each other. She was so right, that Millie. Any happily married person will tell you it takes years of marriage for the old idea of who you married to make room for the actual person who shares your bed and sometimes farts in it.

 

The title of Raab’s poem covers not just this little vignette of a married couple’s life, but what happens after the poem ends. Yes, marriage can be the bliss of shared memories, but it’s also the negotiation of differing memories. Romance is a construct; marriage is what happens after deconstruction. Or doesn’t. We don’t know where this marriage is headed.

 

I love how the structure works with the content of “Marriage.” The poem begins with the stanzas going back and forth between the speakers, like dialogue in a story. But after the first exchange, the poem is all hers, the conversation taken over by her secret. As his dream deflates, so do the stanzas, shrinking from four lines to three to a mere two at the end.

 

I left the poem outside a hoity-toity bridal salon, the kind of store that you don’t step inside unless you’re convinced it’s a good idea to spend half a year’s rent on a dress you wear for a few hours. I didn’t leave it there just to be snarky. The poem sheds light on the reality of marriage, and that’s a better place than fantasy weddings for any bride to begin preparations.

 

Screenshot 2014-12-04 12.08.34Lawrence Raab was born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in 1946. He went to Middlebury College and earned his masters from Syracuse. He’s taught at University of Michigan, American University, and these days at Williams College. He’s one numerous awards and grants and has published seven collections of poetry. This poem, “Marriage,” comes from his 1993 collection What We Don’t Know About Each Other.

 

Raab has also written screenplays and adapted Aristophanes’ The Birds for theater.

 

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