Lawrence Raab is the author of seven collections of poems, including What We Don’t Know about Each Other (winner of the National Poetry Series, and a Finalist for the National Book Award), The Probable World, and Visible Signs: New and Selected Poems, all published by Penguin. His latest collection is The History of Forgetting (Penguin, 2009). He teaches literature and writing at Williams College.
Parable of the Windows
If you want to get ahead, listen. I did what
I was told to is not a good answer. It’s the best
I could come up with is even worse,
also ambiguous. What did you come up with—
that nonsense you showed me, or these excuses?
You think I’m pleased by ambiguity?
Well, so what if I am? I can afford it, which is why
I have all these windows. From the beginning
I knew this was going to be the story of my life,
even though I was born in a manger, cattle
all around, dirt all around, and for a while
I thought hard about being a savior,
I really did. But we already had too many,
so I decided on carpentry instead, got in
on the ground floor, and made it work,
and now I have all these windows—ten
in this office alone. And what
do you have? Excuses. And what do I have?
All these windows. Sometimes I look through
them and I forget the world, just staring into that
immaculate clarity. And you know what, my friend?
I could be up there. I could have my place at the table.
But looking makes me even happier than money,
and lets me love whatever I want to—like the sky,
like that big horse of a cloud heading toward us
at this very moment. Like the darkness
that follows it. Like the light that comes after.
The Hot Fives and Hot Sevens
“Now I know how a hamster feels,”
she said one morning, which made me wonder
if she saw herself as a pet in a cage, maybe
trapped, maybe loved. “I don’t get it,”
I replied. And she told me if I had to ask
I’d never know, which was, I remembered,
what Louis Armstrong once said about jazz.
I was reluctant to mention this, although
early Armstrong seemed like a promising
subject—The Hot Fives and Hot Sevens—
some of her favorite records, great songs
she’d taught me how to listen to. So I said,
“Yes, I know what you mean.” After which
nothing became poignant. And now,
years later, I still regret pretending
to understand her point about the hamsters.
Was it exhaustion?—how they ran faster
and faster inside their little wheels.
Or indifference?—how carelessly
they were sometimes treated. Or was it
deception?—beginning with all
the earlier evasions of death, the goldfish
and the turtles. Oh, we knew
what every child knows: they never vanish.
Our mothers and fathers whisked
their bodies away while we slept,
as if they believed they could spare us
our grief. Or thought they should try.
Once, but No Longer
Let’s say you feel someone is better off
dead, but you don’t do anything about it.
That could be a sign of civilization—
how you’re able to manage such admirable
restraint. Say it’s Sunday, so you amble
down to your garden where the cruelties
of life almost vanish. Here
you can tell what needs to be uprooted,
or carefully tended. You understand
what must be left alone. This may not be
the case the next time you meet Frank
at the office and you think, Probably
a lot of people here want to kill Frank
just as much as I do, and none of them will.
But it’s early afternoon now and you’re
watching the sunlight wandering
around among the ferns, picking out
one frond, then another, letting the darker
greens flicker into yellow as if in fact
the light was inventing this little dance
for you alone, giving you a reason
not to kill Frank, while reminding you
that men once believed the spores
of these very ferns could make a person
disappear. Once, you think, but no longer.