The Life Beside This One by Lawrence Raab
Tupelo Press, 2017
Review by Vivian Wagner
Lawrence Raab’s The Life Beside This One is a collection that’s all about parallel universes, points of view, lives, and stories. It’s about how these alternate realities can and do coexist—shaping each other, haunted by each other, and often hidden from each other, as well.
The parallel worlds include the past, present, and future, which coexist and interrelate uneasily. The collection’s epigraph, attributed to “a voice in a dream, speaking about the past,” says that “The people there aren’t like us, but soon it will be our turn.” They’re dead, in other words, but soon we will be, as well. This sense of mortality, and a curiosity about mortality, infuses this collection, which asks at every turn: What does it mean to die? And the co-existing question: What does it mean to live?
The collection opens with a poem, “Women and the Sky,” which recounts a dream-like narrative:
We were in Italy, my friend and I,
staying at The Hotel of 1000 Strangers,
when I got lost and wandered onto a golf course
bounded by a dark forest Dante would have
It’s a kind of fairy-tale moment, and the poem continues by describing the narrator’s journey, which starts with a riddle: “Who can understand / women or the sky?” The speaker, in an endearingly humorous way that’s present in a number of Raab’s poems, debates the meaning of the riddle with the questioner, and then continues on his journey through further riddles and proverbs, until even Dante admits the original question is ambiguous, saying he sympathizes with the speaker’s inability to understand or answer it. The poem ends with Dante’s admonition, however, that it’s time for the speaker “to understand what the dead understand,” and “to stop fooling around.”
This poem sets in motion the collection’s quest to understand what others understand—most notably, perhaps, the dead, but also wives, children, ghosts, friends, monsters, animals, and many others who have perspectives that differ from the various perspectives of the speakers in these poems. The collection is a quest to understand all those lives beside this one.
A poem called “Sad Robots,” for instance, looks at the alternative reality of mechanical beings:
They were made to feel nothing
we take for granted. So if
we call them sad, that’s only one
more example of what they, poor things,
can never comprehend.
The robots, too, look with a pitying lack of comprehension at humans: “How we manage to get by / is beyond them.” This is a poem, like many in this collection, about the inevitability of fundamental misunderstandings. Yet, it’s also about the desire to understand, the reaching out across the divide to try to make contact, to connect.
Another poem, “Climbing the Mountain,” tells of friends who climb a mountain, leaving the speaker behind, because, as he says, he has “no interest in climbing any kind of mountain.” The speaker imagines three different scenarios—one where the friends have a “great time” under cloudless skies, another with a little drizzle, and a final one where “everything goes wrong,” with “fog, bugs, blisters.” A friend chides him at the poem’s end, saying “It wasn’t like that at all. / It was fine. You should have come with us.” It’s both an examination of the prevalence of alternative realities and an interrogation of the ways we imagine scenarios into being through the stories we tell—to others and to ourselves.
In “Sunrise with Sea Monsters,” we see monsters through the speaker’s eyes:
There they are, surprisingly pink,
although the rising sun may contribute
to that effect.
They might be real, or they might be an illusion. Or, as the poems in this collection have taught us to suspect, they might be both. The speaker creates a story about the sea monsters, giving them life and substance and meaning:
Look at their eyes, so large
and impassive, as if we should understand
something we don’t. So we wonder,
calling them monsters because
no one’s given them a better name.
and because they frighten us, as monsters should.
The speaker admits that the monsters live at the frayed edge of fantasy and reality:
I just bring people
out here to the cliffs where they see
what they see and believe whatever fits
the stories they want to tell.
It’s a poem that itself exists on the border between knowing and unknowing, playing with the reader and the listener in the poem, teasing apart the distinctions we make between truth and fiction, reality and myth. At some point, perhaps, it doesn’t matter which side of the divide the monsters live on. Maybe they can be both tricks of light and real creatures in the ocean. What’s important, to this speaker, is that they’re seen, that they have stories told about them. They live in a parallel universe that’s only accessible to our side once a day, for those few moments when the sun’s rising above the horizon. And so the speaker goes to look, to point them out, to tell stories about them and in so doing bring them into being.
“Everything That Isn’t Happening Here” also looks at a binary distinction—this time between here and there. Everything that isn’t happening here, the poem begins, “is happening elsewhere,” including, presumably, all kinds of cruelty and astonishment. Once in a while, the poems in this collection touch on the current political moment, the feeling that we’re on the edge of an apocalypse. This poem’s nod to the catastrophic moment is from the speaker, who says he consciously avoids looking elsewhere:
When I stopped reading the papers
and watching the news, I didn’t
miss it, which doesn’t mean
I don’t feel bad casting my vote
It’s a speaker who has withdrawn, maybe against his own better judgment, but only because he seems to realize that all the various cruelties and astonishments of the world are right there, in his friend’s front yard, or in his own. The poem reveals a gradual recognition that perhaps there isn’t a clear distinction between “here” and “elsewhere,” that maybe everything is, instead, interconnected. Everything, finally, is here.
One of the narrative strands in this collection, woven together with the theme of alternative realities, is the story of a troubled marriage. This story finds its most eloquent expression in a poem called “Problems of Levitation.” It’s about a speaker who’s trying his best to levitate:
I tried hard all morning and around noon
thought I’d risen just a little, but I had no proof.
And to make things worse, a few days ago
my wife said she’d seen through my idea
that this was some new kind of yoga.
The wife dismisses the speaker’s attempts to levitate, saying “I know what you’re up to,” without elaborating. The speaker, however, seems to know what she means, and to understand her criticism. As he says:
The point is my marriage
was coming apart because of my desire
to float in space.
Eventually, she takes the dog and moves out, leaving the speaker to do his levitating alone. The final stanzas are a moving testament to the fact that he’d been trying to levitate in part, ironically, to connect with her—something that’s now no longer possible:
so sorry I have no way to show her
that this morning I slowly rose above
the pale blue couch she chose for us shortly
after we married, when we were both happy,
almost as happy, I thought, as I am right now,
adrift in the air above our couch, which
looks so different from the way I saw it then.
It’s a haunting ending, referring as it does to perspective, and to the ways that our perspective changes through space and time. We’re confronted, again, with an alternate reality: this time in the form of the past as seen from the present’s point of view.
Ultimately, all of the poems in The Life Beside This One take the reader on a journey through the vagaries of perception and interpretation. They explore the various divides in our lives—divides both personal and political, cultural and existential—and they offer the possibility that perhaps those divides aren’t as daunting or uncrossable as they might seem.
Lawrence Raab’s previous collections of poems include What We Don’t Know About Each Other and Mistaking Each Other for Ghosts, both of which were finalists for the National Book Award. He teaches at Williams College.
Vivian Wagner lives in New Concord, Ohio, where she teaches English at Muskingum University. She’s the author of a memoir, Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music (Citadel-Kensington), a poetry collection, The Village (Kelsay Books), and a micro-chapbook, Making (Origami Poems Project).