Last week’s posting of Kevin Prufer's “A Giant Bird” put me in mind of “Little Bird” by Lawrence Raab, which first appeared in New Ohio Review 4, Fall 2008. “Little Bird” has a deceptively straightforward movement, yet the steps taken are in effect stationary – that is, if a poem is a walk (as A.R. Ammons has eloquently argued), then this one’s a moonwalk. Those two clouds passing unsuggestively, literally, passionlessly, seem to be props in a kind of still-life video that, by poem’s end, has turned itself inside out. The speaker of the poem splits in two (just as a single cloud may have produced the two in the first line) and the reader is left wondering which one now has the floor.
- - - - - - - -
One cloud was following another
across a blue and passionless sky.
It was the middle of summer, far enough
from December for a man to feel indifferent
to the memories of cold, not yet close
enough to autumn to be caught up
in all its folderol about death.
Neither cloud looked like a whale
or a weasel, or any kind of fanciful beast.
All morning I’d felt my life dragging me down.
The view from my window refused to lift my heart.
The sight of a blank piece of paper
filled me with sadness. I wanted to set
my life down in a comfortable chair, tell it
to take a long nap, and walk away as if
I were somebody else, somebody without a house
or a family or a job, but somebody who might
soon feel with a pang precisely the absence
of everything I had. A cool breeze lifted
the curtains in the room where I was sitting.
A bird was singing. Had it been singing for long?
Far off there were mountains, but I didn’t
wish to go there. Nor did I yearn
to be standing by a lake, or walking
beside the tumult of the sea.
The little bird kept repeating itself.
I filled a glass with water and watched it tremble.
- - - - -
This has to be one of the best descriptions of depression, and coming out of it (more or less), in contemporary poetry. Elizabeth Bishop’s “Five Flights Up” also narrates that fragile emergence beautifully – also while looking out a window. In Raab’s poem, everything is weighted down, and most of the motion is directed downward, until the turn: the breeze lifts the curtains, a bird sings, mountains rise in the distance, the glass fills. Has the “I” of the first half of the poem in fact left the building? Is the speaker who becomes gradually conscious of his contentment (can we call it that?) none other than the “life” that has been patronised, set down in a comfortable chair? Has the restless spirit left the second speaker behind to sit and take small pleasures in quotidian ordinariness? Is the repetition of birdsong an irritant or a reassurance? Is the trembling of the water beautiful, or does he stare at it in a kind of drugged and apprehensive paralysis? Or does the trembling merely suggest the instability of this mood, this identity? I love that I can’t answer any of these questions definitively, but I also love that I believe I’m on the right track. A good poem will make you feel that without giving you the satisfaction of absolutely knowing it.
Lawrence Raab is the author of more than half a dozen collections of poetry, including What We Don’t Know About Each Other (1993), selected for the National Poetry Series and a finalist for the National Book Award; Visible Signs: New and Selected Poems (2003); and The History of Forgetting (2009). He collaborated with Stephen Dunn on a chapbook of poems, Winter at the Caspian Sea (1999). His poems have appeared in several volumes of The Best American Poetry. He teaches literature and writing at Williams College.
Till next week, when it will still -- thank Heaven -- be August. –JAR